10 Ways for Writers and Editors to Trim a Piece without Losing a Shred of Content

Just as your time is valuable, so is your readers’. Who wants to read something longer when they could read something shorter?

In most kinds of writing, the fewer words you use to get your message across, the more impact your writing will have. If you use too many words, your readers will have trouble determining what’s truly important and will start to pay less attention. They’ll start skipping ahead and may miss crucial details and subtle turns of phrase. As a result, sooner or later they’ll wind up confused. If they’re still interested at that point, they may have to go back and reread. If that seems too tedious, they may just give up. To keep readers riveted, look for ways to reduce verbosity.

In “Writing Clearly and Concisely,” The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association says “The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication.” So if you’re a writer, following these tips can help you get into print. If you’re a copy editor who’s been asked to bring down a word count, they can help you please your managing editor while minimizing friction with an author who may be reluctant to make cuts.

steak labeled

(Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Look for places where you can do the following:

1. get rid of “there is”/”there are”*

There are at least 5,000 people who will lose their jobs.

Although there’s nothing grammatically wrong with the sentence above, and it does its intended job, three of these eleven words aren’t pulling any weight. Or you can think of them as the fat on the edge of a steak—you’re just going to leave them on your plate when you consume the meat of the sentence. For a leaner sentence, you can trim “There are” and “who”:

At least 5,000 people will lose their jobs.

This transforms the sentence, at the most basic level, from “There are people” to “People will lose,” making “people” the subject of the sentence and better encapsulating the message.

2. put an adjective directly before the noun it modifies

Instead of saying “He went into the house that was red,” say “He went into the red house.” Instead of saying “I like comedians who are edgy,” say “I like edgy comedians.”

3. delete a relative pronoun + “to be” before a prepositional phrase

Relative pronouns include “who” and “that.” Sticking with the steak analogy:

Fatty: The student who is in the back is named Yvonne.
Lean: The student in the back is named Yvonne.
Fatty: companies that are at the top of their industry
Lean: companies at the top of their industry

4. turn a description into an action

As The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association puts it, “Verbs are vigorous, direct communicators.”

Fatty: He was the leader of a movement.
Lean: He led a movement.

5. get rid of a “filler” word

Do you really need that “really”? Do you actually need that “actually”? Maybe you can omit an “only” or throw out a “the.”

  • Is it really true?
  • Two suspects sat in the back, and the other actually drove the car.
  • If that happens, there are only three things you can do.
  • The people in city hall didn’t like the proposal.

6. replace a wordy phrase

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association gives some great examples of wordy constructions:

  • based on the fact that
  • at the present time
  • for the purpose of

You can and should change these to “because,” “now,” and “for,” respectively.

Words into Type offers many more specific examples of what it calls “circumlocutions” (translation: roundabout ways of speaking). Although many of them seem defensible, the ones I like (to avoid) are:

  • am in possession of (replace with “have”)
  • during the time that (replace with “while”)
  • in this day and age (replace with “today”)
  • in advance of (replace with “before”)

7. simplify a possessive

Don’t use “of the” when you can indicate possession using an apostrophe and s or a possessive pronoun.

Fatty: He found himself in the belly of the whale.
Lean: He found himself in the whale’s belly.
Fatty: To the left of her were three threes, and to the right of her were two.
Lean: To her left were three trees, and to her right were two.

8. omit “to”

Under “Allowable omissions of prepositions,” Words into Type says “The to of an infinitive is often not expressed” and gives the following examples:

  • He doesn’t dare (to) tell his mother.
  • Use of it may help you (to) understand the problems.

For consistency, I like to go farther and eradicate all such “to”s. Otherwise, their use inevitably seems haphazard.

9. change present progressive tense to simple present tense

Similar to turning a description into an action, this lends a more active quality to the writing.

Fatty: Today, most people are living in cities.
Lean: Today, most people live in cities.

You can also change past progressive tense to simple past tense.

Fatty: In the 18th century, most people were living in rural areas.
Lean: In the 18th century, most people lived in rural areas.

10. use the active rather than the passive voice

I saved this for last, because although “Avoid the passive voice” has long been common advice to writers, it’s the least straightforward and the most contentious tip I have for you today. When it works well, it looks like this:

Fatty: When we walked in the door, cups of beer were handed to us by partygoers.
Lean: When we walked in the door, partygoers handed us cups of beer.
Fatty: The entrance is guarded by four soldiers.
Lean: Four soldiers guard the entrance.

In the past few years, some editorial professionals have argued in favor of letting the passive voice stand—for example, in academic journals.

Because the passive voice seems to pervade most kinds of scholarly writing, I can see how academic writers—who are necessarily well read—might think it seems less erudite or even vulgar to change passive voice to active voice. They’re simply accustomed to its use. I can also see how editors—who are often under deadline and trying to keep costs down—might want to look for ways to get by more easily, especially when the subject matter is over their head. For an editor, to widely permit the passive voice means one less potential headache.

The writer of a sentence that uses the passive voice might claim that to employ the active voice would diminish the desired emphasis, that emphasis being conveyed by the word order, as though readers always perceive what comes first as more important. In my experience, a careful rereading of a passage after revising it to use the active voice proves that the “emphasis effect” of the passive voice is negligible and perhaps largely imaginary, whereas the difference in readability is real.

Granted, it can be more difficult to figure out how to use the active voice when sentences are long and dense, unlike the examples above, but with a little effort, you can do it.

Fatty: From the behavior analytic perspective, our behavior is shaped by our interactions with our environment, including of course, other people.
Lean: From the behavior analytic perspective, our interactions with our environment, including of course, other people, shape our behavior.
Fatty: ACT has also been developed in accordance with the same basic insights that are provided by RFT.
Lean: ACT has also been developed in accordance with the same basic insights that RFT provides.

You’ll no doubt encounter places where it seems you can’t change passive voice to active. For example:

Fatty: This concept of “love styles” has been examined from the point of view of attachment theory.

If you’re the writer of this sentence, you surely know by whom the concept of “love styles” has been examined, so you can give this sentence a new subject, but if you’re an editor, you may be at a loss. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can use other information in the sentence to help you determine the rightful subject. (And if you don’t feel comfortable, you can ask the author.)

Lean: Attachment theorists have examined this concept of “love styles.”

Sometimes, the subject you’re looking for may be in a different sentence.

Fatty: A recent study examined the ways in which men and women express love in marriage (Schoenfeld, Bredow, & Huston, 2012). Some of the conventional stereotypes were supported.
Lean: A recent study that examined the ways in which men and women express love in marriage (Schoenfeld, Bredow, & Huston, 2012) supported some conventional stereotypes.

So my advice is to use the active voice wherever feasible, reserving use of the passive voice for cases in which misreading is otherwise likely to occur, as well as cases in which to revise for voice would overly complicate the sentence.

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which is a leading reference in academic publishing, also prescribes the active voice, giving only two examples of when to retain the passive voice “[because] you want to focus on the object or recipient of the action rather than on the actor”:

  • The speakers were attached to either side of the chair.
  • The President was shot.

Note that these sentences contain no mention of the actor. Indeed, the actor would seem to be irrelevant or insignificant. Steven Pinker wrote in the Atlantic that “the passive’s ability to hide the doer…is handy when the doer’s identity is irrelevant.” I wouldn’t say it’s handy, because that makes the passive voice seem like a strategy; I would say instead it’s the natural choice.

As you may have realized, you can recognize the most avoidable instances of the passive voice by their use of “by.” Take, however, the subtitle of a book I’m currently reading, shown below.

black holeIf the cover read:


… then the first five lines might lead you to think that you were reading about an idea that Newtonians abandoned something, Einstein hated something, and Hawking gambled on something… what could it be? You’d then be confused by the last line and have to reread the whole thing to understand it correctly. Better to phrase it unmistakably, even if that makes it a little clunkier. You may disagree, and that’s fine. Neither way is incorrect.

I don’t have a clever ending to this post, so without further ado, here’s the footnote to number 1, “get rid of ‘there is’/’there are.'”

* You can probably do away with many instances of “There are” and “There is,” but don’t go overboard. If there’s no relative pronoun (“that” or “who”) in the sentence, you might want to leave things the way they are. Consider the following:

  • There are thirty days in September.
  • There is a hole in the bucket.
  • There are four locks on the door.

In these instances, “There” is an expletive, and by that I don’t mean a bad word. Words into Type defines an expletive as “A word added, for smoothness or emphasis, to a sentence complete without it.” Although you could change these sentences to “Thirty days are in September,” “A hole is in the bucket,” and “Four locks are on the door,” by doing so you risk sounding like Mother Goose (Thirty days hath September…). You don’t want to be economical to the point of miserliness.

And you wouldn’t want to throw out “there is”/”there are” if it’s important for emphasis. For example, in “There’s nothing you can do about Bill. There is something you can do about Bob,” not only is the phrase “there’s nothing you can do” idiomatic and thus more natural-sounding than “You can do nothing about Bill,” but also the second “there is,” as a parallel to the first, highlights the difference between “something” and “nothing” and would lead most readers to place emphasis on that “is.”

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