One issue I see as an editor over and over are articles that are pretty lengthy and have a lot of redundant information. As a writer, you have something to say. That's why you write after all. Writers also tend to be word lovers. It is easy for them to add in details and get a bit lengthy with their blog posts. While you do want to include every angle you can think of that your readers might be interested in, and there are some recent stats that suggest longer posts are better for search engine ranking (Quick Sprout noticed that web pages with 2,000 words or more ranked in the top 10 keyword results on Google), you still don't want to write words just to fill in space.
So, how can you be sure you're covering a topic completely and not just providing needless fluff? I polled some writers and editors to find out their tips and tricks and here is what I discovered:
Check for Extra Words
Lori Robinett, writer of thrillers and blogger, starts by checking her work for those extra words that have a way of slipping in.
The first thing I do is look for “extra” words such as “that”; then I look for 2 word descriptions and actions to see if one word can do the job better; then I look for any he saw, he heard, etc. phrases and cut them to get right to the meat of the matter.
For instance, she heard the bell toll becomes the bell tolled.
Lori's point about “she heard the bell toll” is a good one. You can also watch out for “she/he saw”, etc.
Saying the same thing in more than one way. Example: They killed her dead. (If she was killed, it can be assumed she is dead.)
Flowery descriptions. Example: The pasta had a beautiful, rose-red hue that reminded me of a flowering shrub at my grandmother's home. (Instead, just say the pasta had a rose-red hue.)
Watch out for “that” and “to be” verbs. Example: She was eating dinner. (Instead, simply write: She ate.)
Read Out Loud
You've heard me say it before, but it definitely bears repeating that it's just smart to read your work out loud before putting it out there for public consumption. You'll hear awkward phrasing and extra words that can be cut when you read out loud.
Kristi Waterworth, Freelance Copywriter, added:
My old favorite is to read everything out loud before you submit. [Another tip is to] read your work backward.. Reading backward is supposed to interrupt the Gestalt effect, so you actually see the words instead of your brain rearranging them for you.
I found Kristi's thoughts on the Gestalt effect pretty interesting. The Gestalt Principle is quite simply that your brain tends to rearrange things into their simplest form. Of course, there's a lot of psychology behind it. One could write an entire paper on the Gestalt effect (they have). For the purposes of using the concept to cut words from your writing, though, you simply need to be aware that while your brain may rearrange the words in a way that is easiest for your brain to understand, this may not translate to writing that others understand as easily.
For example, one part of the Gestalt principle is that repetition is pleasing and rhythm is pleasing to our brains. This is true, but when it comes to writing important concepts in a limited word count, some of that repetition and flowery wording simply has to go.
Stay on Topic
Do you remember those middle school English classes when your teacher told you that your focus was too broad and needed to be narrower? The same is true with your article writing. If you try to write on a topic such as golf, your article is going to go off in a lot of different directions, because golf is a broad topic. Instead, narrow your focus. Write about the three best golf clubs for beginners.
Voni Harris, blogger and homeschooling mom, pointed out the importance of staying on topic:
Look at each paragraph: How does it relate to the topic/theme at hand? Cut those that don't, or that are stretching the point.
It is better to focus on sharing deep, in-depth information on a single point than trying to stretch and cover everything at once. Making sure you are on point also can help you cut unnecessary paragraphs when you're running over word count.
Cut the Flab
Becky McGraw, a contemporary romance novelist, had some thoughts about how to get word count down to size.
I am definitely not one to give tips on writing short, but cut the flab by using stronger, more active verbs.
Becky brings up a good point about active verbs. One of the best articles I've seen recently on this topic was shared with me by Kristi Waterworth. The full article is over at Grammarly and gives the perfect example for seeing whether or not a sentence is passive. The author actually bases her article on a tweet by a teacher named Rebecca Johnson. Ms. Johnson tells her students that if they can insert the phrase “by zombies” after the verb, then the sentence is passive.
So, here are some examples to show you passive writing:
The ice cream was made by zombies. (7 words)
The people were attacked by zombies. (6 words)
So, how do you fix those sentences and make them active? By the way, active verbs tend to use letter words, so searching for passive verbs is a great way to cut words. It will also make your prose stronger overall.
Zombies made the ice cream. (5 words)
Zombies attacked the people. (4 words)
By the way, you can also test to see if a sentence is active with the same trick. If you ad “by zombies” and it doesn't make sense, then it is probably an active sentence.
Zombies made the ice cream by zombies. (doesn't flow)
Zombies attacked the people by zombies. (nope)
I think teacher Rebecca Johnson is brilliant. I wish more kids had English teachers like this one.
Let's say you're writing a guest post for a popular blog and the blog owner tells you absolutely no more than 800 words (most are flexible, but it does happen). You're at 950 words. There is one final thing you can do to whittle down your work. Read through your article again and circle any sentences that you could remove and still maintain the overall idea of your article. They might be useful tips. You just aren't going to use them for this article.
For example, if I needed to cut this post down to 800 words, I'd probably look at some of the tips and see if any are less useful than others. Those would have to go. I'd look at entire subheadings and see which ones were most vital. If you have to hit a certain word count, you simply have to hit it. That sometimes means making tough decisions and cutting words that you know might help someone. Don't worry though, you can always offer that advice as people comment on your article and want more help.
About Lori Soard
Lori Soard has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 1996. She has a bachelor's in English Education and a PhD in Journalism. Her articles have appeared in newspapers, magazines, online and she's had several books published. Since 1997, she has worked as a web designer and promoter for authors and small businesses. She even worked for a short time ranking websites for a popular search engine and studying in-depth SEO tactics for a number of clients. She enjoys hearing from her readers.