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.