Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Writing to a fixed Word Count

Writing concisely is in my opinion the most challenging task, thus I often look to shorten word counts on assignments where I can.  I recall my days back at British Airways when I was asked to draft briefing notes for my director and once for the Chief Executive.  

Invited to deliver a half pager, I spent all day looking at creative ways of putting across a number of ideas using both numbers and words.  Eventually I managed to get it into a wide and long page, using a smaller font, but was sent away to slice this in half.   Lesson learnt - ensure you deliver to the brief !  Half a page means half a page.  


Students often struggle with the idea of presenting their answers within a specific word count limit.  Often this expectation will have some tolerance (typically +/- 10%).  Whilst perhaps obvious to the experienced student and education professional, it is worth flagging that requiring work to a specific length (be that words or minutes of presentation) helps provide a level playing field, to make it reasonable to assess everyone fairly. 

End of term presentation season has again reminded me that often the best presentations are those that are shorter, tighter and seek to garner an emotional response, not one that is overly focussed on putting across lots of words and blows the permitted time allowance.  Unfortunately we had one person lose a job offer because they over talked their slot and failed to heed clear messages to stop.

I tend to work to a maxim that 'less can be more' and certainly presentations that over run tend to lose my marks for being over time, naturally, but also for lacking sufficiently organised ideas.  Written work with 50% additional text can put across a more comprehensive answer and thus gain a stronger mark, which is not fair on those who abided by the rules, thus not allowed.  Hence the harsh cut off, but it also encourages a polish, review and improve discipline that is often expected in professional practise.


Over the holiday period I re-watched the excellent Richard Curtis (of Notting Hill, Four Weddings and Black Adder fame) directed movie 'Love Actually'.  Seeking insights into the sources of the clever stories (14 were generated, mostly whilst recuperating from a back operation during daily walks on a beach in Bali) that make for a multi-plot, ensemble opus to use as the creative inspiration for a new lecture on inversion and surprise in advertising, I purchased a used copy of the screen play.  It does not have quite the rich and insightful content I was looking for, unfortunately.  

All was not lost, however.....

Richard did offer up the following insights into writing a movie, which is the primary motivation for this post.  With 14 interlaced stories, at one point the script was five hours long.  There are norms or rules of thumb in movies that limit kids stories to just over the hour and adults around 90 minutes. Lord of the Rings and Hobbit franchise tales of valour that combine deep character development and generous adventure seem to go over two to two and a half hours, unusually. I find these particularly challenging on the bottom in a theatre, but absolutely needing a pause for a cup of tea at home. Three hour epics are exceptional (e.g. Titanic) and represent a tremendous effort from the director to overcome the instincts of the commercially minded studio executives.  So, working to a finite size is important in the real world too !

The Love Actually script was cut from five to two and a half hours, thanks to efforts that 'aged' editor Emma Freud by five years.  Following the first actor read through, Curtis "realised it wasn't ok at all and changed it again" (Curtis, 2003, pg. 3).   It was changed 'a bit' after the full cast read through.  Having completed the shoot the editing team found they had three and half hours of material "in totally the wrong order with no jokes." (ibid)  Not funny, for a romcom.



I draw solace for my own writing and seek to share Richard Curtis' insights here "A film isn't written once, it's written at least three times - first it's written, then it's rewritten as you direct it and then it's rewritten as you edit it."  (Curtis, 2003, pg. 3)




Key Point: Students should embrace writing long and ensure they plan sufficient time to edit and re-edit their work.


  Impact is everything.