Michele Weldon: Can’t Cut This? Sure You Can

A guest post by Public Voices Fellowship leader Michele Weldon


In my writing workshops, I lie a little. I tell students in my memoir and essay writing classes to “strive to be undeletable.” It’s a goal. I intend it as a mission to inspire them to write so pristinely, concisely and adroitly that an editor will have goosebumps over each word choice and agree that deleting even a single syllable is an unfathomable attack on humanity.

But the truth is we all can be edited. My first paragraph above can be cut by about 15 words.

At The OpEd Project, we work with editors at scores of media outlets who have varying word counts—600 words up to 1,500 words– and the latter is a rarity. These are not random story lengths. Each site, newspaper or magazine has oodles of audience research on how long a reader/clicker/listener/viewer stays with a story and on what platform.

Michele at a public seminar, teaching attendants about voice and expertise

Michele at a public seminar, teaching attendants about voice and expertise

For instance, someone who views the story on mobile may spend less time on it than someone who flips through the ink on paper product on a Sunday. Not always true, and not true for some kinds of stories on some topics; there are always exceptions to every rule.

Audience research is a complicated and fascinating data maze.  All said, the editors know best. So as a writer who wants editors to run your work regularly, do comply. Editors prefer to work with writers they do not have to have fights with on length every time.

Fellows I have worked with at the Public Voices Fellowships (Stanford, Princeton and Northwestern universities) can sometimes turn in a draft that is 2,000 words and claim they cannot imagine deleting as much as a comma. I understand.  This is what I call falling in love with your words.  You have researched thoroughly, painstakingly articulated your argument, and organized it thoughtfully.

Stanford Public Voices Fellows from 2011

Stanford Public Voices Fellows from 2011

But it is time to give your love a little space.  And let some of your love go.

I can work with the faculty member on it, cut the piece to under 1,000 words and still maintain the integrity of the argument. Then I pitch to an editor, imagining it is a lean, mean opinion machine. And guess what? The editor cuts another 400 words. But it runs, people comment and the editor wants to work with the writer again.

I have had literally thousands of stories I loved cut. Some to smithereens, some gently or barely at all.  Three decades into a journalism career working for newspapers, magazines and digital outlets, I still get cut. A few months ago, I pitched an essay to an editor, who responded within minutes that she “loved it.” I was thrilled; it was 1,100 words. She asked me to cut it down to 800-900 words. I did. She then cut it to 600 before publishing it.

Several weeks ago I pitched the New York Times an essay. An editor responded immediately that it was “great.” The editor cut it from 1,200 words to 500 words and ran it in the Room for Debate section. I then told the editor my plan to use the unused parts and published the out-takes in my column on Huffington Post. All of my words were published—just in two separate places. I was inordinately pleased.

I have been having the word count “discussion”—OK, fight—with journalism students at The Medill School at Northwestern University for 17 years. I ask for 500 words, they turn in 800. I ask for 1,500, they turn in 3,000. And I always say, give the editor what he or she asks for. Why? Because you want to be low-maintenance. And you can repurpose the outtakes perhaps for another op-ed. You want to be the writer who does not need her work edited with a machete. You want the editor to be able to use most all the words you submit and edit your piece with a tweezers, not a chainsaw.

It is true that I lied about being undeletable. But if you submit the word count required, chances are no one will have to cut your words—or at least a lot of your words. That is because you will have cut them down to size yourself.




  1. I learned this lesson sophomore year in college, in an English class. A couple of my essays were slightly over the word limit and I was graded down. I never did that again. I’ve always been of the opinion that writers should not make readers work, either by their writing being too obtuse, grammatical/typo errors, etc. So, why make an editor work harder just so readers don’t have to? I would rather be in control of editing myself before I let someone else do it.

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