Padding

Have you ever wondered how you were going to reach the word-count goal on a particular writing assignment? I have, whether it’s as few as 1,000 words for a trade article or as many as 80,000 words for a book manuscript.

The subject came up today in a teleconference with a client. Even though the company had been asked to submit an article to a trade publication (and is glad to get the visibility), the topic is a sensitive one. We’re wondering how we’ll be able to give you enough information to meet the word count, the company reps told me. We can’t reveal much about what we’re doing in this area. It may take some creativity. I’m used to that, I replied.

They answered my pre-submitted questions, and they were right. A 40-minute conversation yielded mostly generalities. This is where “padding” may come in, doing what I can to write a serviceable article that fulfills the word count with few specifics and concrete examples. Padding might be a dirty word to some, but most wordsmiths have had to inflate their work. Editors, especially of print publications, have word-count requirements because they have pages to fill. Of course, they don’t want to fill them with junk, but fill them they must.

Here’s how I do it. I collect all my information. I write some notes, bullets, or a simple outline. Then I start writing. I’ll probably get there, sort of like when the gas tank is on empty but you can drive farther than you thought was possible. One thousand words is only about four double-spaced pages. It might turn out to be fairly easy.

There are two other things that can help fill space: large photos with captions and sidebars. Both add value to the editorial. I imagine one or both might be added to the article I write next week.

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The Kitchen Sink Approach

Everything goes in. And I mean everything. I’m referring to the first draft of a book manuscript I’m working on.

As I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach the project, including how to organize my research, order my topics and maintain a loose daily word count goal, I’ve arrived at something I’ll call the kitchen sink approach. I’ve decided to dump everything I might want to use into the first draft. Not haphazardly, but with some thought and hopefully some cohesion.

I’ve been painfully aware that oftentimes not all my source material is readily available as I’m writing about certain topics. I wonder, for example, where is that quote from so and so? In which article and in which folder, paper or electronic, will I find it? This can be a 10- or 30-minute diversion. And my research is pretty well organized!

So I’ve decided to just write what’s in front of me. For example, if I’m writing from a newspaper article or an interview, I’ll mine it for all its material on the particular topic without trying to track down the other eight sources that might also relate to the subject. I’ll knit everything together later. I’ll rewrite and polish it later. (Much later, in all likelihood.)

There will be transitions to write and stuff to move around. That’s OK. But, for now, everything goes in.

Transcription Is a Worthwhile Writing Task

The idea of transcribing a recording is often a turnoff for me. It can be a tedious and time-consuming exercise. But it’s also necessary work for some writing projects, and it’s often rewarding, too. The time spent transcribing can cut down on writing time. It aids understanding of the material and can help create a structure for a first draft.

This was the case for me on a recent project. My assignment was to ghost write a year-in-review article for a company president. My source material was an online town-hall meeting during which the president gave a state-of-the-company presentation. I also had his PowerPoint slides, as well as other background material.

I decided to transcribe his talk, which lasted about 35 minutes, a rough transcription instead of word-for-word. His presentation created a built-in outline for the article. Once I completed the transcription, I had a very raw draft of the article. I cut and polished his words, added an opening and ending, and set it aside. Later I refined the article and turned it in. My client liked it.

As it turned out, the transcription and other prep to write the article took much longer than the actual writing and editing. For the most part, the article wrote itself, a case when a full transcription was well worth the time.