How To Stick To Your Word Count

word count - letters of alphabet

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, 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

For more from Jesse Hines, see his blog Robust Writing.