E = Exact Word Count (Feb 6)

It pays to be precise, whether in archery or editing. // Shutterstock

We tend to write long. We have things we want to say, and we grow attached to them, either for their power as argument, for their novelty, or because they sound nice.

But that is pride. Your pride is not serving the reader. So counteract your pride – which is not altogether a bad thing, it shows you care – with the discipline of an exact word count.

Sticking to a word count forces you to be your own editor. It compels you to cast a critical eye on your work. It reveals tendencies in your writing, such as pet words and constructions, that are holding you back.

Here is an exercise in exact word count. The following extract is from an article in Foreign Policy on Nikki Haley resigning as US ambassador to the UN in October 2018:

Haley rose to prominence against the backdrop of a nearly constant state of chaos during Trump’s first year in office: Top White House aides rose and fell with the whims of the president, entered office, and were sacked. The National Security Council fell into dysfunction as Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI. The State Department languished under Rex Tillerson, whose tenure was marked by low morale and dozens of senior posts sitting empty for months on end, while the secretary of state himself shied away from the spotlight.

The extract is 99 words long. How might we shorten it, say to an exact count of 75 words?

The key is to tighten the writing without altering the meaning. A few trims are easy: state of chaos can become chaos; “entered office” seems out of place and can be dropped; and the Tillerson part can be recast to lose “whose tenure was marked by” — we don’t need that clause, as it’s obvious from context that the writer is talking about Tillerson’s tenure. These changes get us down to 83 words:

Haley rose to prominence against the backdrop of the near constant chaos of Trump’s first year in office: Top aides rose and fell with the whims of the president, and many were sacked. The National Security Council fell into dysfunction as Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI. The State Department languished under Rex Tillerson, with morale low and dozens of senior posts sitting empty for months, while Tillerson himself avoided the spotlight.

Okay, that was not really arduous. But can we trim it to all the way to 75? That’s more of a challenge. Try it yourself before peeking below.

[C’mon, try.]

Here’s a stab at it, in which “against the backdrop of” becomes “amid”; sacked is integrated into the clause with rose and fell; and we don’t need the himself after Tillerson:

Haley rose to prominence amid the chaos of Trump’s first year in office: Top aides rose, fell and were sacked with the whims of the president. The National Security Council fell into dysfunction as Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI. The State Department languished under Rex Tillerson, with morale low and dozens of senior posts sitting empty for months while Tillerson avoided the spotlight.

But remember, cutting is not always and endlessly good. Respect the words even as you remove the excess.

LEARN: Go to Marie Kondo’s “About” page and read her rules for tidying up. Ask yourself which ones are also useful as principles of writing and editing.

USE: Take a sample of your writing and trim it by 10 to 15 per cent to an exact word count.

Published by robanderik

We are long-time writers and editors, now living in the Middle East. Our idea is to create a series of tips to help others improve their writing and editing skills. Think of it as a lesson plan for ESL learners that combines the practical with the aspirational.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: