Editing for a Small Word Count

A friend asked me to edit a 200-word letter that was going to be published. The max allowed was 100 words. Yikes! This was even more difficult because the letter reflected a family’s congratulations to their graduating student. Who wants to cut a family’s words chosen carefully for their loved one?

Is it possible to cut from 200 words to 100 and be coherent? Yes. Does it have the same “sound” as the original letter? Sort of, but not entirely. Short is short. A letter of 100 words doesn’t allow the same degree of personality as a 200-word letter. It’s not ideal. (It made me sad.)

But it’s doable. The person who will read it doesn’t know what she missed. So it won’t be sad for the loved one. Just sad for those who have to watch their sentiments be cut in half. And sad for you, the editor, who doesn’t want to cut their words.

If you find yourself faced with a challenge like this, here are several steps you can take – some easier, some painful.

(1) First, get rid of expendable words – adverbs, and “that.” This will take out a good chunk and bring the word count way down. Then you’ll see what you’re really dealing with. In my example, this step reduced the word count from 200 to 175. That’s where the serious editing begins.

(2) The next step is to consolidate. Do you see places where you can remove “and” or “then” and use a comma or semi-colon instead?

Do two words mean the same thing? Can you choose one without losing the sentiment? Can you find a different word that covers both? Sometimes changing the order of phrases in a sentence can help reduce repetition. Keep a lookout also for a sentence that elaborates unnecessarily on a previous sentence.

Are there phrases that can be condensed? Some prepositional phrases have extra words that sound wonderful, but the same meaning can be captured with one or two words – an adjective with a noun, or a stronger noun by itself.

Be careful here not to lose the voice and the meaning intended by the person who wrote the piece. Choose what would have sounded natural to the writer. If several lengthy phrases capture the writer’s voice and style, maybe condense a few and leave one intact. It’s worth leaving in a few extra words to maintain the original flavor. Pick your spots throughout the piece to keep that flow. Make harder sacrifices in other places.

Editing is painstaking work because you can’t just do it your way and you can’t just cut to cut. You have to honor and maintain the writer’s voice. Sometimes that means keeping an extra word or two and finding some other way to shorten the piece. Don’t take shortcuts. Honor your writer.

Here’s a way to stretch this stage a bit more – are there two phrases that say essentially the same thing? Can they be combined, or can one phrase speak for the other? Again, keep your ear attuned to the writer’s voice and sentiment. But if you can consolidate two (or more) phrases into one, your word count will plummet.

The more choices you make at these early stages, the fewer difficult choices you will have to make later. For my project, this step brought the word count from 175 to 145.

(3) After this, it gets harder. You’ll have to make some tradeoffs. Remember the principle of “show, don’t tell”? Which sentences are “showing” and which are “telling”? Which sentences are working the hardest to express what the writer wants to say? Can you expand them slightly to capture or express the idea from a weaker sentence?

Make the strongest sentences do the work, and find one or two weaker sentences to eliminate – carefully, lovingly. Don’t rush this stage. These are hard cuts. Treat them as such. Value and savor each word until you know for sure that one can take the weight of the other. I went through this step twice, bringing the word count from 145 to 122.

(4) It’s tough when you have made every change you think you can make, and you are still 22 words over. At this point, you have to make hard decisions. You have to remove a sentence or two, or maybe a few words from a few phrases. This part is tough because instead of cleaning up and consolidating, you are taking away some of the core content.

Until now, you have kept the writer in mind, trying to preserve his or her voice and sentiments as much as possible. From this point on, you will need to focus on the reader, the recipient.

Which parts will deliver, to the reader or recipient, the strongest impact of the original piece? Is there a sentence or two you can remove and keep that impact? Does the piece include a phrase that the reader will assume, without having to read it?

Hopefully that is where you will make your final cuts. It wasn’t the case for me. This stage got me to 107 words. Close, but not quite.

(5) In this next (and hopefully final) stage of editing, read through the piece several times again. Focus on the heart of the message. Which words can you sacrifice and still keep that heart? This got me to 101 words, and then I took one more out. Believe it or not, that last word was the hardest cut of all.

In the end, I was able to deliver a 100-word piece. I wished more space were available. While the piece was still intact and delivered the same message with some of the original writing style, it was like seeing a really short haircut on someone whose hair had just grown into its perfect style.

Imagine my joy and surprise when I learned two days later that the family was given more space for this piece: 175 words! It seemed like a luxury. I went back to the beginning, made the first round of cuts again, and left the rest the way it was. I was thrilled that they got to publish their letter very close to the original.

You may not get that luxury. Just do the best you can with the word count you are given. And know this – the writer will appreciate your efforts. If you give each stage the care it deserves, your final edited piece will have preserved more of the original than the writer thought possible.

Keep in mind that those hard cuts and tradeoffs you made toward the end can still be reclaimed by the writer. So those heavier decisions don’t have to fall entirely on your shoulders. Once you give the writer a version at the final word count, he or she can tweak some more, adding things back in and making different trades.

The key is that you have given your writer something to work with “at word count.” That’s a whole lot easier to tweak than having to work with content twice as long as it’s allowed to be.


Have You Thought about Writing Responsive Readings?

Does your church ever use “responsive readings” in your worship services?

If you’ve grown up in a liturgical tradition, you know immediately what responsive readings are. If you are from a church tradition that doesn’t use much liturgy, you might not be familiar with this.

As a writer, creating responsive readings is one way you can help your church (and others) to increase participation in the worship service.

Regardless of your tradition, responsive readings can be a wonderful way to encourage people to respond to God’s presence and to the scriptures.

Responsive Readings Invite our Response to God

A responsive reading (also known as an antiphonal reading, where two or more voices respond back and forth) involves all the people in the church reading out loud together in response to a scripture or to something a leader says or prays.

Responsive readings mean that each person participates in the worship service and responds to God together. Responding is an important function of worship, and we often miss those opportunities. Worship becomes passive, where we just sit and listen or watch.

With a responsive reading, we all become part of the response to God. Whenever we actively participate in worship and respond to God’s presence, we open our hearts for His response to us.

Different Ways to Experience Responsive Readings

There are many ways to experience responsive readings. Some traditions take a passage of scripture, like a Psalm, and highlight which lines people will read out loud. This is often done where the worship leader reads a line, and then the congregation reads a line, and this goes back and forth.

The responsive readings I enjoy the most are the ones where different sections of the congregation read back and forth to each other. For example, the left side of the sanctuary might read one line out loud, then the middle section reads another, and then the right section reads another. At other times, it might be the men reading one line and then the women reading another.

The responsive reading isn’t just passively done. The congregation actively reads the words to each other, and they really focus on the action of speaking these things out loud in a dialogue. The readings might include a refrain or closing lines that all people read together.

The global church has a rich tradition and history of responsive readings. You might be delighted to find responsive readings that have been used historically in your church tradition. I have also enjoyed in my seminary classes when professors have used responsive readings from many different cultures around the world. A quick search for “responsive readings” on the internet shows many examples to choose from.

Writing Responsive Readings

But that’s just the beginning. As a writer, you can play a role in creating responsive readings that help people become active participants in the worship experience and learn how to respond to God.

Some writers create blogs where they supply responsive readings that anyone can download and use. Or you might simply ask your pastor or worship leader if they would like for you to write a responsive reading for a particular occasion.

An Example of Lenten Encounters

One year during Lent, our pastor was highlighting a different biblical person each week, with the theme of “Lenten Encounters.” We were invited to see ourselves in each part of the biblical story, and also to discover how those biblical persons responded to God.

Our pastor invited our church writing group to create a responsive reading. Using the theme of weekly “encounters,” we added a couplet to the responsive reading every week. The new couplet reminded us of the biblical person we had encountered the previous week.

We started out with our foundational responsive reading, which talked about the encounters we hoped to have during our Lenten season. The second week, we added a couplet about (for example) Peter, who we had encountered the week before. The words of the couplet reminded us of Peter’s particular response to God. The next week, we added (for example) Blind Bartimaeus, who we had encountered the previous week. And so on.

As we moved through the Lenten season, we continued to include the couplets from previous weeks. So we continued to remember and acknowledge what we had discovered with each biblical person. Each week, the responsive reading (which was printed in the bulletin) grew a little longer.

When we reached Palm Sunday, the focus shifted to our own response to God. We added a final couplet looking forward to our ongoing encounters with Christ.

That is just one example. The possibilities are endless. Writing responsive readings is a very creative task for a writer or group of writers who want to help people experience and participate in the worship service in a very unique way.

Do You Feel Called to Write Responsive Readings?

If this is something you feel called to try out, begin with prayer and ask God for His guidance. Then do a simple online search for “responsive readings” and look through the many types of examples. Don’t forget to look for responsive readings that might have been used in earlier times in church history. And look for responsive readings that have been created in cultures around the world that are different from  your own. The global and historical church has such a rich tradition to experience.

Then, with God’s leading, either begin to create responsive readings for your blog, or ask your pastor if your church might be able to use a responsive reading that you or a group of writers in your church would create especially for the church. You can even create these for your own family in worshiping and praying together at home.

In whichever ways you choose to write responsive readings, you will discover that this is an amazing experience. Writing responsive readings will also remind you of your own daily responses to God.

Advent Is a Great Time for Writing Devotionals

The Advent season will be here soon. A wonderful way to celebrate is by writing devotionals. There are so many creative possibilities to explore. You can write Advent devotionals personally, as a family, or as a church.

Personal Devotionals

Advent is a great season for writing creatively and for reflecting on scripture in your writing. You might enjoy writing your own personal devotionals.

You can take a scripture verse and write a devotional for each week of Advent. If you feel like really digging in, you can write a devotional every day. When the season is over, put your devotionals together as a collection and save them to read each day of Advent next year.

You can also write devotionals as Christmas gifts. Pray for a Bible verse that is meaningful to a family member or friend. Then write a devotional with that person in mind. Give it as a gift. You can also write a devotional as a prayer or blessing for their new year.

Family Devotionals

Writing devotionals together as a family can be a wonderful way to celebrate the Advent season.

On one Sunday of Advent, you can spend family time together writing a devotional. Think about which Bible verse you’d like to share with each other and what story you want to tell to illustrate that verse.

Or maybe take each Sunday to work on one part of a devotional that will be ready by Christmas. Then you can read and pray through the finished devotional together on Christmas Day.

To create your family devotionals, you can choose a scripture verse and decide on a theme. Have each person write a paragraph or even a sentence, then piece those together like a beautiful quilt. You can even write the words on pieces of colored paper and glue them on construction paper – and maybe add some artwork.

Or your family can all pitch in with their thoughts, and you can write them down and weave them into a devotional message.

You can also divide up the parts – one person chooses the scripture verse, another person (or two!) tells the story, another writes the prayer, and someone else chooses the closing thought for the day.

Whichever way you choose to write your family devotional, the important thing is to spend time together, reflecting on what it means to each of you that Christ is born.

Church Devotionals

I enjoyed many years of editing church devotional collections. Each year, I offered a workshop to help people learn devotional writing. Then we would choose our theme and scripture verses. Each person at the workshop would write a devotional – sometimes they would take it home to work on it, but they would start it that day at the workshop and we helped each other.

If other individuals or families wanted to write but couldn’t attend the workshop, I would email them a devotional writing guide, let them know what the theme was, and assign them a scripture verse.

Usually we would have an overall Advent theme, and then a more specific theme for each week of the season. We had enough writers that we wrote a devotional for every day of Advent. But if that’s too many, it would be a blessing to write a devotional for every Sunday in Advent.

Then we would create a PDF file and upload it to the church website. We would also print a few booklets for shut-ins and people who didn’t have internet.

When you are preparing a devotional collection for your congregation to use, it’s important to have pastoral oversight and guidance. Sometimes a devotional writer might inadvertently take liberties with scripture. Your pastor can help you find a loving way to edit the message so it lines up with God’s Word.

The devotional for Christmas Day needs to have a joyful impact. Sometimes the pastor might want to write this one. Or whoever writes it, be sure Joy is the theme and that it really takes readers through a celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Wishing you and your family a very creative and blessed Advent season!