6 Tips for Conquering Word Limits


Anyone who's ever struggled to complete an application -- whether for school or an award or recognition of any kind -- has come up against word or character limits. Twitter aside, trying to put together the best possible answer to an open-ended question within a strictly limited space can be hugely frustrating. But it's far from impossible.

My own work often involves helping companies apply for corporate awards, especially "best place to work" recognitions. Over the years, I've seen a lot of mistakes -- and honed a lot of tricks. The tips below are aimed squarely at best workplace applications, but take a look even if you're facing another sort of application. Most will apply just about anytime you're asked to put your words on a starvation diet.

Yes, You Probably Can Fit It All

Whether the limit is 250 characters or 2,500 words, aspire never to omit a significant detail because of lack of space. You may think you can't fit it in--and maybe you can't. But what's more likely is that you are inadvertently chipping away at your word-allotment in all kinds of unnecessary ways. Here are my six tips for getting your point across, even within the constraints of a tight word or character count:

  1. Don't dither away your word count with platitudes and clichés: "Employees are our greatest asset?" "We hire the best and the brightest?" Hmm...you and every other company that's written a mission statement in the last couple hundred decades. If you find yourself writing a sentence like, "We strive to create an environment in which employees can maximize their talents and achieve their goals no matter what their gender, race or ethnicity," just stop. Who doesn't strive to create such an environment? The point is not what your company hopes for, it's what you are doing to get there.

  • Save the corporate hype for your website. Your company may produce the highest-rated electric pancake flippers in the industry, as identified by Entrepreneurial Breakfast magazine for seven straight years, but--unless you're going for an award in hi-tech kitchen gadgetry--it probably isn't relevant to what makes you a great workplace.
  • Skip the generalities. The folks reviewing your "best workplace" application know that flexible work arrangements or generous parental leave policies can help companies attract and retain workers. It's their business to know, so don't waste space telling them (unless you have actual data showing that such policies have had that specific effect on your company, in which case absolutely include it).
  • Put your subheads to work. When space is limited, every word must pull its weight--pack your subheads with substantive information. For example, instead of the subhead "Parental Leave," try, "We Provide 6 Weeks Parental Leave."
  • Watch for meaningless clauses and two-words-when-one-will do. A few paragraphs back, I initially wrote, "your goal should be never to leave out a significant detail..." Then, just for the sake of practice (while my blog has no word limit, your patience may) I changed "leave out" to "omit" and "your goal should be" to "aspire," reducing the word count by one-third: "Aspire never to omit a significant detail..." Here are some other examples of unnecessarily wordy phrasing--and ways around them:
  • "The program serves to increase the retention of women" means the same thing as: "The program increases the retention of women" or, better yet: "The program increases women's retention."

    "All five of our offices," means the same thing as: "All five offices."

    "We offer this program as a means of supporting employees" means the same thing as: "We offer this program to support employees."

    "It is our hope" means the same thing as "We hope."

    "Has the ability to" means the same as "can."

    Also watch for phrases like "the program aims to" or "the program is intended to." Sometimes they are necessary, if you're really trying to set out a program's goals. But sometimes, you're just trying to say what the program does. A lactation program doesn't aim to help women returning after childbirth. It helps them.

    A faculty member at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, has created a useful list of suggested replacements for numerous wordy phrases. I highly recommend it.

  • 6. Finally, just think lean! Lean doesn't have to mean choppy and style-free. In fact, most times you'll find that lean writing is better writing. Consider:
  • FAT: Our CEO, Marvin Bagsley, gave a presentation about our core values. His presentation included a discussion of our work-life programs, in which he emphasized how they support our employees and their ability to balance work and family responsibilities. (38 words)

    LEAN: CEO Marvin Bagsley presented the company's core values, emphasizing the role work-life programs play in supporting employees' work-life balance. (19 words)

    For those of you who are arithmetically-challenged, the fat version is exactly double the length of the lean. And seriously, now, which one would you rather read?

    Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at www.robinhardman.com.