Tag Archives: unnecessary words

Editing: How to Cut Your Golden Prose

Sometimes it’s necessary to cut your copy. Say you’re entering a contest, but your piece is over the word limit. Or you’re repurposing an article for a different market, which requires a lower word count. What do you do?

You cut, no matter how painful it is. It will still be quicker than writing entirely new copy. And you’ll actually improve your writing as you do it.

I offer a few examples from pieces I’ve had to rework, one about a cat that went from 936 to 586 words; and one on bipolar disorder which needed to get from 1624 words to under 1000.

Here are two techniques for shortening a piece of writing. (Likely they will lead you to some rearrangement as well.)

The Surgical Method 

Clip and snip unnecessary words. Tighten up the writing, which is always a good thing. Say it succinctly.

Take this sentence:

The cat froze, waiting to see what came next.

Now tighten it up:

The cat froze, waiting.

You’ll never miss those extra words. Or how about this:

If she allowed the human a glimpse of her bright eyes and sleek tri-colored fur, she might also listen to the low, comforting sounds that spoke of invitation.

It becomes:

If she allowed the human a glimpse of her bright eyes and sleek fur, she might also listen to the low, comforting sounds of invitation.

Earlier in the piece it was established that the cat was a calico, so “tri-colored” is unnecessary. “That spoke of” may sound nice, but do you need those words? Out they go.

Here’s one rewritten paragraph that saved 20 words:

“Calicos are almost always female. They need two X chromosomes to get that color pattern.” I knew I was being pedantic, but I wanted to keep the conversation out of emotional realms. Our big gray and white cat Django had died not long before, and I wasn’t ready to give my heart to another feline companion.

became:

“Calicos are almost always female.” She wanted to keep the conversation out of emotional realms. The big gray and white cat had died not long before, and she wasn’t ready to give her heart to another.

Admittedly, surgical cuts gain you only a few words. But enough of them can make a difference, especially when combined with the next technique.

The Samurai Method

This involves cutting whole sentences and even whole paragraphs. Look closely at the first and last paragraphs. Is there a punchier beginning a paragraph in? Did you stop when you should have? In this piece on bipolar disorder, I cut three paragraphs at the end. They represented nothing more than fumbling for a pseudo-profound conclusion.

Or take this monster paragraph:

Then I met Kate, who was bipolar – and not well controlled on medication, to say the least. My envy lasted through her ambitious plans to make identical green velvet Christmas dresses for her three daughters. And vanished when I saw her tear them apart, recut them, start over, change her mind multiple times. You can write the ending to this one. There were no dresses, not by Christmas and not ever. Kate was riding the roller coaster – perhaps the most common metaphor for bipolar disorder – the peaks and troughs, swooping crashes, anticipatory climbs, stomach-clenching vertigo, and, for some, an abrupt stop at the end.

And look how much tidier it became:

Then I met Kate, who was bipolar – and not well controlled on medication. Kate was riding the roller coaster – the peaks and troughs, swooping crashes, anticipatory climbs, stomach-clenching vertigo, and, for some, an abrupt stop at the end. With all that, Kate never got anything done.

Yes, I lost a nice anecdote. But was it essential? Not when I had to lose more than 600 words.

This paragraph disappeared entirely:

I had heard how in the 1950s electroshock was used as a way to punish or control unruly, uncooperative, nonconforming women. And of course everyone knew about the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Snake Pit. As far as I was concerned, electroshock was right up (or down) there with icepick lobotomy, the frighteningly efficient epitome of former psychiatric treatments.

It was off the topic.

Here’s another case of too many details:

Those years are mostly a blur to me now. I remember sleeping a lot. I remember sitting on the sofa watching “reality” shows so I could see people whose lives were train wrecks worse than mine. I recall not having the wherewithal to add water and nuke a cup of macaroni and cheese. Not bathing. Not feeding the pets. Not paying bills. Not reading. Not caring.

This is much tighter and just as effective.

Those years are mostly a blur now and were immobilizing then. I remember sleeping a lot. Not bathing. Not eating. Not paying bills. Not reading. Not caring.

 

Cutting your own prose is seldom fun. But sometimes you just have to – and sometimes you even want to. Even famous books could have stood a little trimming. Just read some Victor Hugo or the first chapters of Ivanhoe if you don’t believe me.