Whether it’s a letter, essay, short story, or longer pieces, here are some easy ways to make it tighter, snappier, and (if you’re up against a word limit) shorter.
- Go active: change passive voice (“He was hit by a truck”) to active voice (“A truck hit him.”) Watch for sneaky forms of passive by scanning for expressions that combine active and passive verb forms, often with an infinitive in the mix….”was beginning to think/cook/get dressed”. “Began” is the shorter, more active form of the common longer phrase–“She began to cook lunch…” but also realize that 90% of the time you can go straight to the action taking place without specifying that someone “began to” or “started to” do something. Jump right in the middle of it: “The usual omelet–four eggs, diced ham, some shredded cheese–she hoped no one dropped in for lunch; they were out of eggs now…”
- Remove all unnecessary “the”articles. “The” is the definite article; it specifies a particular thing. “She saw the horse in the field eating the grass near the tree,” doesn’t need all three (and maybe not any.) “The” horse specifies a particular horse–if she’s been looking for a lost or stolen horse and spots that particular horse in the field, then “the horse” is correct (and would be clearer as “the missing horse/the stolen horse) and a better verb than “saw” would be “recognized.” But the indefinite article is better if the person seeing doesn’t know that particular horse, field, or tree. “She saw a horse in a field grazing (eating grass) near a tree.”
- Remove most “there is/was/are/were” constructions. In ordinary speech, we readily fall into the passive and unspecific mode of “there is.” “There’s a man on the overpass…there’s a train!…there was an 18-wheeler parked here yesterday…there’s too much divisiveness…there were fish in this stream when I was a boy…” It makes “there” as a specific direction or place opposed to”here” less useful in writing because the common usage carries the meaning of “there is X” into “X exists” rather than a location. Try converting to active (“A man’s standing on the overpass” or “I see a train!” (or in some situations, “Look out! Train!”) or “Yesterday, an 18 wheeler parked here.” or “Too much divisiveness stifles serious discussion” or “Fish lived in this stream when I was a kid.”
- Any place you have more than one modifier, cut one of them. Your strongest words are verbs, then nouns…and modifiers limit them, like loads hung on a camel. Sometimes you need the limit (it matters that your character is riding a bay horse, because you’ve already written that the posse is looking for someone on a red dun.) But sometimes, oftener than you might think, cinema level detail is just distracting. “She pulled on a jacket and ran out of the house” may be all that’s needed…she’s in a hurry, and she’s not thinking of it as “my old jacket in a wool-polyester blend with shiny red buttons and a gray lining…” or “my sister’s hand-me-down jacket with the rip in the pocket.” Not specifying too much can convey her state of mind.
These tips aren’t absolute rules. Passive voice, “the,” “there is…” and multiple modifiers have been used by great writers. But it’s a matter of overall tone, clarity, pace, and–for publishing–the ever-present need to attend to word count. If you have a piece that has a sluggish passage in it, or feels dull or stodgy, or if an editor says they’d buy it if you cut it 10%, these fixes will get the job done. A ten percent cut in word length is easy (for most of us…if you’re the tightest writer in the world, maybe not.) These changes will pull one to four words out of most sentences, and for a thousand word piece that’s going to be at least 100 words gone.