Reading time: About 4 minutes
Here’s some practical advice on how to write more concisely…and if you can’t do that, how to edit the extra verbiage you’ve produced…
When I started writing, 40 years ago, I always wrote short. If a client or boss wanted 750 words, I’d struggle to produce 675. If the total was supposed to be 350, I eked out 215. I usually had more 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 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 winnowing blueberries when they’re overproducing in late August.
I recently discovered some online “text reducers,” which are offered by online essay-writing services (otherwise known as plagiarism factories.) I tested them out and suggest you steer clear of them. I found their reductions both inept and inadequate.
But if you regularly exceed your desired — or required — count when writing, here are seven useful tips on how to write more concisely.
1-Start removing ideas rather than words or sentences
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 you can delete an entire section.
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 actually throw this text away — 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 your writing 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.
2-Keep cutting ideas
If you’re still more than 20 percent over, you have two options:
- Delete another point. Or two.
- Vastly tighten your introduction and conclusion.
And here’s a fresh take for bloggers: Consider turning your single article into a two-, three- or four-part series. If you have that much to say, and if the topic is rich enough, you’ll be doing your readers a favour by giving the topic the space it deserves.
Once you no longer need to cut more than 20 percent, turn your attention to words and phrases. The following strategies will help:
3-Remove unnecessary and extra words
Here are some examples to give you an idea of how this strategy 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)
Also, the word “that” is frequently unnecessary and can simply be removed:
Original: This is a remarkable book that has also been made into a movie (13 words)
Revised: This remarkable book has also been made into a movie. (10 words)
Phrases like “there are,” “it is,” and “the fact that” can all be removed to shorten your text and make your writing more direct and concise.
4-Target 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.
5-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.
6-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.
The article “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 can help take care of the remaining 20 percent you need to edit.
How to deal with letter counts
I’m adding this post-script for anyone who has to complete application forms — for a grant, job or anything else — online. I’ve noticed these forms often specify the required length in terms of letter counts rather than words. This requirement causes most people to compose directly into the form.
Don’t use a dysfunctional writing process like that!
Instead, write in your word processing software (MS Word for most people) after having calculated the approximate word count of the required letter count. You can do this calculation yourself by grabbing some text from the internet and then measuring it using the navigation bar: Tools/word count. Further down on this same menu, you’ll see it will also tell you the specific number of characters (with spaces) that those words represent.
Otherwise, I can tell you that 100 words is usually somewhere between 510 and 575 characters with spaces.
Write and edit in your regular software (which will give you a word count at the bottom of the page) and then copy and paste back into the form, editing further if necessary.
Learn how to write more concisely
When submitting your work to a boss, supervisor or client, it’s important for you to meet the required word count.
If you submit text that’s too long, you’re simply increasing the workload of the person you’re giving it to. They will have to shorten and tighten, and that’s not fair to them.
Not only that, but if you learn how to write more concisely, other people will be less likely to dilute the message you want to communicate.
This is a substantially updated version of a post that first appeared on my blog on April 28/15.
Need some help developing a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
Have you learned to write more concisely when your piece is too long? How do you do it? We can all learn from each other so, please share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by July 31/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!