3 Ways to Pare Down Your Prose

by Corina Koch MacLeod
@CKmacleodwriter

Ebooks are wonderful because you don’t have to write them to a prescribed length—you can stop writing when your story is done. This isn’t true for every kind of writing, though. If you’re writing a magazine or journal article, you may find that your writing needs to fit within certain space restrictions.

Recently, a PhD student came to us at Beyond Paper with this very challenge. She needed to pare down her prose. If you’re writing nonfiction—particularly academic nonfiction—here are three editor’s tricks for reducing your word count:

1. Omit needless words and phrases.

Authors often use phrases such as “due to the fact that” or “in order to” like condiments (hey, we all do it). Often, your meaning won’t change if you trim these phrases. For example, “in order to” can become “to.” Refer to this article by Christina Thompson for a list of the worst offenders and some solutions for fixing them.

Authors also pepper their prose with filler words. If you use Microsoft Word or WPS Writer (free), you can run the NeedlessWords macro from Tech Tools for Writers on your writing, and the macro will highlight potentially unnecessary words. This 20-Minute Macro Course will have you up and running with Macros in no time, and this macros for beginners post by Carla Douglas offers suggestions for what to do with those highlighted words. You can try the lyWords macro to delete unnecessary adverbs, too.

If you haven’t pared down your prose significantly by now, read on…

2. Decide if figures and tables are essential.

Our PhD student discovered that some academic journals will count each figure (diagram) as 250 words. It’s tempting to add figures because they’re like pictures, in that they’re tiny oases in the expansive desert of unbroken text. However, if you’re writing to a word count, or you have file size limitations (and you will with ebooks, too), resist decorating your prose with images and figures. If the reader can understand your meaning without a figure, leave it out. If the figure is essential to the text’s meaning, and it adds new information or clarifies a concept, keep it. Use images judiciously, and be sure that you have a good reason to include them.

Here’s another tip…

While writing a first draft, I often insert placeholders for images I think I’ll need. For example:

[Insert image of porcupine walking a tightrope here.]

Later, when I’ve inserted the image, I sometimes find that my explanation preceding the image can be pared down as the image, in many ways, speaks for itself. Images, with the addition of well-chosen captions, often bring their own meaning to the reading experience, so don’t be afraid to trim the lead-in text.

3. Insert a hyperlink.

Does the figure or table live somewhere online? If the figure is a nice-to-have instead of a need-to-have, consider adding a hyperlink in place of the figure. Only do this with nonessential figures, though. You don’t want readers going off-text or off-book in search of an image, figure, or table that is necessary for understanding the text.

There are many more ways to pare down text, but these three ways will have your manuscript looking trim in no time.

Image by Zechariah Judy

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