How to Slash 25% of the Words From Your Story, and Why
Any story can be drastically shortened (and thereby improved) using an editor's mindset and these simple tools
As a writer I’m the absolute worst at staying within the assigned length an editor requests. As an editor I love taking an ax to unnecessary, repetitive and extraneous passages and then a scalpel to extra words here and there.
Wait! Let’s try that again…
As a writer I’m the worst at staying within an assigned length. As an editor I love taking an ax to unnecessary passages and then a scalpel to extra words.
Whew! The first draft of that lede was 40 words. The edited version is 30. I’m not a math guy, but I think that’s roughly 25 percent fewer words, with no loss of meaning.
Yes, I can cut 25 percent out of your story, without losing the core message. Don’t care how long it is, or what it’s about. I’ve done it countless times. Even more often, I’ve asked the writer to do it, particularly with budding talent early in their careers. It’s a great learning experience.
Any writer who thinks it can’t be done is in for a rough career.
Think of it this way: A tweet can be crafted as a very short story, with just a few dozen words. Quadruple that and you’ve got about six column inches, a bona fide short news story in an ink-strapped newspaper (yes, they still exist!). Sure, you could stretch it to a thousand words by adding context. Or you could write a book about it. All while keeping the core premise. Which approach is best? The one that best serves the intended audience on a given platform with no extra words.
It’s your job to find and eliminate those extra words through self-editing. Even if you have an editor, you should self-edit rigorously to make your editor’s life easier. There’s no quicker way to stop those freelancer checks than to shovel excess verbiage at your editor because you know, and she knows you know, that she’ll fix it. Likewise, more words do not equal more readers of your blog or more subscribers to your newsletter.
So, let’s look at precisely how to make these big cuts. We’re going to need first an ax, then a scalpel.
(And here’s a free tip: It can be extremely helpful to print the story out and do this with a red pen on paper. A blue pen works, too. Either way, you’ll get a much better sense of the story’s scope and how the main parts relate to one another, or don’t.)
Start your whacking after you think you’re done writing and the headline is in place, but before a final copy edit or proofread. Importantly, put the article aside first, ideally overnight, or for as long as you can stand it, then come at it with fresh eyes and mind. If you have a lousy memory like me, it can almost be like reading a piece for the first time!
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