The philosopher Blaise Pascal said: “I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” It’s true – sometimes concise writing is difficult. A few weeks ago I covered informal writing. Another problem that often confronts clients, particularly students, is writing too many words. I am often asked if I can reduce the number of words in an essay, paper, or personal statement. Sometimes the text must be pasted into an online form that only allows a certain number of characters (this is tricky as the spaces between the words are counted), or there are strict word count limits, such as the 1000 word limit on UCAS personal statements.
Here are a few tips to consider if you need to cut down the length of your writing:
Avoid passive writing
Described as the first ‘deadly sin’ of writing, the passive voice is often frowned upon by professors, writing critics and grammar gurus. It’s a stylistic issue really, not a grammatical error, and there are times when the passive style is appropriate. There’s lots of internet advice explaining the issues – this particular article from a US university provides some good avoidance techniques. I can’t guarantee that avoiding the passive will always reduce word count but compare:
The bone was eaten by the dog. [7 words] with The dog ate the bone. [5 words]
Another stylistic error, I see examples of tautology almost every week. It’s basically a phrase in which the same thing is said twice in different words. Not strictly the same thing, but another problem I came across this week was the habit of starting a sentence with a repeat of the previous sentence. For example, ‘The aim of this research is to identify the common mistakes in writing an essay. The common mistakes in writing an essay are often found in…’ [26 words] versus ‘The aim of this research is to identify the common mistakes in writing an essay. These are often found in…’ [20 words]. Watch out for repeating the same phrasing throughout chapters – I recently edited an essay where an identical wording was used three times in a short paragraph.
Use possessive apostrophes
The apostrophe rules can appear to be complicated, so some writers prefer to use the ‘of the’ construction, rather than risk putting the apostrophe in the wrong place. However, the teacher’s books [3 words] reads better than: the books of the teacher [5 words]. A small change, but a 40% word reduction.
Make sure that you have spelled out the words of the abbreviation or acronym in full at the beginning of the essay, with the abbreviation in brackets, then continue only using the short form. I recently disposed of over 200 words simply by changing a six word title to its one-word abbreviation. For more tips on abbreviations and acronyms check out this blog post.
If you’re faced with one of those pesky online forms that only allow a certain number of characters you’ve got to be crafty. The total count will include punctuation and spaces – so you need to be very careful with the construction of sentences. For example, that previous sentence contained 121 characters, if space was in short supply I’d rephrase it: As the total includes punctuation and spaces be careful with sentence construction. That’s 83 characters. Be aware, though, if you’re completing a job or course application form you mustn’t include any text-speak or Twitter abbreviations!
These are just a few ideas about the type of editing that can successfully reduce word count. Don’t forget that Word has a handy tool for checking the figures, both at the bottom left of the document in the status bar and also by clicking ABC Word Count on the Review tab – you can easily highlight a bit of text and get the exact word or character count, with and without spaces. If you need any help with editing or proofreading your essay, paper or application form, including advice on word count reduction, contact me for a free quote.