How to write more concisely

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Do you tend to write more words than you need or want? Here’s some practical advice on how to edit so that you can learn how to write more concisely…

When I started writing, 35 years ago, I always wrote short. If a client or boss wanted 750 words, by instinct I produced 625. If the total was supposed to be 350, I eked out 215. Usually, I had difficulty getting enough words, not too many.

For many people, however, the problem is the reverse. Words gush forth like hot water from a geyser. Or, even if the words don’t arrive that easily, once they finally appear on the page, the writer has a hard time making any of them go away. Cutting words may seem as heartless as striking down a crop of zucchini when it’s overproducing in late August.

If you regularly exceed your desired — or required — count when writing, here are some tips on how to reduce the number of words.

If you need to cut by more than 20 per cent, know that fiddling around with individual words here and there is not going to do the trick. You’re going to have to remove entire chunks of text. This may be painful but the good news is it will improve your writing because it will force you to focus more keenly.

I usually argue against outlining  but here is one time that technique — so beloved of high school teachers — can actually help, (I never argue against outlining once the piece has been written! Only before, when you really ought to be mindmapping, instead). So, outline your piece and then ask yourself whether an entire section can be deleted.

For example, if you have made an argument with seven points, settle on six instead. (Or go to four from five, or to three from four.) Try not to cut stories or examples, if you can help it because these are the bits of “colour” that will be most interesting to your readers. You want to delete the dull parts — not the most interesting ones.

When deciding which section(s) to remove, put yourself in the shoes of your readers. To do this, visualize one person (ideally, someone you know well). Take a deep breath, try to empty your mind and see your writing from your friend’s eyes. Ask yourself which section would be least meaningful and persuasive to him or her.

Don’t delete it yet — instead, copy and move the section into a fresh document. (You might change your mind later, and it will still be there for you to copy back in.) But now that you’ve temporarily removed it, re-read the story to see if it still works. With luck, this will not only work but will also take your word count to less than 20 percent over.

If you’re still more than 20 percent over, you have three options:

  • Delete another point.
  • Vastly tighten your introduction and conclusion.
  • Reconsider the angle to your piece and see if you can narrow it even more aggressively. Note that this is the most time-consuming choice and — if you can, especially if you’re blogging — you might want to turn your single article into a three-part series.

Once you no longer need to cut more than 20 percent, turn your attention to individual words and phrases. The following strategies will help:

Edit unnecessary wordiness. Here are three examples to give you an idea of how this works:

The book was a total of 435 pages in length. (10 words)
The book was 435 pages. (5 words)

The doctor conducted an examination of… (6 words)
The doctor examined… (3 words)

Independent reviews of the dams are conducted every 10 years. (10 words)
Outside engineers review the dams every 10 years. (8 words)

Change words ending in –tion. Words ending in –tion are usually verbs that have been turned into nouns — for example, notify becomes notification. But here’s the problem: Once you’ve removed the verb, you need to add another one to make the sentence work. Consider: Be sure to arrange for notification of your new email address to all subscribers. (14 words) Versus: Be sure to notify all subscribers of your new email address. (11 words). If you want to find –tion words quickly use your search key (command + f) and type in tion.

Reduce adjectives and adverbs: Adjectives modify nouns (eg: a vehement argument) and adverbs modify verbs (eg: she argued vehemently.) If you need to tighten, remove them. Often you can use a different noun or verb that will convey the same meaning. For example, the noun diatribe might replace vehement argument. And the verb phrase: she railed conveys the sense of someone arguing vehemently.

Remove certain prepositions. You can frequently delete words such as “of.” For example: CEO of the board can become Board CEO and writer of young adult fiction can be transformed into young-adult-fiction writer.

Eliminate articles. The word “the” often isn’t necessary. See: All the members of the city council voted against the amendment (11 words). Versus: All members of city council voted against the amendment, (9 words.)

This kind of line-by-line editing, wherein you examine every word suspiciously — does it really need to be there? — can yield surprising results and easily take care of the remaining 20 percent you need to edit.

Thanks so much to reader Eric L. for suggesting this column.

How do you write more concisely when your piece is too long? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog.  Anyone who comments on today’s post  (or any others) by April 30/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of How To Write: Advice and Reflections, by Richard Rhodes. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.