Writing shorter can be difficult. Software doesn’t help. Here’s one exercise that will help you use fewer words without losing substance.
Truthbomb: the longer your text is the less likely it will be read.
It’s difficult writing short. Journalists and copywriters are trained to write within strict (and sometimes severe) constraints. For the rest of us, it can be the hardest part of writing. It’s a tricky balance: removing words but keeping substance.
Kill your darlings
You’ve heard it before: “kill your darlings”. It’s something I’ve gotten better at. Lots of sentences and paragraphs that I have loved, I killed, never to return. Writing for publications that require strong arguments with strict word limits and has taught me to cut ruthlessly.
I don’t think long prose a writing problem, I think it’s an editing problem. It’s important to get it all on the page and edit later. First drafts are not meant to be read — fifth and sixth drafts are.
The problem with writing software
The software we use doesn’t help. Programs like Microsoft Word and Google Docs are artificial writing environments. Often the text is published somewhere else. It will look different to the reader. In printed material like advertising, reports, and fliers you are constrained by the size of the paper. In op-eds you are constrained by your editor. Software allows you to write and write and write. That’s great — but it can make editing difficult.
Here’s one solution to that: edit your copy in the place it will be published. If you’re working on a letterbox drop, work with your designer to edit your copy directly in the design file.
If you’re writing copy for the website, write directly into that webpage so you see how it looks as you write and edit. Medium.com has set the bar by making the place you write the same place people read. Other platforms are following. WordPress now offers a plugin that mimics the Medium writing experience.
I find editing directly in the final product better than working to word limits.
A writing exercise that helps you remove words
In his e-book, 30 Days to Better Business Writing, Matthew Stibbe has an exercise I think is brilliant. Find a piece of writing about 800 words long. Op-eds are about this length. Rewrite it in 400 words. Rewrite that in 200 words. And so on. When you get down to 25 words see what’s left at the end of each edit. You will see how much remains of the argument — what’s lost and what’s not.
You’ll find that it’s easier to remove whole and paragraphs in the first couple of edits. The next couple of edits you’ll need to remove sentences. Finally, prune words.
You might be surprised how much you can cut without sacrificing quality.
Your piece will be stronger, not weaker
A few years ago I wrote a draft op-ed 1200 words long (500 words over the limit). I didn’t know if I could cut anything. I set about editing and removed whole paragraphs. I found that I didn’t need that extra example or that story. I was beating the reader over the head with an argument that was already sound. I got the piece down to somewhere between 600-700 words. It was shorter and better.
If the purpose of your writing is that people will read it, pay close attention to the length.
- Remove paragraphs;
- Then sentences;
- Then words.
The shorter you write, the bigger your audience.