Reduce Word Count, Increase Quality

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. – William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style

reduce word countThe more words you use in your writing, the more effort it will take to read. Good prose shows respect for readers’ time and brain cells by packing as much juicy goodness into the fewest words possible.

Here are three tips to help you pare your work down:

1. Use Concise Descriptions

When it comes to describing characters and their surroundings, readers don’t need everything spelled out. All you have to do is give them a scaffold on which to hang the appropriate schema, and toss in a detail or two to make the scene come to life. “A drifter” may conjure up a mental image of a man in shabby clothes. In the mind of the reader, he might take on specific colors, and speak in a particular voice. Perhaps he’s in need of a shave, a shower and a haircut. Maybe cigarettes and booze have taken their toll. Unless the specifics are important, though, you don’t need to control them.

Now throw in a detail that an average person probably wouldn’t come up with on her own. Maybe the guy smells like hotdogs, or he’s missing an arm. A drifter who smells like hotdogs will play his part every bit as well as one whose every feature is described in painstaking detail.

For examples of what not to write, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, sponsored by the English Department at San Jose State University, is a literary competition where entrants are asked to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. The best (worst?) entries contain some of the most annoying descriptions you will ever read. Here is the 2012 winner:

As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting. — Cathy Bryant, Manchester, England

2. Don’t Write The Boring Parts

Elmore Leonard famously said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” If you’re finding a scene tedious to write, it will probably be tedious to read. This is your cue to gloss over material that people would be tempted to skim. For instance, if, after plotting a murder your characters conclude their conversation by planning their prosaic contributions to the church potluck, just say so instead of finishing the entire dialogue. Now you can get on with writing the scene where they try to kill someone.

3. Eliminate Useless Words

When it comes time to give your work a final polish, look at each sentence and ask yourself whether it contains words that don’t need to be there. Could something be taken out without changing the meaning of the sentence? If so, delete it. Certain words such as “just” and “anyway” are commonly superfluous, as well as “so,” “very” and “really.” You can also remove dialogue tags when it’s obvious who is speaking even without them. When only two characters are conversing, you can usually go back and forth a few times without having to remind the reader who is speaking.

Tight writing will better hold readers’ interest and keep them turning the pages.