Writing to Match Word Count

Writing to Match Word Count

A book-length work allows you to write as much or as little as you wish, but most periodicals limit word count. Adhering to a magazine or newspaper’s guidelines gives writers better chances at acceptance. How can you rewrite portions of your work to match a publication’s word count?

Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few writing tips for rewriting a piece to fit a periodical’s guidelines:

A Nest of Stories

Cutting an article, essay or short story may seem overwhelming or even impossible at first, but one of the best ways to begin is to think of your story in the same ways you present your work’s synopsis. I’ve written before about picturing a set of Russian nested dolls, with each smaller doll becoming a shorter version of your work. With this in mind, your “full” or long synopsis is very different from a one-page or One Sheet synopsis. In turn the Short Synopsis (usually about 500 words) is longer than your elevator pitch or back-cover blurb. Your one-sentence tag line becomes the itty-bitty baby doll in the center of the nested set.

You can use different lengths of a short piece to market to various publications or for different uses. If you are part-way through a book’s first draft, start compiling at least part of the synopsis. You can change your synopsis as necessary. While you write, try to come up with a suitable tag line, a one-sentence statement that boils the story to its basic elements. Getting your tag line will help you whittle the short piece by identifying the vital aspects of the story.

Tag Lines and Pitches

First, excerpt your non-fiction or memoir or use some of your fiction’s research for a nonfiction article or essay to submit to periodicals. It’s one of the best ways to increase name recognition, target your audience and grow your platform. Draft or excerpt an article, essay or short piece and aim for about 1500-2000 words—the length of most in-depth pieces in magazines or newspapers. Then, prepare a 750-850-word length—what most periodicals call “back-page” length. Rewrite to produce as many lengths as you need. The point is that you write different length versions for different markets. Use the tag line to retain the vital core of the story arc while allowing details to drop out, similar to that elevator pitch where you have only a minute to tell what the book is about. For help with elevator pitches, go here.

Omit Some Details

Modifiers, prepositional phrases or other details can illuminate but are often the first to go when trimming a story to fit a word count. If you’re new at editing your work, begin by taking out as many modifiers (adjectives and/or adverbs) as you can. Read each sentence before and after to be sure critical details aren’t lost. When you’ve trimmed away as many modifiers as possible, peruse the prepositions and prepositional phrases. Some can be shortened by substituting an apostrophe. EX: Instead of the color of the house, write, the house’s color.

Next, look at your verbs. If you find passive (is, are, was, were) or gerund constructions (was + an “ing”), rewrite using simple active verbs. EX: He was walking down the street shortens to He walked down the street.

Most importantly, look for parts of the work that could be eliminated while still preserving the general meaning. This is the toughest part of trimming but think again of your set of Russian Nesting Dolls. If the building is on fire or your readers have only a few minutes before they must leave, you don’t come at them with the 1500-word version. You grab the itty-bitty doll is the center. That’s where the story kernel (albeit very general) is hiding. If readers hear that kernel or tag line and then decide to hang around a few minutes longer, you have self-contained stories in several lengths at the ready. A mini-version of your book as it appears in a publication can fuel interest in your book and grow your platform before you ever write The End.

What’s the hardest part of shortening a story for you?

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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