Working Mother Essay: Winning the Word Count War (Reprise)

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Leonid_Pasternak_001-writer_optAround about now, some of my readers are just starting to panic about getting their application for the  Working Mother or NAFE “Best Companies”  lists in on time. They’re hunched over the essay,  despairing of ever cramming everything they want to say into 2,500 words.

If you recognize yourself in this scenario, don’t despair. I’ve pulled out and dusted off a blog post from the archives, because learning how to win the word count wars is a subject that never gets old. (And by the way, even if you’re not working on a Working Mother or NAFE essay, read on–many of my tips and links apply to any time you’re faced with a limited word or character count.)

Twenty-five Hundred Words Probably Sounded Like a Lot When you Began.

You might even have wondered if you could find enough to say. But you started writing, describing this program and that, adding data and anecdotes and quotes from employees, and suddenly—boom—you realized you were 500 words over. Then your boss told you to add a sentence or two to clarify paragraph four.

(If you found you could say everything in well under 2,500 words, good for you. Kristen Willoughby, of the Working Mother Research Institute, which scores these applications, points out that there is no minimum word count. Many companies submit shorter essays. On the other hand, if your essay is all that brief, are you sure there isn’t something more you could say to state your case?)

Yes, You Probably Can Fit It All

When I’m helping companies with essays of this sort, my goal is to never omit a significant detail because of lack of space. You may think you can’t fit it in. But chances are, you’re just cluttering up your allotment of words with stuff you really don’t need. Here are some tips for making it all fit:

  • Don’t dither away your word count with platitudes and cliches: “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.Here’s one that manages to waste even more words: “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.” Remember the old adage: show, don’t tell? The folks at Working Mother don’t care what you say you strive to do. They want to know how, exactly, you strive to do it.
  • Save the corporate hype for your website. You, may, indeed, produce the highest-rated electric pancake flippers in the industry, as identified by Entrepreneurial Breakfast magazine for seven straight years, but, in this case, it’s not particularly relevant. (Unless, of course, you can demonstrate a likely link between your work-life policies and the high quality of your pancake flippers.)
  • Skip the generalities. Believe me, the folks at Working Mother know that flexible work arrangements or generous parental leave policies can help companies attract and retain workers. (Of course, if you have actual data showing that they have had that effect in your company, you’d be crazy not to include it.)
  • Watch for meaningless clauses and two-words-when-one-will do.  A few paragraphs back, I initially wrote, “my goal is to never leave out a significant detail…” Then, just for the sake of practice (since fortunately my blog has no word limit) I changed “leave out” to “omit.” Here are some other examples of useless or unnecessarily wordy phrasing:

“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 four of our child care centers,” means the same thing as: “All four child care centers.” (And by the way, if you’re writing a lot about child care, keep in mind that it can also be one word: childcare.)

“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.”

“Having the ability” means the same as “being able.”

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 doesA 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 wordy phrases. Check it out!

  • In general, 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?

Ten Words Here or There Won’t Matter

Willoughby informs me that she and the others scoring your essay aren’t obsessing over your word count: “The word counts are mostly there for our technology limits, so as long as it fits in the space provided and is accepted by the system, it’s considered acceptable.” On the other hand, you may not know if it fits in the space provided until you hit “submit,” so unless you’ve left yourself a nice fat margin of time for last-minute revisions, you’d be wise to go lean.

Don’t have time to waste paring down your word count? Let me do the job for you. Give me a call at 718-628-4753 to discuss how I can help you put the finishing touches on your essay. 

Want to stay on top of what’s happening in the world of great workplaces? Follow me on Twitter, where I share great content from smart people, and sign up to follow this, my award-winning blog.

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  1. […] Think Concise. The final essay in the Working Mother essay is limited to 2,500 words. Judges stress that you don’t have to write 2,500 words — you won’t lose points for writing fewer. But if you do find yourself hitting the limits without getting in everything you want to say, take a careful look at your language. Rather than resort to Twitter-like abbreviations or jargon-y acronyms that nobody can understand, try this: get rid of over-generalized language that adds no value (“We strive to support the work-life balance of our employees in every possible way”); platitudes (“Flexible work arrangements make it easier for employees to have work-family balance); and unnecessary repetition (“We have a paid parental leave. Our paid parental leave policy provides…”) Here are some more of my tips for writing to fit word limits. […]

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