Last week’s Professional Writing tip, “Is Passive Voice Always Wrong? The Follow-Up,” explored how using – and not using – passive voice can aid in cutting one’s word count.
It had a lot of useful information in it, but I realized later that it just wasn’t good enough.
It worked very well in explaining how to manipulate to-be verbs. But there are so many other ways to meet professorial, editorial, or other demands to keep write-ups short and sweet.
To some degree, it takes a practiced writer to know where words can best be eliminated. There are tricks of the trade that, unfortunately, would take way too much time and space for a single blog… not to mention a knowledge of grammatical terms that neither of us cares to know.
So we’re just going to keep it nice and simple with a mere seven tips to cut down your word count. They’re straightforward enough that you can start using them just as soon as you finish this quick read.
Before we get to the actual list, one word of caution: Never cut down your word count if it’s going to hurt your engagement, your understandability, or your effectiveness.
The latter two qualities are pretty self-explanatory. But let me explain “engagement” real quick. Unless you’re writing a manual or something else that’s supposed to be dry, your message should act as a magnet. You want it to be as attractive as possible in the sense that it’s not a chore to read.
Instead, it draws readers in and keeps their attention from start to finish.
In other words, never take any of following word-count cutting suggestions unless they make your copy look better:
Use contractions, such as changing “it is” to “it’s” and “can not” to “can’t.” (Don’t worry. This is professionally acceptable in most circles nowadays.)
Eliminate adverbs and adjectives, those words that describe verbs and nouns perhaps unnecessarily.
Use adverbs and adjectives in place of longer phrases. For instance, in the example you’ll see in a minute, there’s a sentence that reads: “In Western culture, we know them as giant lizards with bat-like wings and mouths that spew fire.” You can get rid of four whole words by changing it to: “In Western culture, we know them as giant, fire-breathing lizards with bat-like wings.”
Get rid of words, phrases, and details that don’t push along the point. If the copy can survive without them, then let it survive without them. Another sentence from the upcoming word-cutting illustration is this one: “By studying dragons, you will find that a rich range of information and potential conclusions can be discovered and debated.” It works just as well without “you will find that” than without it though, so those four words can be thrown out too.
Eliminate repetitive information. If your piece is relatively short – a mere page or two – and you find yourself using phrases like, “as already stated,” you’ve probably just found another area you can clip.
Turn quotes into summarizations instead. Other writers you’re relying on to bolster your points might have actually been trying to increase their word count. Or they might not have cared about it one way or the other. So, if you can, tell readers what these sources said instead of repeating them word for word.
Get rid of “that.” It’s simply not always necessary, as you’ll find out in the very last sentence of our example down below.
Let’s say you have an 111-word copy that you need to get down below 90 words for some strange reason. It’s for Dragon Nation, a renowned publication you have the chance to write for… if only you can meet their “dragonian” guidelines.
Here’s what you have originally:
There is something automatically fascinating about dragons, hence the very vivid mythology that has developed around them. In Western culture, we know them as giant lizards with bat-like wings and mouths that spew fire. Though in Eastern culture, you will find they’re much more snakelike.
As already stated, dragons are intensely interesting, inspiring stories all over the world. To quote Wikipedia:
“Draconic creatures appear in virtually all cultures around the globe. Nonetheless, scholars dispute where the idea of a dragon originates from and a wide variety of hypotheses have been proposed.”
By studying dragons, you will find that a rich range of information and potential conclusions can be discovered and debated.
By employing the seven word-count cutting tips above, you’ve got your problem solved easily:
There’s something fascinating about dragons, hence the vivid mythology that’s developed around them. In Western culture, we know them as fire-breathing giant lizards with bat-like wings. Though in Eastern culture, you’ll find they’re much more snakelike.
Dragons have inspired stories all over the world. As Wikipedia notes, they appear in almost every civilization’s folklore.
By studying them, you’ll find a rich range of information and potential conclusions can be discovered and debated.
Just like that, you’re down to 72 words instead of 111!
You’re probably not writing about dragons, of course. (And hopefully not citing Wikipedia either.) But try these tricks on your own writing anyway and see how well they can work for you!