Over the limit: 10 ways to cut down your word count 

09/08/2021
Written by Denny

There are different reasons for writing to a word count. Maybe you’re following specific guidelines, or your text is limited by the space on the page, or perhaps you want to keep your reader engaged. Whatever the purpose, deciding what to leave in and – inevitably – what to leave out is never easy. So, without further ado, here are 10 tips for reducing your word count. 

1. Keep it relevant 

Establish your focus and stick with it. Ask yourself whether each paragraph, statement or idea is necessary and delete anything that strays from the main topic. You’ll end up removing good content, but your message will be leaner and stronger. 

2. Review sentence length 

If you’ve eliminated chunks of text but are still over the limit, take a look at your sentences. Can you cut certain words? Or rephrase the sentence completely?

For example:

According to the research, long sentences (such as those over 25 words) are more difficult for readers to understand and as such you should aim to keep your sentences short in order to improve comprehension. (35 words)

Can become:

Research shows that long sentences are harder for readers to understand. Aim to keep sentences under 25 words to improve comprehension. (11 + 10 words)

Phrases like ‘in order to’, ‘as well as’, ‘in addition to’ and ‘as a result of’ are useful, but they’re common culprits when it comes to long sentences. 

If you can cut them out – without disrupting your meaning or flow – then your readers (and word count) will be happy.

3. Remove superfluous words  

Time to think about adverbs and adjectives – and whether to axe them. Both serve a function as modifying words, but aren’t always essential or desirable. 

Scientists [carefully] studied the data and came to the [important] conclusion...

Everyone [unanimously] agreed that it was a [very] successful meeting.

[Basically], If it doesn’t [positively] add to your writing, [then] subtract it. 

4. Use the active voice  

Switching from the passive to active voice often helps you shave off some words:

Passive: The sales target was met by the team. (8 words)

Active: The team met the sales target. (6 words)

Or:

Passive: The blog written by Holly about the passive voice can be read here. (13 words)

Active: Holly wrote a blog about the passive voice. Read it here. (11 words)

5. Beware of repetition 

Are you saying the same thing twice? Perhaps revisiting themes in one document or following a sentence with three others when the original would suffice? 

Reiterating key points can be valuable to your reader, but look out for instances where you might be elaborating to excess. 

Also, keep an eye out for tautologies (e.g. ‘new innovation’ can lose the ‘new’ as it’s already implied in the word innovation) and redundancies (e.g. “The reason I’m writing this is because...” requires either ‘the reason’ or ‘because’ since both convey the same meaning).

6. Abbreviate where appropriate 

Depending on what you’re writing, use contractions to shrink your word count: could not = couldn’t; does not = doesn’t etc. 

This isn’t usually advisable for academic or formal business writing, though – and whatever style you pick, remember to stay consistent. 

Initialisms and acronyms can also save you space. If you’re not sure whether your audience is familiar with the abbreviation, spell it out in the first instance and then use the shortened version for each subsequent use.

7. Read it out loud 

There are certain advantages to reading your writing out loud. Your ears will pick up on things your eyes may have missed. And if you’re gasping for breath mid-sentence, you’ll know where to target your tweaking. 

Obviously, if you want to cut down a speech or presentation, timing yourself is a must. Did you know that the maximum length of a TED talk is 18 minutes? 

8. Change the format

What if you could convert those dense paragraphs into an infographic? Or restructure them into punchy bullet points? Is it possible to include any material in the footnotes or appendix?

A limited word count forces you to reassess your content and look for different (possibly better) ways of communicating the information.

9. Take a break

Yes, editing your own work is an emotional business. It’s hard putting down words in the first place, let alone having to go back and bin them. 

Sometimes a bit of space between you and your work can make all the difference. Move on to another task and come back to it later. 

10. Ask for help 

If you need even more distance, get someone else to read it – whether that’s a friend, colleague or professional editor. An objective pair of eyes will help you to figure out what works – and give you more confidence to part with what doesn’t.

Photo by Andre Taissin on Unsplash

Read more punctuation and grammar tips

Give me a KISS – Keep it short and simple

Can certain constraints benefit our writing?