Monday, September 12, 2011

Word Count Limit Got You Down? Try These 6 Editing Tricks

Most of the time, I love being a writer. The brainstorming…the research…that moment when all those random phrases and concepts zinging around my head suddenly settle down and start flowing like a river of hot chocolate. Mmm….

 But you know what I also like?  Editing.  I know that many writers don’t like to edit (and I agree that it’s hard to “kill your darlings,” as Papa Hemmingway says we must) but I find it strangely satisfying, especially if I’m editing to adhere to a word count limit.   It’s like a game:  how tight can I make this story without losing any of its original character or elements?  

One of my proudest moments at this game was when I submitted a 400-word FOB article that had 5 major points (complete with three quotes from different experts), and the editor said – looks great, but can you make it 300 words?  Yikes!  But I did it. I nibbled away 100 words from an already-super tight article without slashing any of the points or deleting my quotes. Really, it’s kinda fun. 
If you’re a writer who dreads whittling away at your beautiful prose for the sake of to satisfy some editorial limit, here are a couple of few tricks that might to make it a bit easier.  

1.       Eliminate prepositions.  Okay, I sound really nerdy - but it thrills me to slash teeny, tiny words such as “of” “in” or “at” from my writing.  It’s like cutting fat from a good piece of meat.   Plus, since prepositions are everywhere, cutting them is an easy way of getting closer to your word count goal. 


Were you the victim of a car rental scam?
Were you a car rental scam victim?

After her husband left, she preferred to stay at home.
After her husband left, she preferred to stay home.

The wildfires in Texas cost the government billions.
The Texas wildfires cost the government billions.

2.       Eliminate “that.”  Most of the time, the word “that” can be deleted from your writing without  impairing the sentence’s meaning. Even though it’s only a single word, you’ll be surprised by often you use it – and how getting rid of it tightens and shortens your piece.  


I think that his wealth made a difference to the jury.
I think his wealth made a difference to the jury.

Being stuck with a bill for damage that you didn’t cause is a nightmare.
Being stuck with a bill for damage you didn’t cause is a nightmare.

3.       Avoid “helping verbs.”   The primary helping verbs are “be” “do” and “have.”  It’s so common to use them in speech that we insert them into our writing without thinking about it.


First, you have to create an account. 
First, create an account.

The customer is always trying to get a discount.
The customer always tries to get a discount.     

The report was prepared by top scientists.
Top scientists prepared the report. **

** A writing bonus! Eliminating the helping verb also forces you to write actively, not passively!

4.       Eliminate redundancies and unnecessary words.  Don’t repeat things needlessly. ‘Nuff said?


He knelt down beside the sobbing child.
He knelt beside the sobbing child.

She couldn’t decide whether or not visit him.
She couldn’t decide whether to visit him.

Top with parmesan cheese.
Top with parmesan.

When shopping at a flea market, look for bargain prices.
When shopping at a flea market, look for bargains. 

5.       Ditch most adjectives and adverbs.  We all know this one (well, we should) but it’s hard to obey.  Some adjectives and adverbs are just so pretty. But it’s true that using a good strong verb in place of an adjective or adverb makes for much tighter writing.  And chances are, when you re-word, you can get rid of a preposition or two as well.


She looked extremely beautiful in that red dress.
She rocked that red dress.

The storm totally ruined our garden.
The storm devastated our garden.

6.       Use contractions.  This one might be difficult for those of you who had teachers like I had, who believed that contractions were for drunks, babies, and uneducated good-for-nothings.  But these days, using contractions in most forms of writing isn’t a sin.  Just look at the style of the publication you’re writing for – if the tone is easy-going or informal, go for it.  You can cut dozens of words this way.

Example: I wouldn’t think you need an example here, but you never know.

What tricks do you use to shorten your writing?   


  1. great post - as i've ventured out into the world of writing, it has come to my attention i'm a "that" addict...working hard to fix it (as you may have noted!)...all the other examples excellent as well. thanks!

  2. I do all these things--great list! Something else I find helpful is eliminating "that has" and "which is"-type phrasing:

    - I founded the blog NewNewYorkers, which is the definitive guide to NYC newcomers.
    - I founded the blog NewNewYorkers, the definitive guide to NYC newcomers.

  3. WIAWN- Getting rid of "that's" are my favorite because it's just so easy. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Sarah - Great example. I'll definitely add that to my list! Thanks for sharing.

  5. WIAWN- Getting rid of "that's" are my favorite because it's just so easy. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Barbara, wonderful post! You did a great job ferreting out words that needlessly expand your word count!

    One that always bugs me: "The reason why he said that is..." Shouldn't that just be "The reason he said that is..."?

  7. I do use a couple of these automatically when I need to decrease word count, but I've learned a couple new (and very useful) ones as well.

    These suggestions will not only make your writing fit shorter word counts, but tighten up your writing as a whole. Nice article.

  8. Hi Linda - thanks! Your example is a great one. Blast those pesky little words!

  9. Hi Jan, I'm glad you found the post useful. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  10. Great advice!

    I'd like to just add something about point number 5. Isn't there a colloquial difference between "rocked" and "extremeny beautiful"? I mean in some phrase, "rocked" would do just fine. But from some narrator's point of view, who likes to use proper English all the time, 'rocked' would be a little misappropriate. I may be wrong so correct me :)

    I'd say that happens a lot while trying to pick the right verb instead of an adverb + adjective setting.

    Thanks for the awesome pointers Barbara!


  11. Hi Pooja - Absolutely. The writer must select verbs appropriate for the article and publication. My example was only meant to highlight the thought process a writer should undergo when editing: identify flabby adjectives and adverbs and replace them with a strong verb when possible.

    But you're right: the writer shouldn't just grab any interesting verb from the thesaurus, but choose one that truly fits.

    Thanks for your comments!

  12. It's funny how a blank page and a word count goal can be so intimidating to start with and then *bang* you've gone way over the limit. I also try to imagine the editing process is a game so I don't feel so bad about "murdering the darlings". Another tip: compare the paragraphs. Have you repeated a thought, a phrase or some data? Delete the duplicates!

  13. Thanks for the tips.

    Omitting dialogue tags can reduce words. 'He said' or 'she said' is not needed after each line or paragraph of dialogue. Just make sure you don't remove too many tags and confuse your reader.

  14. Great post! I especially liked the tip for replacing adjectives with strong verbs.


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