How to Cut Words from Your Writing
Why do you need to cut words? That’s between you and your god (or editor).
But if you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’ve found yourself over a non-negotiable word count. You need to know how to cut words. Now.
Whether you’re trying to cut 50 or 1,000, you’ve found the right resource. In this post, I break down my go-to strategies for writing more concisely without changing the meaning or scope of a piece.
First: Do the Math to Understand What You’re Up Against
Wait a minute. You thought this post was about words, not numbers!
But seriously: before you start cutting words at random, do some math. Do you have to cut 300 words from a 1,000-word piece? Fifty words out of 500? Five-hundred from 1,000?
Knowing this at the start does two things:
- Defines the nature of your task. If you have to cut more than, say, one in five words, you should probably rework your argument to condense it before tackling individual sentences.
- Gives you achievable micro-tasks. Cutting 300 words from a 1,000-word piece may seem daunting. Cutting three in every 10 is easier. Plus, if you realize after two paragraphs you can’t cut three in 10 words and preserve your meaning, you can reconsider your piece’s bigger-picture structure.
Now let’s get into the how.
Start with the Big Cuts
If you’ve got to cut a significant portion of your words, your best bet is to start at the concept level rather than the word level.
A few questions to guide you:
- Look at your intro. Is there any “throat clearing” language before you get to the point? Cut it.
- Ditto for your conclusion. Are you summarizing what you already said in the body without adding anything new? Could you ditch (or greatly condense) the summary and jump straight to takeaways? (Yes.)
- Consider the examples you’ve included throughout the body. Could you still make your point if you ditched a few?
- Look for explanations. Does your audience really need these to understand your argument? Could you save some words by linking the word or phrase to a resource that explains it in more detail?
- Look for repetition. If you’re “referring back” a lot, you may be able to save words by reorganizing.
You’re doing great. Still have a bunch of words to cut? Stay with me. We’re just getting started.
This isn’t possible in every context, but if it is, you know the exchange.
Figure 1: A picture is worth 1,000 words
Choose the Best Example
Something I edit out a lot: comparisons that compare one thing to two things.
For example: “Her writing was like a smooth jazz concert or an eagle gliding through a cloudless sky.”
Well? Which is it?
When your goal is concision, choose the strongest single comparison. This both saves words and clarifies your argument.
Condense with Bulleted Lists
Bulleted lists are powerful because they…
- Break up blocks of text.
- Let you reuse the text that introduces them.
- Save you the “and” that would otherwise have to come before the last list item.
Look for places where you have three or more items separated by commas (or semicolons, god love you!). There's a good chance you could save some words by using a list format.
Weed Out Wordy Phrases
All right, everyone. Roll up your sleeves. This strategy can save you a lot of words, but it requires serious focus.
It may feel hard at first, but it will get easier as you go. (It may even get fun! And if it does, email me because we may want to hire you.)
Here’s the premise: most of us use more words than we need to when we write.
This happens for three main reasons (in my opinion):
- We’re conditioned to make our writing sound “formal,” which many of us think means “long-winded” because we mostly grew up reading a lot of 19th-century writing that frankly uses too many words.
- We’ve never had the opportunity to work with an editor who can point out our extra words.
- We don’t trust the reader to make important connections in their head.
So what can you look for? All kinds of things. Here are a few I see a lot:
- “Of” phrases instead of possessives (“The goals of most companies” vs. “most companies’ goals”)
- “In order to” → “to”
- “When it comes to” → “for” (often, not always)
- “Allows to” → “lets”
- Passive voice (“This piece was mercilessly edited by Brenna” vs. “Brenna mercilessly edited this piece”
- Intensifiers (“very,” “much,” “quite,” “extremely”)
This is one of those classic pieces of writing advice most writers get at some point. It’s not always good advice, but if you’re trying to save words, it is.
And don’t worry: your meaning doesn’t have to suffer. Instead of a verb + and adverb, choose a stronger verb. (E.g., “she threw it gently” → “she lobbed it.”)
Eliminate Repetitive Constructions
Some repetition is essential to communicate a point. But beware of needlessly repetitive phrases, like “I first started” (“I started” means the same thing) or “A leading dynamo” (“dynamo” implies that the person is a leader).
Pair Fragments with Colons or Question Marks
This one’s a lot of fun and can create some nice rhythms. I’m just going to show you how it works because I can’t remember all the grammar words for what's going on here and anyway, would they mean anything to you?
Full-sentence version: “The upside of all of this is that your readers won’t get bored.”
Fragment version 1: “The upside: your readers won't get bored.”
Fragment version 2: “The upside? Your reader won’t get bored.”
When All Else Fails, Play “Words Are Rocks and You’re Climbing a Mountain”
I’ve never tried this, but it sounds compelling, right? Do you really want to carry all those rocks up the mountain? No. Neither do I. Good night and good luck.