Here are some numbers: 70. 64. 73. 67. 76. 73. 72. 76. 76. 74. 78. 73. 72. 60. 68. 64. 76. 67. 65. 67. 64. 66. 76. 65. 72. 71. 67. 70. 68. 71. These are the exact word counts from recent paragraphs in my LinkedIn columns on cyber security. As you can see from the list, these word counts range from 64 to 76. And I will confess that this rigid pattern persists across all 300 of my published articles. Go count. (I’ll wait.)
Every article I’ve published since November 2016 has been subjected to my OCD method of making all paragraphs similar. And yes – I am fully aware that this writing practice is marginally insane. I remember my English teacher in high school suggesting that I use a nice mix of sentence size and structure, much as a baseball pitcher should change speeds and location. If asked today, I'll bet he'd report that my writing style sucked.
Let me explain, however, why I think that my writing style doesn’t suck. You see, inevitably, my first drafts are too long. I always have too much to cram in, and my initial thoughts just go on and on. And on and on. And on. When I read the words back, I get bored pretty quickly, so I know that my readers would get bored as well. And nothing – nothing – is worse than a bored reader.
Loving those dumb adverbs and adjectives is one cause of my wordiness. For example, I have the very bad habit of including the very bad word ‘very’ in my very early sketches. This is a very bad idea and very distracting. So, after I draft a paragraph, I try to purge the useless adverbs and adjectives. Like very. That process chops things down more than I am willing to admit. It’s a very effective method. Very.
On top of the adverbs and adjectives is another bad habit: I overuse parenthesized comments. (Like I am doing here.) (But I do it to make a point, not to illustrate the problem). (You get the idea.) (God, please make it stop.) So, after purging words like very, I toss (most of) the parentheses. OK, sometimes I let a few stick, but I know that parentheses impede flow. (Be careful with the parentheses.)
Wait – there’s more: I don’t just chop words randomly: I try to mold each paragraph to about 76 words. I have no idea why this works, but it does. And yes – this is super OCD. And yes, I fold my socks perfectly in my sock drawer. So, this is my mental problem, not yours. But I love the way my paragraphs look. I love uniformity. I like 76. And I’m not going to change. No way.
OK – it’s time for an example: I’m going to string some words together into a long, boring sentence. Then I’ll chop it down to show my method. Here goes (and this is randomly bad): “Multi-factor authentication is a critical modern control because it supports both the security and compliance aspects of our industry – and we all know that both are very important aspects of the cyber security equation (especially for the enterprise).”
Repeat that last sentence out loud and you’ll see that it should be illegal with the very and the parenthesized comment. If I saw this in a first draft, I’d chop it down, always keeping track of the total number of words to help slide it into a nicely uniform word block of about 75. Here’s what I would rewrite: “Multi-factor authentication is great for both security and compliance.” Shorter. No more very. Nicer to read.
Like a good OCD writer, I followed my writing style for this article. If you go check the word counts for this piece – my 300th published article on LinkedIn – then you will find that they work out OK. Just to save you the time, the word counts are 85, 74, 76, 76, 76, 76, 72, and 76. The first paragraph is higher than average, simply because I used numbers in the prose. And numbers, you know, are super short.
Don’t leave yet – I have one more thing: I sometimes drop Easter Eggs in my articles. So, have a look at the first letter of each paragraph in this article, and witness the first program output for every C programmer who ever lived. Read it out loud, and enjoy the OCD-ness of this columnist. (And yes, this last article is a very good example of a very wordy narrative in one of my crazier articles.) Hope to see you at 400.