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How Many Words Should I Write?

My blog “SurveyMonkey and a Shocking Tale of Misadventure” stirred up some questions last week with one young woman entrepreneur ringing me out of the blue to ask my advice: “I’m entering awards that ask me to write no more than 500 words. Do I need to write exactly 500 words?”

Good question Ashley!

In short, no you don’t. However, writing between 450 and 500 words will likely get you one step closer to walking across the winners’ stage.

Why? Because chances are that if the awards manager is allowing up to 500 words then the question they’re asking requires a reasonably complex answer. So it’s not to do with how many words you write, but rather about the complexity of the question and therefore how much detail you need to provide to answer it fully and effectively.

A good rule of thumb is to provide enough detail that your answer falls between 90 percent and 100 percent of the total allowable limit. In this instance, that’s 450 to 500 words.

Sadly though there is a set of instances where this rule doesn’t work. This is where awards hosts change their guidelines to short answers only under the maddeningly false impression that this will make it easier to enter and therefore they’ll attract more nominees and make more money. I’ve seen this many, many times. For instance, there’s a current fad sweeping the Australian awards sector where answers are limited to 100 words.

Here is a real-life example: Detail the policies, procedures and systems your business has in place to effectively manage and reward staff.

Common sense suggests that your answer to the above should:

Outline policies and procedures and systemsProvide at least one example of eachShow through statistics and examples that your staff do feel rewarded and are working effectively.

Now try squeezing all that into 100 words!

The past, the present and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.

I know, it’s a pretty bad joke. But then so is asking people to write worthy answers in 100 words. However, it is not as big a joke as an even more constraining guideline I recently came across where an excellence awards manager had set up their system to accept answers of no more than 200 characters including spaces. Seriously?

To put this into perspective, the following Latin paragraph is exactly 200 characters.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Aenean rutrum, lacus quis fermentum auctor, felis felis semper tellus, eget condimentum dui mauris nec neque. Pellentesque faucibus velitquis.

That’s 27 words!

Imagine being asked the following: In 27 words outline your career goals for the next 10 years, and detail past and future PD procedures in place to ensure you reach those goals?

By the way, the above question is exactly 27 words.

In my expert opinion, there is no way any judge could fairly and equitably assess a response in 200 characters / 27 words when the question posed is of a complex nature. It is a farce and makes a mockery of “excellence” awards.

Awards managers need to start realising that, contrary to what they think (but rarely test), limiting responses to short answers:

Makes it harder for nominees as it is much harder, and therefore more time consuming, to write a short answer to a complicated questionMakes the judging task tougherExponentially increases the likelihood of a score deadlock.

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