Writing to Word Limits – Part 1: Understanding Word Limits
Word limits serve two main purposes. For the buying organisation, the most obvious purpose is ‘time’. Assessors will have many responses to get through and they need to be able to do that quickly and efficiently.
The second is ‘brevity’ and this is important not just for the buying organisation but for you as a bidder. Assessors usually score bids against a pre-defined matrix – with the aim of ensuring a fair and objective assessment – so they need to be able to determine a) whether or not you have answered the question fully, and b) how to score it against their matrix. For more information about how scoring works, see my post ‘What do points make?’.
Wading through a ream of explanatory and/or secondary blurb to piece together key points isn’t just time consuming. If your response leaves room for ambiguity and is open to interpretation, you are effectively wagering the success of your bid on an unknown quantity: the assessor’s ability to read between the lines and draw conclusions that are favourable to you. Given the need for objectivity, many buying organisations won’t allow such interpretation and you will lose marks.
Word limits, on the whole, are a positive thing. They force you to remove the waffle and focus on answering the actual question. This makes the assessor’s life easier by giving them something obvious to score. And while you won’t gain marks for making it easier to read – there are no prizes for following instructions well, I’m afraid – you can at least be confident that you won’t lose marks for incomprehensibility.
Another benefit of word limits is that they can give you an idea of what the buying organisation is expecting in terms of content. If the question has a large word limit – say, 1000 words or more – then you can reasonably assume that they are expecting a fair amount of detail. If the word limit is low to average – say, 350 to 500 words – then you can assume that they want a fact-filled response with a brief explanatory intro or summary. If the word limit is very low – 200 words or less – then you need to stick to the most relevant, important facts.
In any case, where word limits are in place, you should always assume they want more than a ‘yes/no’ answer, otherwise they would more than likely just give you a check box to tick. Where no limits are in place, I would suggest setting yourself some guidelines anyway. Again, this will help you cut out the dead wood and focus on writing a sharp response.
Other frequently used restrictions
Not all buyers use word limits. Some organisations use ‘character limits’ rather than word limits, whereas some others will restrict you to page limits, e.g. ‘no more than 2 sides of A4, set in Arial 11pt’.
It is worth knowing that character limits most often include punctuation as well as spaces. This can be an issue if you are writing a draft version elsewhere (e.g. in Word) and then copying and pasting into some types of online form, as punctuation may be represented using special HTML character codes. For example, the pound sign ‘£’ is represented as ‘£’. So although you only typed one character in your draft, it may actually count as seven characters once it’s in the response box in the portal. Bullet points and dashes can also rack up the characters, so if you have a tight character limit, try to keep your formatting as minimal as possible.
Page limits are, it seems, rapidly going out of fashion, most probably due to the increasing switch over from printed bids to online portals. However, some buying organisations do still use them, even with portals, so it’s worth giving them a passing thought.
If your page limit doesn’t give you any further restrictions, then you have the flexibility to reduce your margins around the page, use a compact font and determine your own line spacing, giving you a fair amount of space to play with. Try to keep it readable though – barely-there margins, 7 point type and crushed together lines are not going to make it an easy read for the assessor and there is a lot to be said for using clear formatting and well worded headings as a way to get your point across clearly. 11pt, single line spacing in a compact font such as Calibri is both readable and space-efficient.
If you do have further restrictions, you need to stick to them. Your entire response could be rejected simply because you used the wrong font or ran over onto an extra page.
For info, 12 point Arial, using a line spacing of 1.5, on no more than one side of A4 translates to around 400 words.
Challenging word limits
If you are concerned that a word limit for a particular question or series of questions is genuinely not sufficient for you to respond effectively to, while still answering all parts of the question, it is ok to challenge it with the buying organisation. As early as possible, send a politely worded message via whatever route the buyer has given for clarifications, briefly outlining your concern and request that the word (or character or page) limit be increased. The worst they can say is ‘nope’, in which case you have your request on record if you are later marked down for lack of information; happily, many buyers will review their word limits in such cases. They want to be able to make their decisions based on satisfactory information and it is therefore in their interest to consider requests like these – especially if more than one bidder brings it up.
Did you know?
It’s tempting to hope or assume that word, character or page limits are guidelines rather than rules but the vast majority of buying organisations are actually extremely strict about applying them. In the case of text response boxes in online portals, you won’t even be able to enter anything over the limit and for answers completed in an offline form, assessors will be instructed to disregard any words beyond the limit, which could leave you in a position where vital informatio
More in this series
Now you know the whats and whys behind word, character and page limits, why not check out the rest of the series?
Part 2: ‘Why stating your intentions is not enough’ looks at how to fully answer a question and give the buyer enough detail to make an informed choice. It shows you how to deconstruct the question and make sure your response hits all the right marks.
Part 3: ‘Why brevity is your friend’ gives practical tips and guidance to help you structure your response and edit your answer to fit word limits, without losing the vital details and core message.
If you have any questions or thoughts, please do leave a comment below.