Write Less, Say More: Tips for Reducing Your Word Count and Improving Your Writing Overall
A hefty word count does not prove that you are a strong writer. In fact, it may be a symptom of the evil disease: clutter. Let's take a look at how you can recognize and defeat clutter in your writing.
Question: What do you do to tighten your writing?
Reducing Your Word Count
“Can you help me squeeze my 1800 word essay into the required 1500 words?” my sister asked me. “I’ve deleted every scrap of unnecessary information. How can I shrink my word count more?”
My sister’s problem is shared by many writers. In Chapter Four of his masterful book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser writes this:
If you give me an article that runs to eight pages and I tell you to cut it to four, you'll howl and say it can't be done. Then you will go home and do it, and it will be infinitely better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three.
When I first read that passage, I scoffed. Surely length was not an evil! Years later, I realized that length is a symptom of a more insidious disease, one which I myself struggle to suppress.
Clutter involves repetition.
Consider the following sentence: The bear was fatally shot to death and killed. In one sentence, the concept of death is repeated three times: in the word fatally, in the infinitive to death, and in the verbkilled.
Here is another example of repetition: The problem with poverty is that its origin is not always easily defined. People struggle to know what causes poverty in any given circumstance. One is never sure where its ultimate source is. These three sentences each repeat the same idea. Choose the sentence that is most detailed and interesting, and omit the others.
Clutter involves obvious statements.
Suppose a character’s mistake results in numerous misfortunes. He curses and storms out of his chamber. Then the author adds: He hated himself for having the stupidity to get himself into this predicament.
This entire sentence is unnecessary. Imagine if videos interrupted the action to give an explanation of what the character is feeling. Having already judged the character’s emotions based on his actions, the audience would be peeved!
Don’t explain. Simply give the reader enough information to interpret the situation for himself.
Clutter dilutes language.
He had abs that made the other men feel envious (8 words) can be shortened to His abs provoked envy (4 words). The first sentence feels wishy-washy; the second punches.
The “ing” words often signal extra language. Her dark hair was flashing with highlights that seemed red in the sunlight could be rewritten as Her dark hair flashed with red highlights. Replacing “was flashing” with “flashed” carries more authority. Read it aloud; you’ll see what I mean. It even sounds more decisive.
Clutter is pompous.
We may experience some adverse weather conditions involving flood events and electrical storms.
Good grief! Not more adverse weather conditions! All this week, we’ve experienced excess precipitation, predicted by climate specialists through the conveyance of ponderous verbiage!
Please tell me we can just expect flooding and thunderstorms.
Clutter involves worthless phrases.
In a strange kind of way, I liked his odd appearance. I have no clue what “in a strange kind of way” means. Do you? This sentiment is more vividly expressed as His odd appearance amused me.
In conclusion, it is interesting to note that, while many sentences appear clean in themselves, they contain pounds of excessive wordiness.
Wait! Rewind. Let’s rewrite that sentence.
“Even seemingly uncluttered sentences can be abbreviated.”
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