How to reduce the size (word count) of your writing without losing important ideas.

For undergraduate / postgraduate students and writers of all kinds who are producing a thesis, research paper, news article, magazine / journal article, book or other written project to a specified word count or number of pages.

 

 

Scenario: You have produced a 22,000 word article / thesis / essay / report / project. It needs to be 15, 000 maximum, excluding the bibliography and other support pages.

Many writers face this problem - too much writing for the specified size of work they are producing. And what is written is really good stuff: Looking at the 22,000 words makes the writer proud of the depth of research, clarity of the writing, and how well the whole document is organized, leading to a stunning conclusion. Unfortunately, we are not all authors of Harry Potter books, which are 600 page tomes that the reading audience eagerly soaks up. Or Stanley Kubricks who can produce a 2 hour 19 minute "2001: A Space Odyssey" - long by modern standards - which ends up as an all-time theatrical classic.

Sometimes we have to cut down our writing into a smaller word count, page size or time length (script, for example)

There are two big problems that are faced when cutting down writing:

1. The writer has done a fantastic job and is proud of the writing as an integrated whole. Why is this a problem? Because the document is a piece of art (as all writing should be) and the writer is attached to the work - she is proud of it (and rightfully so).

"Hang on, you just noted that writing as art and pride in one's work are good things! How can they be problems?"

They aren't - from the writer's point of view or from the reader's. But from the publisher and / or initiator of the work's point of view, the writing is too long to fit whatever format or specification it is going into. The problem lies in that the publisher / initiator needs to fit a longer document into some form of a publishable "package" that only allows a certain size - word count and/or number of pages. Or the initiator wants the author to specifically learn how to produce a smaller, tighter document that is fully integrated still and leads clearly to a stunning conclusion. And the writer is at odds with this as she sees the work as an integrated piece.

2. The second problem is one of distance - being able to view one's work from a third-person point of view. This is a valuable skill that is related to self-awareness and awareness of the other viewpoints in general.

Writing is a process - a river of flowing thoughts and ideas that the writer immerses herself into for hours at a time over many weeks or months, producing a creation from the water itself - a boat constructed from the elements of the river itself.

At critical points, however, it is necessary for a writer to climb out of the river and see where it has flowed from and where it is heading. And to see if the vehicle she is in is to big or small to handle the upcoming rapids. Or if the boat is tall enough to withstand the waves. Or if it is strong enough to hold her and other ideas it is carrying.

In summary, to see the proverbial shape of the forest after spending a lot of time in amongst the trees.

Being able to step back from a written piece of work is hard to do.

A three-step process for cutting down the size of written work:

Both of these problems are difficult to solve. This three-step process can help writers achieve a reduction with a little less pain:

Step 1: Analyze the whole document to see what parts are largest and which are the most important.

Step 2: Target the larger and least important parts for specific size reductions.

Step 3: Adjust your mind to a critical mode that steps back from each section or paragraph of writing to see the purpose of it and decide if that purpose is necessary.

Step 1: Analyzing a document

Here is a sample table used with one thesis writer to see what parts of her thesis could be targeted for reduction:

Section
Size - # of Pages (Pages in this case - but can be word count)
Size - % of whole work
Rank - Importance
Reduction decisions
Intro - general
4
5%
4
 
Intro - topic specific
38
46%
2
 
Methodology
2
2%
5
 
Analysis
32
39%
1
 
Conclusions
4
5%
3
Personal reflection
2
2%
6
Total:
82
~ 100%

From this table you can see that there were some painful decisions made, even though the process looks quite analytical. In particular, the ranking was hard to do.

Such an analysis may seem clear and something you can do in your mind, but putting it on paper in a tabular format such as the format above is extremely useful for helping you step back from your work - creating distance between you and it so you can take a third-person look at your own work.

Step 2: Target the larger and least important parts for specific size reductions.

Section
Size - # of Pages (Pages in this case - but can be word count)
Size - % of whole work
Rank - Importance
Reduction decisions
Intro - general
4
5%
4
500 word reduction
Intro - topic specific
38
46%
2
5000 word reduction
Methodology
2
2%
5
Analysis
32
39%
1
1500 word reduction
Conclusions
4
5%
3
Personal reflection
2
2%
6
Total:
82
~ 100%

More tough decisions. Now the writer needs to compare the rank to the size of each part. In this case, the smaller section were really too small to make major cuts, leading the writer to look at the two biggest sections for places to make the big cuts. The comparison led to a decision to target the "intro - topic specific" section for the biggest reduction in word count. The most important section - "Analysis" was targeted for a much lesser cut due to the premier importance.

Again, stepping rigidly through this process is useful for building a separation or distance from the emotional attachment and immersion of the writer's mind into the writing.

Step 3: Adjust your mind to a critical mode

A not-so-fictional interaction between a thesis advisor and a thesis author:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thesis advisor:

"What is purpose of the 'Intro - topic specific' section"

Thesis author:

"So that the reader can understand the evolution of _____ historically (the topic) "

Thesis advisor:

"How does what you have said support your core thesis objective?"

Thesis author:

"It doesn't really - it is too general. Here is a more focused purpose:

'My judgments about what is important in the history of ____ as it applies to my thesis objective"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The difference is vast: From a general, nebulous idea that leads to descriptive, fleshed-out writing about the history of her topic, the author moves to a very focused ("judgments", "what is important", "as it applies") statement and hopefully, frame of mind.

Keep such focused purpose statements in the top of your mind as you go about editing your work. Look at each section or paragraph and ask yourself:

"How does this section / paragraph fit with my focused purpose statement - what I am trying to achieve with this part of my work?"

Such a critical viewpoint will highlight the sections that can clearly be cut or summarized. Often times 2, 3, 4 or more pages of a long descriptive work can be summarized into one paragraph - or deleted all-together.

Summary:

This is a painful process that requires focus and possibly even a few tears. Separating emotionally from a work in order to look at it critically in order to fit it to a certain specification is hard work.

One final suggestion:

Keep a copy of the full, uncut version of your document in a safe place! Here are some reasons why:

  • Keeping an "original" version will make it easier to adapt a "copy" for submission purposes. Emotionally invest in the full version you have safely backed up as an original. Then hack away at the copy. Much easier to do emotionally.
  • The original can be mined later for material for a journal article, consulting report or other use.
  • The original can often be easily bulked up into a manuscript for a book or script for a play.
  • The original can be used as the foundation for further research or extension of an idea, theme, setting, or world. Tolkien created much supplementary writing about the past of middle earth in his Lord of the Rings series, for example. These supplements were later published separately in a book called "Silmarillion". Indeed, the book "The Hobbit" is really a pre-cursor extra document, as well.

The article © 2005-6 by Paul Kurucz. Please e-mail with your thoughts so that this document can be improved. This document or any information on it may be quoted or reprinted for non-commercial use. However, please reference this site and recognize Paul Kurucz as the author of anything you copy from here. Thank you.

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