Trouble Sticking to Your Word Count? Try These Editing Tricks


Photo courtesy of aussiegall

This is a guest post by Jesse Hines, a freelance writer who writes the blog Robust Writing.

Word counts.

Most writers have to deal with them. Whether we’re writing a paper for a high school or college class or submitting an article to a magazine or newspaper, chances are good we’ve been told how many words (give or take a reasonable amount) the paper or article should be.

Word counts are tough to deal with sometimes. Maybe the word count is small (100 words) or large (5000 words). Either way, word counts can haunt us if we let them.

Is This You?

Some writers have serious difficulty writing enough quality content to reach their word count. They just don’t seem to be able to come up with much to write about for that topic. For them, just about any word count is too big.

Or Maybe This is You?

Other writers, like me, constantly exceed their word counts; for us, the problem is having too much to say, and wanting to say it all.

To the writers who have trouble meeting their word counts, all I can really say is to read more widely, think more critically, do more research on your topic, and throw every bit of information on your topic into your assignment and work backwards–go past your word count and then edit it back down to the right number.

To the writers who are always going well past their word counts, and need some help determining how to cut their copy down to the level required and still retain the piece’s quality, I’ve got some editing tricks to share.

Editing Tricks for Cutting Your Word Count

I often write articles that have a word count roughly between 500 and 600 words. It’s not unusual for me to finish my first draft well over 600 words and even past 700 words.

I often find myself having to eliminate somewhere near 100 words. Through a regular necessity to rigorously edit myself, I’ve naturally found myself implementing the following editing methods. If you put these principles into action, you can often get down to your word count while retaining the critical substance of your piece.

Plus, by having to make your copy more concise, you can end up with crisper, quicker, smoother, and more readable content.

Eliminate Articles, Adjectives, Adverbs, Prepositions, Pronouns, and Other Descriptors When Possible

Often, I strike out as many uses of a, an, the, that, which, and similar words as I possibly can. Sometimes these articles are necessary to smooth out the prose or to make something specifically clear.

However, often, they’re just filler and can be safely eliminated if their presence isn’t necessary for clarification. You’d be surprised how many of these words you use–just getting rid of them can significantly bring down your word count. Look at the following example:

With articles

He won second place for the best tasting pie, as well as third place for the most original ingredients.

Without articles

He won second place for best tasting pie, as well as third place for most original ingredients.

The revised version, by cutting out two non-essential uses of the word the, says the same thing smoother, and with two fewer words.

As well, the adverbs and adjectives which you use can add incredible color to your writing, but they can also very often end up expanding your word count without adding necessary or beneficial depth.

If you write, “His incredibly intense passion motivated him to work hard,” you can eliminate some adjectives and reduce the number of words, while keeping your meaning.

Eliminate incredibly and intense, as the word passion means, “any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling,” according to Dictionary.com, and thus already expresses your meaning. The two adjectives don’t add much description to the meaning and can be safely cut.

Eliminate Redundant Words and Passages

If you find a phrase like, “The armed gunman,” cut armed, as it’s obvious that the gunman was armed with a gun.

If you find a phrase like, “Past history shows that…,” cut past, as anything that is history is in the past.

Cutting these singular words can add up.

If you find that you’ve written a passage later in your piece that seems really similar to one you wrote near the beginning–look at it closely. It’s possible you’ve essentially repeated yourself. Thus, you can eliminate one of the passages or combine them into one, smaller passage.

That action can cut out bunches of words.

Eliminate Anything that Doesn’t Specifically Relate to Your Main Point

If you’re forced with cutting your word count down by a lot, scour your piece for any passages that don’t absolutely or necessarily relate to your main argument or subject.

You may have written some stuff about how the successful coffee shop’s owner is from such and such and he enjoys such and such in his free time, but if the piece is about the shop’s success itself, the owner’s hometown and hobbies can be left out if you need to use fewer words.

Use Contractions

This trick is sneaky, but simple. It’s also great for keeping your meaning exact and cutting your word count.

Use don’t instead of do not, haven’t instead of have not, won’t instead of will not, and they’ve instead of they have, and so on.

Using one word instead of two whenever possible can drop that word count quickly.

An Example

Let’s take a sentence I used earlier in this post and edit it down significantly by using some of the above tricks.

Original version (34 words)

As well, the adverbs and adjectives which you use can add incredible color to your writing, but they can also very often end up expanding your word count without adding necessary or beneficial depth.

New version (16 words)

Adverbs and adjectives give color to writing, but can also expand word counts without adding depth.

I didn’t even use all of the tricks, but I still cut that sentence in half, paring down my overall word count.

A Clarification

Don’t misunderstand me–I’m not saying that eliminating descriptors and doing away with interesting bits of information not strictly related to your thesis is the way you should always write.

What I’m saying is that if you find yourself having to drastically cut down your word count, then the aforementioned editing tricks can help you do just that, while leaving the substance of your piece intact.

What about you?

What editing methods do you use when you have to bring that word count down?

About the Author: Jesse Hines is a freelance writer. You can read more from him at his blog, Robust Writing.

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29 thoughts on “Trouble Sticking to Your Word Count? Try These Editing Tricks”

  • Excellent tips! I sometimes find my first drafts to be a little too wordy. I’m always amazed at how much ‘extra’ I can cut and not lose anything. If anything, like you mentioned, you gain clarity.

  • As usual you’ve produced a high-value post, Jesse!

    I love the word count! I think it’s a super tool for planning and creating a piece. The way I use it is to determine before I start how long the piece is going to be. Then I plan the structure of the piece and write down subheadings. I then divide the word count by the number of subheadings and that gives me a guideline how long each section should be.

    I usually overwrite because I aim to cull about 10% of a piece in the first edit. I love your tips on how to cut and cull, Jesse!

  • Motivate,

    You’re right. We can often cut quite a bit without losing much, if any, real substance.

    Mary,

    Interesting way you use word counts.

    Like you, I overwrite, knowing that it helps me to get everything important in there and then I can cut back as necessary.

  • J.D. Meier says:

    Good stuff. I’m a fan of a question-driven approach. If I need more words, I ask more questions. If I need less words, I ask less questions. When something’s too verbose, I find it’s because it’s written how you’d “write” it, instead of how you’d “say” it … so I find a way to narrow the gap. When I need somebody on my team to write tighter, I simply ask them “so, what’s your point?” … then that’s usually when the good writing happens. It’s cool when you say what you mean, and mean what you say.

  • I like the idea of focusing on central ideas. Anything else can be cut out and used in a separate article altogether.

  • J.D.,

    You make an excellent insight:

    “When something’s too verbose, I find it’s because it’s written how you’d ‘write’ it, instead of how you’d ‘say’ it.”

    Writing like we speak is fundamental to clear, concise, good writing. As soon as we take our focus off expressing our point, and turn instead to trying to impress our readers with our writing skills, we ensure that our writing will probably be neither clear nor impressive.

    Better to simply focus on getting our message across and letting the style take care of itself.

    Eugene,

    Yes, effective writing focuses on clear, central, compelling ideas rather than trying to say too much at once, thus clouding the main point.

  • writer dad says:

    Forgive me for paraphrasing, but I love what Mark Twain said about very. “You should use the word damn instead of very, then when your editor cuts them all out, your manuscript will be as it should be.”

  • Certainly, tautology that simply repeats the same thing again twice but in a slight different way that isn’t the same is at once and simultaneously a killer and a life saver for those who either need to cut and reduce the number of words in their wordcount or wish to pad out and embellish a sentence that was running short with too few words to make the wordcount.

  • Terrific tips! I sincerely am going to put these to use.

  • Jim Bessey says:

    Great post, Jesse! I kept wanting to edit your prose to be more concise. (grin) Your example sentence (34 words) really bothered me, ’til I got to the part where you slashed it mercilessly.

    The one “trick” that never fails me is to read my verbosity aloud (in my mind), keeping the red keyboard close at hand. (That would be the Delete key) Most of us speak more clearly than we write, since our brains dislike the chore of trying to impress our listeners with our big vocabularies.

    That last sentence is way too long, but you know what I mean, don’t you? Thanks again!

  • Jim Bessey says:

    PS to David: Yes, of course, I’m laughing too hard to type properly…

  • Jim,

    You’re right:

    “Most of us speak more clearly than we write.”

    That’s why writing like we speak, in normal, to-the-point language is key to clear, concise writing.

  • Jim Bessey says:

    Had a look at your site, Jesse. Added to my site links and subscribed. Looks great! ~Jim

  • I love this post and the comments. Another thing to look for is jargon — words that won’t mean anything to the uninitiated reader — and the pompous verbosity that a CEO might make in a speech. If someone in upper management is making you use such words as “transformational” and “unique,” the word-count excuse is the perfect time to slash them.

  • Jim,

    Sounds good. Thanks.

    Cindy,

    Good points. Jargon and, of course, “pompous verbosity (I love that phrase),” should almost always be avoided. As you note, doing so can bring down that word count…or invoking the word count can get rid of them.

  • Deepali says:

    Man! I never knew I can cut it down so easily…

    I used to change my lines, go for smaller synonyms…edit it so many times to get it short…
    I hope I can do it for my SMS. That’s one area I really wanna reduce my word count…

    And that expressing your self without using which n all is great!

    I can think of a song with this… “Words, and words are all I have…” :-> ;->

  • Mighty says:

    Thanks for the tips. I tend to be verbose most of the time. These tips will help me trim down the unnecessary “writing fat.”

  • Deepali,

    Yeah, it’s actually really easy to slash words–just yesterday, I went over my word count on an article and had to cut about 75 words.

    I thought back to my own advice in this post for help–I got the count down and improved the clarity and conciseness of my article as well.

    Mighty,

    You’re welcome.

  • excellent post jesse. Anything we have written we leave all editing methods to those we outsource it too ;)

  • I look for sentence pairs that when combined result in fewer words.

  • G says:

    Thanks a lot!
    Im writing a 1,000 word research paper and have 1,800 words!
    Ya, BIG PROBLEM!

    But this really helped!

  • Amy says:

    Semi-colons are your best friend :)

    I went 700 words over my English coursework, and have managed to eliminate about 400 so far using Jesse’s tips and semi-colons :)

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