How To Reduce Word Count Without Sacrificing Substance

A line editor can help an author make the hard calls while remaining true to their argument and voice.

There’s a reason the expression “Kill your darlings” resonates with so many writers. Few parts of the writing process are more excruciating than the moment you realize you need to reduce your word count dramatically and will have to decide where to start cutting.

This situation could arise for many different reasons. Maybe the publication has a word limit; maybe it’s a requirement for a book prize. Or perhaps you or someone else involved in the publishing process have decided that a particular thread or subtopic takes up too much real estate in the text.

But when making significant cuts to the word count, you don’t want to compromise the integrity, completeness, or flow of your argument. And, frankly, the process of drafting an article or monograph is not just intellectually laborious, but emotionally taxing. It can be hard for authors to get enough critical distance to discern which of their favorite details or subsections is best removed or set aside for another occasion.

Here’s where working with a line editor could help get you unstuck, however small or large a reduction you might need.

Making Small Cuts to Your Manuscript

With shorter pieces like interviews, blog posts, or application essays, you may find yourself just a few hundred words over the limit. In these cases, substantive cuts might not be necessary. A line editor could help you focus on making tiny, local incisions to tighten up your phrasing and rein in that final word count.

Single-Word Snips

The first thing an editor might look for is unnecessary verbiage at the level of the single word: articles, indefinite pronouns, adverbs and adjectives, lists with redundant items, transitional phrases, intensifiers (like very or extremely). Baggy sentences weighted down with superfluous language can diminish a writer’s authority. This kind of micro-level pruning, applied judiciously across a short piece, can make a huge difference in overall length while also sharpening the writing.

Passive to Active

Another way to reduce wordiness while improving the prose style is changing passive to active voice. Compare these two versions:

Materials were submitted by the students through the portal, a confusing process.

Students navigated the confusing process of submitting materials through the portal.

The second version is only one word shorter, but when you’re tasked with cutting just 100 words or so from a thousand-word document, these edits add up. Importantly, the shorter version is also constructed more clearly.

Prepositional Phrases

A common length inflator is prepositional phrases, especially “of” phrases:

The initiation of new members into the first professional organization for pastry chefs in Louisiana took place on March 14.

Louisiana’s first professional pastry chefs’ organization held its new member initiation on March 14.

By slightly restructuring the sentence to remove prepositional phrases—and clarify who the acting agent is—we took six words off our final count.

Project-Specific Tips

There are also project-specific methods. If the piece is expected to be relatively informal in tone, you can find appropriate places to create contractions (e.g., they are to they’re) without sliding into excessively casual territory. With interview transcripts that need to be edited for clarity and concision, you can remove almost all verbal “throat-clearing”— well, um, right?, and you know, utterances that dot spoken English but don’t need to be recorded in print unless there’s a compelling stylistic reason.

And if your piece is organized into sections, look at the section headings. It can be tempting for a writer to shoehorn a lot of detail into titles, breaking them up with colons and lists of topics. This might seem like a good way to provide as much information as possible about what the reader is in store for. But a ponderous section heading is more likely to slow the reader down without sticking in their memory. It’s better to aim for a short and punchy title that concisely captures the section’s role in the larger argument or narrative.

Applying Medium Cuts to Your Text

From there, we move into edits that will have a greater impact on the piece’s content or overall form. These medium-sized cuts require a different kind of judgment call: how to negotiate the competing priorities of meeting a word limit and supporting your argument in the most effective way possible. A line editor can help you strike this balance.

Flow and Coherency

One area many authors struggle with is flow. How do I create the most logically organized and narratively coherent piece of writing? A too-easy answer is to insert transitional language. Even short transitional phrases—moreover, for example, additionally—can add unnecessary stodge to your writing. At a slightly larger scale, authors trying to smooth out the jerkier shifts in their argument often overcompensate by inserting stilted transition sentences at the beginning or end of paragraphs. A skilled line editor with an eye for nuance can tell when you actually need explicit transitional language between paragraphs or sections and when a cold start would be better.

Repetition and redundancy can be particular problems when an author has been working with or combining multiple versions of the same piece. It’s not difficult to notice when a sentence appears verbatim several times in one article, but an author might not realize they’ve introduced or defined certain concepts more than once. This can diminish the piece’s coherency, in addition to inflating the word count.

Evidence

When describing an important phenomenon, an author might be tempted to pack the passage with intriguing examples. But often in a short piece, given five exemplary instances, you’ll need to pare down to just two or three. This will not only help you meet your word limit, but it will also most likely strengthen your argument by foregrounding the most robust evidence that works best within the piece as a whole. An author or researcher who is emotionally attached to their subject matter may struggle to make this decision. This is where it’s helpful to have an editor who can put themselves in the reader’s shoes and prioritize the big picture.

The same goes for excessively lengthy quotations. While an author understandably wants to honor their sources and influences, somebody needs to have the heart to cut that long, lyrical passage that’s compelling in its own right but doesn’t advance the argument. Or choose between two quotations from comparably significant sources that say fundamentally the same thing.

How to Make Big Cuts to Your Word Count

Of course, the worst cut of them all is needing to remove substantial portions of the manuscript. This might involve snipping off a paragraph or section that doesn’t ultimately support the main argument, combining and distilling multiple sections into one, or restructuring the argument as a whole, perhaps by removing or reorganizing whole chapters.

A line editor can help identify paragraphs and sections that are best removed or reorganized. If there are substantive issues with the structure of the argument, they might recommend that you consult with a developmental editor.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, authors struggle to make cuts because they’re dedicated to what they’ve written. Great line editing also involves deep investment in the text at the level of argument and artistry. A skilled line editor can’t completely erase the pain of reducing your word count, but they can collaborate with you to find an even better text on the other side of the process.

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