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Editing for Word Count Improves Your Writing

I tend to be a fairly verbose writer. My husband actually calls me “The Queen of Verbosity.” Yes, I can write a lot in a short amount of time. I admit it.

When I’m working on assignment, I often find that I have exceeded my 1, 500-word article requirement, for example, by at least double – if not triple the words. This may happen when I simply have researched so thoroughly that I have too much information for one article, or it may be that I’ve interviewed too many people. Or, I might just have a lot to say on the topic. No matter the reason, if the editor has told me to turn in 1,500 words, I cannot turn in 4,500 or even 3,000 words. I have to turn in something closer to 1,500 words.

You do have a little lead way typically; most editors won’t be upset if the receive an additional 100-200 words unless they have specifically told you that they only have space for 1,500 words. On the other hand, editors hate to receive too little copy. It’s much easier to cut a writer’s copy than it is to add to it.

Given my tendency to overwrite, I have become somewhat of an expert at cutting my own copy down to size. This, I believe, has not only made me a better editor but a better writer as well. To accomplish this feat—and sometimes it feel like a feat—I go through an article manuscript line by line, word by word, looking for ways to tighten sentences so I can meet a word count. At least once a month I shorten a 3,000-4,000-word article to 2,000 words by going over it many, many times looking for ways to cut, improve, strengthen, you name it. 

Write enough articles or essays, and you’ll either get very good at writing to a specific word count or at cutting until you meet it. If, like me, you continue to write long, you’ll want to start practicing cutting words and tightening sentences. If you like social networking, you can practice this every day on Twitter.com, where you are allowed only to type in 140 characters describing what you are doing at any given moment. Sometimes this takes some major editing and cutting and tightening.

Or just take any manuscript of yours, or even a paragraph you’ve written or a letter, and try to shorten it to half its current size. Work at it until you manage to accomplish this goal. The rules are simple: Retain all important elements. Lose all unnecessary words. Combine. Cut. Delete. Rewrite. Make sure the message remains but the ancillary bits and pieces go.

Or give yourself an assignment. Write about something—anything—within a certain word count range. For example, describe how you met your best friend or your spouse, but do it in 400-500 words.

This skill will come in very handy when you get an assignment like the one I recently completed for a dance magazine. I had to profile three dance companies and include a lead to the story, but I couldn’t exceed 1,000 words. That basically meant that I had 300 words to describe each company and 100 words to entice readers into the story itself. You’ll also find this useful when writing short biographies of yourself, book jacket copy and other short pieces. If you are just getting started as a nonfiction writer, writing “shorts” for magazines gets you a foot in the door. Often these stories are just 200 or 300 words long.

If you’d like to look at an example of my own work, you can examine the following lead to a story I wrote about learning to cycle up steep grades. By the time I had included two of the three interviews I had conducted, my story was already double the length it needed to be. So, despite the fact that I liked my lead, I knew I had to shorten it. I managed to take it from 176 words to 78. That may not seem like a lot, but if you can do that throughout an entire article, you will cut its word count by more than half and turn in a really strong, well-written, honed, highly-crafted piece of writing.

First Draft – 176 words

Highly-conditioned cyclists who train on flat terrain or who regularly cycle on hilly routes may think they easily can scale the steeper inclines found in California’s mountain  ranges.  However, they may be surprised to find themselves with quivering leg muscles and aching lungs as they struggle for the summit of the first big “hill.”  Indeed, riding on the mountain roads in our area requires more than average leg and lung strength as well as a unique mind set and skills set.

If you are thinking of taking up mountain cycling – not to be confused with mountain biking – or if you find yourself struggling up the hills on your current routes, you might want to posses a few conditioning strategies as you begin your grind up the first grade – and the next – and the next.  Possessing some knowledge of the best ways to get in shape for mountain riding and the best ways to cycle up hills will put you in good stead both as you begin your conditioning routine and as you continue tackling ever-larger hills.

Second Draft – 126 words

Cyclists who typically ride on flat terrain or hilly routes may think they are fit enough to easily scale the steeper inclines found in California’s mountain ranges.  However, when they attempt a mountain ride, they may find themselves struggling for the summit of the first big “hill” with quivering leg muscles and aching lungs.  Indeed, riding mountain roads requires special conditioning.

If you are thinking of taking up mountain road cycling, or if you find yourself struggling up the hills on your current routes, you might want to use a few training strategies before you ascend the first steep grade.  Specifically conditioning yourself for mountain riding will put you in good stead both as you begin your conditioning routine and as you continue tackling ever-larger hills.

Third Draft – 78 words

Cyclists who typically ride on flat or rolling terrain may think they are fit enough to easily scale the steeper inclines found in California’s mountain ranges.  However, when they attempt a mountain ride, they may find themselves struggling for the summit of the first big “hill” with quivering leg muscles and aching lungs.  Conditioning specifically for mountain road cycling helps avoid this scenario by increasing cyclists’ ability to reach the top of steep grades more easily and quickly.

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First Draft -- 14

First Draft -- 14 words:

Nina, I'm on the verbose side of things, too, so this is really helpful.

Second Draft -- 1 word:

Thanks.