27 June 2018
Trimming your work is an essential skill for every writer. Follow our top tips to get your writing into shape
Learn how to shorten your wordcount and tighten your writing with our quick and simple tips
First drafts are messy. That’s fine – it means you’ve got a first draft to work on. A thorough edit will strengthen your prose and improve your writing. Here are some suggestions to help you trim your work effectively.
1. Get to the point
Do you want readers to follow your storyline, or get lost in the dense thicket of your prose? No matter how carefully crafted, the three paragraphs setting the scene can probably go, and your story will be more powerful because you’ve started with the action.
2. Make everything clear
This works at micro-level as well as macro-level. Does each word mean what you need it to? Does each sentence make sense? Do your paragraphs work together? Clear away everything that diverts the reader from the path you want them to follow through your story.
3. Be direct
Use the active, not the passive voice. An active voice is stronger, cleaner and more economical with words, ie. ‘the author wrote the book’ rather than ‘the book was written by the author’. An active voice performs the action, which is more dramatic than the passive voice, which receives the action. Use the passive voice only when necessary, ie. ‘My house was burgled.’
4. Don’t over-explain
If you spell everything out your writing will feel padded and your reader will get bored. Lay your trail of breadcrumbs carefully, and trust that your reader will be able to follow it without wasting words on blow-by-blow descriptions.
5. Make precise word choices
The hallmark of a good writer is their precise use of vocabulary. This does not mean you should use pretentious words, but the correct one for the job. If you find a word that resembles jargon, or sounds as if you’re showing off, replace it with one that makes the meaning crystal clear. Simple, direct words work best. Make sure every word earns its keep.
6. Cut long sentences in two
Keep your sentences to the point. Don’t make readers scrabble for meaning. If you’ve written a sentence with so many clauses that the reader risks losing the sense of what you want to say, cut it in half and make two sentences. Vary the pace so your writing isn’t predictable – follow a long sentence with a short one.
7. Make verbs do the work
A well-chosen verb will strengthen your writing and make it more specific. Look at the difference between ‘she walked quickly’ and ‘she rushed’, or ‘he entered the room furtively’ and ‘he crept into the room’. Lose an adverb and gain a sense of tension.
8. Cut the waffle
Every word in your writing should earn its place. Get rid of verbiage: piled-up adjectives, ungainly adverbs, unnecessary prepositions, redundant words and phrases. Pare down description. Avoid aggravating colloquialisms – things that sound acceptable in speech rapidly become annoying in writing – the rhetorical ‘so…’ at the beginning of sentences is a case in point.
9. Don’t repeat yourself
Check you haven’t said the same thing in two different ways. Make sure you haven’t overused a particular word or phrase. Are a lot of your sentences similarly constructed? Cut what can be edited out, and amend what needs to stay.
10. It may be cliché but – kill your darlings
Is there a particular sentence, paragraph or entire section of your piece that you feel may be the best thing you’ve ever written? You’re determined that whatever else gets edited out, it won’t – can’t – be that? Look at it with a very beady eye and make sure it’s not self-indulgent, or getting in the way of the flow of your narrative, or simply showing off. If it’s any of these, cut it and see how the story works without it. If you aren’t brave enough to delete it you can always file it to return to later. It’s worth remembering, though, that a good writer should always be able to come up with effective new words.