You’ve written a good first draft, with all the information you wanted to convey. Yet, when you read it, you’re not blown away by your own writing. That means it’s time for editing.
It’s common for a writer to use many words. That’s what writers do, isn’t it? However, great writing isn’t about using all those fancy words you know. Unless you’re doing a specific kind of writing, where the language itself is the focus, good writing is about conveying a message. The best way to convey a message is clearly and efficiently.
If you’e like me, you don’t write that way at first. I tend to write exactly what I’m thinking to get my thoughts on the page. That involves filler words and repetition. That’s where this editing trick comes in. By cutting at least 10% while editing, my writing got much clearer and flowed better.
What cutting 10% of your words looks like
Let’s look at this next paragraph, taken from my first draft of this article:
No, but seriously, that is the trick. Once you’ve finished your first draft, and looked it over for any significant errors, go through it again. This time, before you do, look at the word count. Your goal now is to get that word count down by at least 10% without losing any information at all.
The above paragraph contains 55 words. To reduce it by 10% means I need to reduce it by a minimum of 6 words. However, I can do better, so I will. Here is that paragraph after editing it:
Seriously, that’s the trick. Once you’ve finished your first draft and corrected significant errors, edit it again. This time with the goal of reducing the word count by at least 10% without losing any information at all.
That didn’t take me long at all, nor was it difficult. Yet, I got a 55-word paragraph down to 37 words. That’s over 30% less. To my eyes, it’s now easier to read, more elegant, and it flows better.
When I say at least 10%, I do mean that as a minimum. In most cases, you can easily cut 20–25% if you’re determined enough. Your writing will thank you for it.
7 tips for cutting down your word count
Reducing word count is good, but how can you do the same? I do a lot of it by instinct, but there are some things I tend to do consistently:
- Look for multiple sentences that say the same thing. This is a common issue with first drafts. As we gather our thoughts onto the page, it’s easy to repeat ourselves. Repetition can serve a purpose but use it consciously.
- Look for instances where you can replace 3 or 4 words with 1 word. In the above example, I replaced ‘looked it over for’ with ‘corrected’ without changing the meaning. In fact, ‘corrected’ was a better word for conveying my message. If you read carefully, you’ll find tons of instances where you can make the same kind of improvement in your writing.
- Active voice is often more efficient than passive voice. Additionally, readers often prefer an active voice as it can feel more engaging. For example, write ‘he kicked the ball’ instead of ‘the ball was kicked by him.’
- Cut words and sentences that don’t serve the purpose of your text. People who write short stories, poems, or comics are usually good at this. In those formats, you have limited space to convey a lot of information. Every sentence needs to serve a purpose and ideally serve several purposes at once.
- Look out for unnecessary adjectives or adverbs. You don’t need to write ‘I was really excited,’ when ‘I was excited’ says the same thing. You can also often use a one-word replacement instead of a word and a modifier. For instance, instead of writing ‘the dog ran quickly across the parking lot,’ you could write ‘the dog sprinted across the parking lot.’
- When you have a long piece of writing, it’s helpful to divide it into sections and apply this process to each of them. The sections can be paragraphs, pages, or chapters, depending on what you’re writing.
- Sometimes, you may want to cut entire sections or chapters. Always remember what the goal of your writing is and make decisions based on that. Authors of novels often cut entire plotlines or characters because they don’t serve a strong enough purpose.
Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash
Why it can be hard to cut 10% or more
It’s not always easy to cut out words. As writers, we often fall in love with the words we write. On the other hand, we might also hate them and lose faith that they will turn into something worth reading.
I’ve been on both sides of that. The editing process is often a battle of will. You don’t want to risk losing something great. You also don’t want to spend a lot of time on something that isn’t worth the effort.
If you love what you’ve written too much to cut it
If the writer in you loves every word and phrase you’ve produced, it’s hard to give any of them up. However, put yourself in the reader’s shoes. What does your ideal reader want from this article? It’s usually not the same as everything you love about it.
With that in mind, you can save a copy of your first draft, just in case. Whatever changes you make now, you can always go back to that initial copy and either keep that or start again.
It’s okay if it doesn’t work out, and you go back to the original draft. You’ll still learn something to make you better prepared for the next thing you write. I’d be willing to bet that in most cases, you won’t return to your original draft after giving this a serious try. For me, it works every time.
If you don’t think your writing is even worth editing
First of all, take a deep breath and remember this quote:
“The first draft of anything is shit.” — Ernest Hemingway
If even he thought this, your draft might have more potential than you think.
It’s important to remember what you wanted to achieve when you wrote it. Which parts contribute to this, and which parts don’t. How can you make them better, bit by bit?
Think of your first draft as a sculptor thinks of a block of stone. There’s a good piece of writing in there. To see it, you need to remove the parts that aren’t good.
If you follow the advice above and remove anything that doesn’t contribute to your text’s purpose, you’ll end up with something good. Unlike a sculptor, you can then add to it again and repeat the process as many times as it takes.
After you’ve cut 10% of your words
Once you’ve finished this edit, reread your text and consider if you want to add anything to it. After all, your new draft might have room for even more useful information.
Whether you decide to add more or not, once you’re done appreciating your new draft, there is one thing you can do to make it even better: cut it again.
You don’t need to be as strict now. Back up your draft and try to cut another 5–10%. If your writing stops making sense, perhaps you did a great job in the first edit. However, we often leave in a bit more than we need to, and this is a good way to check that.
Once you’ve cut another 5–10%, read it again. Did it improve or not? If it didn’t, consider either fixing it as it is or going back to the previous draft.
I once did this with a short story. While it’s still not great, cutting at least 10% every time I edited it made it a lot better than it originally was. In fact, it could probably benefit from another round of cuts. I’ve also found this trick very helpful in academic writing, where there’s usually a maximum word count.
This won’t be the thing that makes you a master of writing. There are tons of other skills you need to make that happen. However, this is one tool that every writer should have in their writing toolbelt.