Word and character counts are the procurement professional’s way of saying “get to the point”. When we write proposals and tenders, we tend to become verbose – waxing lyrical and using lots and lots of big words to try to impress the evaluator.
What actually happens is that you unintentionally bore the evaluator, leaving them to pick manfully through pages and pages of waffle to try and find the relevant points relating to the question you’ve been asked.
Enter the word count or character count! A great (and often rather painful) way of stopping us bid writers in our track and making us actually think about what we’re trying to say.
Some General Points About Word and Character Counts
- A word count or character count is a limit. Don’t treat it like a target! If you have fully answered the question asked in 50% of the allocated words or characters, then stop! Don’t try and pad it out with additional text to fill the gap.
- Techniques for managing word counts and character counts are different. At the risk of stating the obvious, when dealing with a word count, a really long word and a really short word count as the same, so it’s about the number of words and not the length of them. Conversely when dealing with a character count it is the number of characters that makes the difference, so you need short words and less of them!
- A character is used for every single keystroke on your keyboard. They include letters, punctuation, spaces and carriage returns. What’s more plain text portals use more than one character for tabs, bullet points, auto numbering and indents.
- Online portals often have fixed word of character counts (e.g. 20 characters, 200 characters or 2,000 characters). When a procurement professional sets up a tender, they have drop down selector tools on the portal for each question, and they have to choose the length of answer. In this example, if the answer is going to need more than 200 characters, the procurement professional will have to select 2,000 characters (even if that’s way more than needed!). In some cases (e.g. the CCS) you will find that the questions have 4 boxes, each with 2,000 characters to answer one question. This is because the portal is restricted to a maximum of 2,000 characters per field, so longer and more complex questions may need more than one field to give sufficient space for the answer.
USEFUL TIP – when working on a portal, always transfer the question into Microsoft Word (or some other text editor) and use this as a working document to craft your answer. This way you can edit and re-edit your response and once you have the final version, you can then copy and paste it into the portal.
Top 5 Tips to Cut Word Counts
Cutting down the number of words you use will come with practice. Every time you write something, think about how you could say it more concisely. Reducing the length of the text becomes harder with every draft and getting rid of the last 10-50 words to bring it into word count can be really challenging. Here are some ideas that might help
Tip 1 – Get rid of introductory text. We often think that we need to soften or explain something to make it palatable to the reader. Examples include:
“We are delighted to be given the opportunity to provide a competitive quote for the recruitment of your next Chief Executive, details of which are below” – 26 Words
This could be replaced with:
“Executive recruitment service pricing” – 4 words (or even just “pricing” – 1 word!)
Believe me – the evaluator will see your price and will mark you on that – no amount of “schmoozing” introductory text is going to influence their scoring!
Introductory text or providing excessive context is probably one of the main ways of using up your word count without actually getting any marks for it
Tip 2 – Remove similarity and repetition. This can happen when we are trying to emphasise our point or provide extra clarity. Read your text out loud and ask yourself the following after each sentence: “Is this sentence completely relevant to my response and totally different to what I have already said?” If the answer is no, then delete it!
Tip 3 – Use hyphens and forward slashes. This tip is probably best described in examples:
- Face to face interview – 4 words
- Face-to-face interview – 2 words
- Interview and selection process – 4 words
- Interview/selection process – 2 words
Tip 4 – Remove adjectives and adverbs. These words provide colour, emphasis and clarity, but the reality is that removing them doesn’t usually change the meaning much. Example:
“Adverbs and adjectives can be used to add incredible colour to your writing, but they can also very often end up expanding your word count without adding necessary or beneficial depth to your submission.” – 34 words
Adverbs/adjectives enhance writing, but expand word counts unnecessarily” – 8 words
Tip 5 – Remove redundant words. My favourite here is the use of the term “in order to”. Example:
“We interview in order to validate our candidates’ experience” – 9 words.
“We interview to validate candidate experience” – 6 words.
There are lots of others (e.g. “one of the” can be replaced by “a”, and “the majority of” can be replaced by “most”.
“Sitting on the fence” words are also often redundant. Words like “perhaps,” “maybe,” “possibly,” and “try to” take up space and don’t contribute much value to the prose. They also put doubt into the reader’s mind (not good in a tender), so be confident and concise!
Top 5 Tips to Manage Character Counts
Many portals will not allow you to go over the set character count. Any text beyond this will simply be cut off. Even tenders using Microsoft Word can have their response fields protected to prevent you going over the set character count. Here’s some ways to reduce character count.
Tip 1 – Use a thesaurus function or search on Google: “find another word for [insert word]” to find alternative words that are shorter but mean the same thing.
Tip 2 – Be careful with punctuation. I’m usually very fussy about correct grammar and punctuation, but sometimes it is necessary to bend the rules a little when working with restricted character counts. You’ll find use of brackets, hyphens with a space each side, symbols such as = and * with spaces each side, and full stops (e.g. or eg) can have a significant impact on character counts.
Tip 3 – Use numbers instead of writing them out in full (7 instead of seven). Again, not always technically correct, but sometimes necessary.
Tip 4 – Consider using contractions – incl instead of including, don’t instead of do not, can’t instead of cannot…..you get the idea!
Tip 5 – Don’t trust character counts in Microsoft Word – sometimes when you paste text from MS Word into a portal you will find that the last couple of words have been cut off. This may be because formatting such as bullet points, arrows, auto numbering and tabbed spacing actually use a lot more characters than you might realise when transferred to plain text. Try to avoid these and always scroll down to check your complete response fits into the portal field!
The old idiom “less is more” applies to most tenders, so be direct and confident in your writing and knock ‘em dead.
If you need further advice about tendering, then give us a call on 01688 400319 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.