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Cut It Down: A Practical Guide to Economical Writing

December 3, 2014

by: Bailey Faulkner

Unfortunately (or extremely fortunately), it’s getting very close to the end of the semester, and the papers and other writing assignments are really starting to pile up. Many students are assigned end of the semester portfolios—compilations of all the writing completed during the semester in a highly edited form. At the beginning of the semester, you may have been thinking: “I can’t believe that I’m going to have to write so much! There’s no way I can write all of that!” For many of us, it turns out that having to write this much isn’t the hard part.

So, what is the hard part? Having to write very little. Yep, just when you thought things couldn’t get more difficult, your professor just told you that you need to cut down each of your papers to a 1,000 word maximum. When looking back at your papers, you notice that none of them are close to that limit. If you’re like me, then a paper might be twice as long as the professor wants. The question is: how can I cut down on the length of my paper without leaving out anything important?monk-big-book

This is when I can step in and help. As I’ve mentioned before, overwriting is one of my worst problems in writing. Ironically, my last name is Faulkner, too, so I may have been doomed from the start (if you’ve never read any William Faulkner, then just look at a random page in one of his books, and I bet you’ll find a single sentence that takes up the majority of a page). Now that I’ve written this rather lengthy introduction, let’s take a look at some of the most useful techniques for making writing more concise.

Here are ten individual strategies for cutting wordiness:

  1. Eliminate redundant pairs
    • Choose to omit one of the words in pairs like “each and every” or “first and foremost” since they have very similar meanings
  2. Delete unnecessary qualifiers
    • Some qualifiers aren’t necessary to convey a specific meaning, like when using “really, basically, actually, or extremely” as descriptors
    • For example: Since Shakespeare had no other job, he wrote basically to get money.
  3. Identify and reduce prepositional phrases
    • Some sentences such as “I went to the room on the fourth floor in Sanford Hall that is the office of the anthropology professor that I am taking to find out my test grade” are very wordy and can be reduced in length
      • Revision: I went to my anthropology professor’s office on Sanford Hall’s fourth floor to find out my test grade.
  4. Locate and delete unnecessary modifiers
    • Some words have implied meanings and should not be modifiedThis avoids redundancy
    • For example: Don’t try to predict in advance the results before the election is completely finished.
  5. Replace a phrase with a word
    • Many phrases can be replaced by one word that has the same meaning
    • For example: Due to the fact that the semester is almost over, buckling down cannot be avoided.
      • Revision: Because the semester is almost over, I must buckle down.
  6. Identify negatives and change them to affirmatives
    • Using the negative form requires the use of an additional word
    • For example: If you do not have your paper with you, do not come to class.
      • Revision: Having your paper is required for attendance.
  7. Switching from passive to active voice can help cut down wordiness, as well
    • Passive voice: The work done by the students of the professor was excellent.
    • Active voice: The professor’s students did excellent work.
  8. Replace several vague words with more powerful and specific words

    • For example: I could not be certain of the fact that I failed the test.

      • Revision: I could not confirm that I failed the test.
  9. Interrogate every word in a sentence

    • Check to see that every word in a sentence is serving a necessary function
    • For example: The professor attempted to use some different and unique teaching techniques.
      • Revision: The professor attempted to use varying teaching techniques.
  10. Combine sentences

    • For example: The English classes at Appalachian State University are interesting. They cover many topics and literary periods.
      • Revision: The English classes at Appalachian State University are interesting because they cover many topics and literary periods. OR Covering many topics and literary periods, the English classes at Appalachian State University are interesting.

By following these easy steps, you can successfully cut down a paper’s length. These skills come in handy especially when the semester comes to an end. While most of these strategies may only remove a few words per sentence, using them throughout a paper can significantly reduce overall length and improve clarity. These strategies provide writers with the tools necessary to cut the length of a paper without losing any important ideas or concepts.

So, if you’re one of those writers that go overboard with length (just like me) these hints are for you. These tips give you an idea of how to cut the length of your paper one sentence at a time. Just as it seemed that you’d have to cut a really important body paragraph out of your paper, you now know some strategies that will let you keep all of the important parts of your paper. Since I’m quickly approaching the 1,000 word mark for this post, I think I’ll wrap it up. Good luck and have fun writing concisely!

Works Cited:

“Writing Concisely.” The Writing Center. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2014. Web. 16 November 2014

“Conciseness.” The Purdue OWL Family of Sites. The Writing Lab and OWL at Purdue and Purdue U, 2008. Web. 16 November 2014

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