Simple techniques to help you cut word count
Shorter is better - here's how to cut the bloat.
Word limits are usually there for a reason. In fact, unless your project is a freewheeling magic-realist epic novel charting the history of civilisation, word count is probably an essential part of the brief. SEO considerations, design, timescales and workflow can all play a part. But whether you’re writing yourself or editing someone else’s work, cutting word count to a strict brief can be tricky and haphazard. Here are a few simple techniques to help you wield the word-scythe as effectively as possible.
Know why you’re cutting
Context is key to deciding what you can and can’t cut. If you’re editing a proposal for an engineering contract, be ruthless and delete that flowery description of the building’s history. But in a consumer magazine article, the same material might add valuable colour – which means you’ll need to get more creative with your cutting.
That said, it’s a good general rule to be economical with words. Is every one doing a job? Don’t delete for the sake of it, but ask yourself, ‘What does this add?’ You’ll almost always find some filler you can cut. There are various sub-techniques you can apply, depending on your brief, such as cutting the first paragraph.
Cut the adjectives…
Adjectives are often first on the chopping block. Many add little meaning, and even more have lost their meaning altogether through overuse. When writing about visual and experiential topics such as travel, it’s tempting to fall back on a stock lexicon of ‘incredibles’, ‘breath-takings’ and ‘amazings’. But does ‘stunning mountain view’ tell you any more than ‘mountain view’?
Take a lesson from Hemingway, the master of economy, and show, don’t tell. Focus on clear description and you’ll see the extraneous adjectives fall away.
…and the adverbs
“Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – (Usually attributed to) Mark Twain
The same goes for adverbs, and for the same reason. But there’s another technique you can often use with -ly words and verbs. We have a rich vocabulary of action in English, and you can often pack a lot of meaning into a single verb. Instead of writing ‘reaching quickly’, try ‘grab’ or ‘snatch’ instead.
Check for redundancy
Redundant words and phrases repeat a meaning or idea you’ve already used. Think of them like the common (and incorrect) expression ‘PIN number’ – the word ‘number’ is redundant, as that’s what the N stands for. A few common examples are:
- At this moment
You should avoid redundancy whether or not word count is an issue – cutting redundancy improves writing by making it more concise, and avoids the pitfall of looking like you don’t fully understand a word’s meaning.
Lose the clichés
“At the end of the day, when all’s said and done, clichés are a far cry from the gold standard, and, likely as not, will drive your readers up the wall; to all intents and purposes, they’re about as useful as a lead balloon – avoid them like the plague!”
Alternatively: avoid clichés. Scourge of sports broadcasters everywhere, clichés betray a lack of original thought. So chances are they’re adding nothing and you can often find a more concise (and original) way of expressing an idea.
Words that mean the same thing = synonyms
Further eliminate extraneous text by using shorter words that mean the same thing. Sorry, let me try that again: cut verbiage with synonyms.
So far we’ve focused on editing the ideas in your text. That’s a macro-level view of your writing. Now it’s time to go micro and revisit it at word level. Sometimes it’s a simple case of substituting a wordy term or phrase with a shorter version that means the same thing. Some examples of common offenders:
- have to = must
- due to the fact that = as/since/because
- is able to = can
- inclusive of = includes
- by means of = with/through
Forget ‘in order to’
Same principle, but this construction is used so often it deserves a tip of its own. Those two words on the front rarely add anything:
- 10 things children need in order to grow up independent
- 10 things children need to grow up independent
A final word: if all else fails, start again
If you’ve exhausted all options and you still can’t make your words fit, it could be worth starting over. And not just for your sanity, but that of your readers too – if you can’t express your ideas concisely enough it’s probably time to try one of two approaches:
- Change the word count. There’s too much essential information or too complex an idea to cram into one 500-word blog post, up the word count or expand to two parts.
- Revisit the brief. Maybe you’ve got inadequate research and your thinking is unclear, or maybe you’ve done too much research. Maybe you’re in unfamiliar territory or maybe the brief is unclear (check out our guide to building a solid brief to solve that one). Whichever it is, you might be best cutting your losses and restarting with a fresh angle or narrower scope.