Thursday, October 01, 2009

weekly writing coach: 8 edits for space

I know, I know: You're the writer, and cutting your own work is the last thing you want to think about--literally. That's especially true when you're trying to fit your work into a tight space, from a tweet on Twitter to that one-page-only memo your boss asked for.

If you've done all the other self-edits you should do as you're writing, and fitting the work to the space or the word count is your only remaining challenge, here are some tricks and tips to get your writing into its proper place:
  1. Cut dangling words: Known as "widows" because they're left all alone on a line, these are the easiest cuts to make for writers--you can gain a line by cutting just one word. Typically, that cut will come before the dangling word, in a line above it.
  2. Tighten up your descriptions. How many adjectives or adverbs do you really need? Can you choose one strong descriptor instead of three weak ones? Do those words hold their weight or take up extra space?
  3. Get active: Passive verb constructions take up more space, so move toward active verbs ("I've written" or "I wrote" instead of "I have been writing") and you'll improve your piece as well as shorten it.
  4. Think headlines: Particularly for tweets or short posts, using some tricks of headline style can save lots of space. "Study: Oldest hominid found" beats "Researchers discover oldest known hominid" for space-saving, while getting the essentials across. Using the colon helps you avoid a verb (and a few other words).
  5. Check your reps: If you're repeating phrases, lead-ins, or even key words, look for ways to group them into shorter constructions. Instead of three sentences that say, "I reported to the committe on x," "I wrote up the report," and "I prepared the minutes," get all the relevant points into a single sentence.
  6. Silence some quotes: Writing a longer piece and featuring quotes? Make sure they earn their space by using only quotes that add new information, instead of those that repeat and reinforce what you've said in narration.
  7. Eject your precious jewel. It's always good advice to chuck the portion of your writing you've polished and perfected. That may be what's holding your piece back, and in some cases, it can make shortening the piece even easier. Remember: If your written work doesn't fit in the space intended, no one will get to see what you've been polishing, anyway.
  8. Duck the bullets: Bullet points can be deceiving. They can push you into shorter constructions, but their indents take up precious space. Do eradicate widows from bullet points as well as full-to-the-margin sentences, and apply the same edits above within each bullet and the section of bullets.
This is a great exercise to try when you're tweeting, or on a piece already written and published. Think about what you'd cut on a longer piece if you had to lose one more line, one more paragraph, or one more column. For tweets, what else could you fit in if you cut?

Related posts: How short should your headlines be these days?

Search-engine shorteners for news release headlines

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