How to Shorten Longer Writing


Last post, we talked about the “Russian Nesting Dolls” strategy of publishing shorter pieces while you finish a longer book-length project. The following applies mostly to nonfiction, but you may be able to shorten fictional scenes to use as anecdotes in an article or essay.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s go through the steps to bring down a longer piece’s word count to fit shorter guidelines. Hint: To check minus title or byline, highlight the body text you need to count, and the Word Count should display only the highlighted text.

Step one: Identify the core. The object is to eliminate without losing meaning. By identifying the core, or theme, or single idea you wish to convey, you can make better decisions on where to cut. Try putting your theme into a single sentence: This essay (article, memoir, story) is about (fill in the blank). EX: In my essay about my son’s methamphetamine addiction, I wrote a core story about one day when he came home after a week’s binge and fell asleep sitting up. The long version contained some interesting facts, statistics and other details of a meth user’s life. I knew I wanted to convey (at the core) the emotional story of that one day as a way to paint a picture of how this drug ravages lives. All the other stuff was peripheral.

Step two: Look for paragraphs that illustrate the theme at its core. Place a mark or use caps or highlighting to help you see where these essential parts are. Copy and paste these paragraphs into a new document. Read this aloud, to be sure it still makes sense. If there are gaps, go to the original document and copy/paste more, but only enough so that document 2 makes sense.  If it does, check word count. Save new document. From this point on you will work in the new document.

Step three: Circle or identify all modifiers and prepositional phrases. First we looked at the theme and identified the vital paragraphs. Now we’ll go to the opposite idea and look at some details. Go through your piece and identify the modifiers: “ly” words, adjectives, and prepositional phrases that might be condensed or cut. Ax these words, and then check your word count to see how you’re doing. Also, weed out often unnecessary words such as: that, up, I knew, I noticed, I realized, I thought.

Step four: Further condense. Are there places where you use two or more quotations or bits of dialogue? Pick the best one. Are there sentences that begin with “it” or “there?” Rewrite, being more specific. Check for passive constructions. “She was looking” condenses to “she looked.” “It was revealed to her that she drove too fast” condenses to “He said, ‘Slow down.’” Tip: Use active specific verbs and concrete nouns.

Step five: Recheck word count and Rest. Save both your original document (long version) and the new document with the cuts. Name this new doc something like Title2. If your piece is still way too long, you may not be as objective as you need to be about it. If you are having trouble cutting anything else, ask another writer to help or put your draft away for a few days. Let it Rest. Then begin at Step One and go through the process as many times as necessary, until you come in at or under the word count you need.

What is your preferred method for trimming word count?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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