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This is the first in a series of “how to” blogs in which we’ll explore some of the tricks of our trade.

words

Most writers often have to work to specific word counts. These limits may seem arbitrary but are usually due to the space available in templates or typeset documents. Your first draft of an article or report will almost always come in well above the word count. Cutting the text down can be arduous, but often improves the document in the process. It’s worth remembering Blaise Pascal’s famous apology from his Lettres Provinciales: “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter”.

As Pascale implies, shorter text is generally better text. Rigorous editing can remove the ‘scaffolding’ that the writer has erected while working, exposing the elegant structure beneath.

You can take it too far, of course. At worst, your prose can end up a bit ‘telegraphic’ – think James Ellroy in The Cold Six Thousand:

Moore stared at Wayne. Wayne stared back. They held the stare. Moore ran a red. Wayne blinked first. Moore winked. “We’re gonna have big fun this weekend.”

That’s an acquired taste. Most financial firms might hesitate before going all Ellroy in their client reports.

But sometimes there’s no option; some clients even specify the number of characters they want in their reports (and it’s usually a frighteningly small number). In such circumstances, concision is key. So, here are ten tips to curb your copy. The second version of each shows how they work in practice.

1.

When you’re getting started on the writing and editing process, avoid ‘throat clearing’ and say what you want to say right away. 22 words

Say what you want to say right away. 8 words

2.

Then have a good look through the text. Does every sentence contribute to your message? Cut out those that don’t. 20 words

Then cut out sentences that don’t contribute to your message. 10 words

3.

So that you can use tighter constructions and save space, restructure your sentences by moving clauses around and eliminating unnecessary sub-clauses. 21 words

Restructure your sentences to use tighter constructions. 7 words

4.

More space is taken up by passive constructions than by active ones. 12 words

Passive constructions take up more space than active ones. 9 words

5.

A plural noun takes up less space than a singular, because you don’t need an article (a or the). 19 words

Plural nouns take up less space than singulars, because you don’t need articles (a or the). 16 words

6.

In order to shorten your copy further, look out for any redundant words and take out phrasal verbs where you can. 21 words

To shorten your copy further, eliminate redundant words and phrasal verbs. 11 words

7.

Cut out non-essential adverbs mercilessly. 5 words

Cut out non-essential adverbs. 4 words

8.

Do the same with any unnecessary adjectives. 7 words

Do the same with adjectives. 5 words

9.

If you are not able to cut more words, using contractions is not a bad idea. 16 words

If you aren’t able to cut more words, using contractions isn’t a bad idea. 14 words

10.

Finally, go back to the beginning and perform a second sweep, applying all the techniques described above. Keep going until you have hit your word count! 26 words

Go back to the beginning and reapply these techniques. Stop when you’ve hit your word count! 16 words

 

The long and the short of it

Here’s how the first set of examples fits together:

When you’re getting started on the writing and editing process, avoid ‘throat clearing’ and say what you want to say right away. Then have a good look through the text. Does every sentence contribute to your message? Cut out those that don’t. So that you can use tighter constructions and save space, restructure your sentences by moving clauses around and eliminating unnecessary sub-clauses. More space is taken up by passive constructions than by active ones. A plural noun takes up less space than a singular, because you don’t need an article (a or the). In order to shorten your copy further, look out for any redundant words and take out phrasal verbs where you can. Cut out non-essential adverbs mercilessly. Do the same with any unnecessary adjectives. If you are not able to cut more words, using contractions is not a bad idea. Finally, go back to the beginning and perform a second sweep, applying all the techniques described above. Keep going until you have hit your word count!

169 words

That’s a pretty hefty paragraph. But the revised examples take it down to less than 100 words:

Say what you want to say right away. Then cut out sentences that don’t contribute to your message. Restructure your sentences to use tighter constructions. Passive constructions take up more space than active ones. Plural nouns take up less space than singulars, because you don’t need articles (a or the). To shorten your copy further, eliminate redundant words and phrasal verbs. Cut out non-essential adverbs. Do the same with adjectives. If you aren’t able to cut more words, using contractions isn’t a bad idea. Go back to the beginning and reapply these techniques. Stop when you’ve hit your word count!

100 words

 

Can we cut it further by reapplying our editing techniques? Yes, we can:

Say what you want to say. Cut sentences that don’t contribute to this. Restructure to save space: passive constructions use more space than actives; plurals need less space than singulars. Eliminate phrasal verbs. Cut out adverbs and adjectives. Use contractions. Then start again. Hit that word count!

47 words

You wouldn’t call it a prose poem. But it delivers the same information as the other two with much less padding. And when space is constrained and words can’t be wasted, less is definitely more.

Justin Crozier

Justin has more than 15 years’ experience as a writer and editor. He read History at the University of Oxford and has previously lived in Japan and China. He joined Copylab in 2013.