Editing it down

Your writing would be better if it were shorter.

In my survey of business writers, the top complaint about what they read is that it’s too long. The top complaint about what they write is also that it is too long. We know we have a wordiness problem.

But how do you edit things down?

When my coauthor Ted Schadler and I turned in our 72,000-word manuscript for the book Empowered, the editor had only one suggestion: cut 10,000 words.

Cut 10,000 words? How in hell do you do that? And she had no advice on which words to cut — she just wanted it to be shorter.

We did it. And the book was better for it.

Here’s how you should edit things down.

Cut peripheral sections

Ted had included a section in the manuscript that I wasn’t fond of. It was there to reveal the results of his latest research, but I thought it was off topic. I had left it in the manuscript we turned in, because I didn’t object strongly enough to insist on removing it.

But now we had to cut things. And he readily agreed that the somewhat extraneous section was the simplest thing to remove. It wasn’t intimately connected to the rest of the book, so the surgery was easy. That removed 2,000 words right there.

You might think that was self-serving on my part. Bit we cut plenty of my sections, too. We cut the parts we could live without.

Fiction experts including Stephen King have said you must kill your darlings — get rid of the scenes and characters that you love, but don’t move the plot forward. The same applies to nonfiction. If you’ve got an extra section bolted on just because you like it, but it’s not moving the idea forward, scrap it.

Root out redundancy

Do you find yourself saying the same thing in multiple places? That’s not just extra verbiage, it’s taxing the reader.

Repeated text tends to indicate a theme that you use to justify things. Explain the theme once, preferably the first time you need to use it. Then refer back to it in as minimal way as possible in other places. There’s no need to repeatedly hit the reader over the head with it.

Sometimes redundancy indicates a structural problem. You’re making the same point in multiple places because you’re not sure where it belongs. Collect all those arguments into one place, even if it requires rethinking your book’s structure. The result will be simpler and more persuasive, because you’ll concentrate the reader’s attention, rather than attenuating it. (Here’s one quick way to redo your structure.)

Scale back or delete openings and transitions

Transitional text should be as short as possible. Sometimes it’s as simple as “That’s one way to do xxxx. Another powerful technique is yyyy.”

If you’re looking for text to cut, start with transitions — cuts there rarely impact your credibility or readability.

Also scrutinize openers of chapters. I love starting a chapter with a story — it plunges the reader directly into the action. If you’ve started with some sort of argumentation instead, what would you lose if you cut it? Often, the answer is, “nothing,” since you probably make the same case after the opening story anyway.

Writers often have trouble getting started. The result is chapters that begin with “vamping” — warmup text that isn’t really helping. Try cutting opening paragraphs that you wrote to warm up; often, you’ll find you didn’t need them.

Make wordy sentences more direct

Much of the editing I do consists of deleting extraneous words to make sentences shorter. It’s time-consuming, but it saves lots of text and tightens prose considerably.

Here’s an example. One manuscript I edited included these paragraphs:

Channel data partnerships have been around in the financial services and the marketing industry for decades. Every Bloomberg terminal or Thomson Reuters platform is a descendent from a long line of data systems designed to gather significant market and financial data and deliver it through a channel platform and reseller arrangement. The concept of selling data in large quantities or for very specific purposes is well worn territory but continues to evolve at an unbelievable pace. This is also an area where significant new legislative and regulatory oversight is changing the traditional models because any transmission of significant amounts of data can naturally trigger security and oversight concerns.

Channel data partnerships are highly commercial-focused, and they seek to enable data distribution across either distributed platforms, distributed sales teams, or both. While every data broker or reseller will have their own contracts and partnership agreements, we’ve pulled together the vast majority of common issues and terms to help you cut through to what is most important. Remember, because a channel data partnership is partially a data partnership and partially a revenue-generating agreement, both sides of the equation need to be thoroughly understood to protect your data assets and your company reputation.

That’s 200 words. They are leading up to something important; this passage needs to be there. But there are more words than there need to be. Here’s my edited version:

Channel data partnerships have been around in the financial services and the marketing industry for decades. Every Bloomberg terminal or Thomson Reuters platform is a descendent of a long line of data systems designed to gather market and financial data and deliver it through a channel platform and reseller arrangement. The concept of selling data in large quantities or for specific purposes continues to evolve rapidly. And because any transmission of significant amounts of data triggers security and oversight concerns, these types of partnerships are challenging regulators as well.

Channel data partnerships enable data distribution across distributed platforms, distributed sales teams, or both. While every data broker or reseller has unique contracts and partnership agreements, we’ve created an overview of their most common and important elements. Because channel data partnerships include both data partnerships and revenue generation, we describe both aspects. This will help you protect your data assets and your company reputation in such partnerships.

My version is 157 words, a 12% reduction. How did I make those cuts? Remove meaningless weasel words. Reduce repetition. Use active verbs to describe what’s happening in simple terms, even if it is complex. Write directly to the reader with “you.” All these techniques transform the text into a clearer, more direct, less academic, and shorter description of what’s happening and what you need to do.

Shorter is better

After my experience with the editor for Empowered, I’m beginning to wonder if every editor receiving a manuscript should just tell the author “Cut 10,000 words.” The result will almost certainly be an improvement.

When someone forces you to reduce your word count, you eliminate the text that’s not doing the work it should. This allows the remaining text to shine. It’s pruning and weeding that makes your piece stronger.

As with most simple advice, the devil is in the details. But once you learn to edit yourself — to keep your writing as short as possible — your writing will advance to another level. It’s a skill worth mastering.

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  1. Years ago, I was the managing editor for a marketing communications agency. We had prepared a manual for the IT department of a large manufacturing company. At the presentation meeting, the client held up the draft and said “There’s room for more brevity here. We need to add some brevity.”

    The writers, one on each side, jabbed me with their elbows at the same time. What a Gracie Allen/Yogi Berra thing to say! Yet from then on, we used the phrase ourselves. And when someone I respect gave me his book to edit, he asked me to add roughly 10,000 words of brevity. I did. That book averages five stars on Amazon.

  2. It was once a common and necessary skill to be able to cut an article to fit the available space in a paper magazine or newspaper. A good start was to cut every article by half. In recent years, writing and editing for the unconfined web, I have lost much of the rigor that was once required, and which so tightened and improved the work. I do occasionally now go in and really sharpen and crop online pieces, but it is often, alas, an extra effort rather the foundation of good work. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. It’s funny. I had the opposite problem.

    For instance, for an incarnation of my last book, I had to hit a very low word count of 30,000. Once I decided to reframe the book, I added sections that my editor wanted me to remove for the series.

    Brass tacks: When you’re used to parsing it down, there are opportunities to add a little meat.

  4. Do you watch YouTube instruction videos? Why are they so popular when reading, even a wordy text, is so much faster. Or are the text too short? With too little repetition? I get bored with videos within minutes, get to the point is my main thought.

    Slightly related, how culture dependent is it? Working with people of many different cultures I noticed that in some, the exact same sentence is repeated several times in a conversation. Is it just to emphasis, or do they think I don’t get the point (my wrong mimics)?

  5. In addition to the pointers that you offered, you can scrub the text for adverbs, adjectives, and prepositional phrases. Some of them are necessary, but many of them aren’t particularly in technical writing.