How to reduce word count

How to reduce word count

Excellent writing demands excellent editing. Here are some personal copywriting suggestions. What have I missed?

I’m a student of David Ogilvy. The founder of the eponymous agency Ogilvy & Mather is one of the sharpest copywriters of our time. He died in 1999.

In Ogilvy on Advertising first published in 1983 he imparts writing wisdom from his career.

“Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. […] If your writing is important get someone to review and edit it,” said Ogilvy.

Editing is a dying skill

Editing and sub-editing have been a casualty of the shift from print to online. There’s no limit to word count and writers can publish direct to the internet. Standards have fallen.

Steve Earl and I had a long-time editing partnership through our agencies and various books.

Sarah Waddington and I swap work. It pushes us both to improve and learn. It provides us both with support and confidence.

In my spare time I’m in the middle of a massive editing project for an academic book. It involves reviewing more than 300,000 words from around 50 contributors.

The goal is to edit each contribution into a house style for the book while preserving personality. It’s a tough gig.

Word count reduction

The role of an editor is to sharpen up copy by applying a series of rules. These include good English, the house style of the publication and a subjective opinion.

There are some solid basics that can apply to any piece of written work. Here are some editing tips that I’d recommend to any writer to communicate clearly.

a total of seven > seven

able to > can

all of > all

as a means to > to

at a later date > later

at the moment > now

based on the assumption > assume

being seen as > being

both of these > both

clearly evident > clear

daily basis > daily

first of all > first

have to > must

help out > help

in an attempt to > to

in particular > in

it is clear that a > a

lagging behind > lagging

large number > many

main focus > main

more often than not > often

more or less > or

number of > several

period of time > period

refer back > refer

take a look > look

take action > act

take into account > consider

the majority of > most

this is why > therefore

through the use of > using

well aware > aware

whether or not > whether

with this in mind it > it

Some words and phrases can be deleted without altering meaning. These include actually; as a whole; in order; particular; and really. There are plenty more.

A word of warning. It’s hard to take criticism of your written work. It’s natural to have an emotional reaction when it’s critiqued. If you want to learn and develop you need to get over yourself.

Reader’s suggestions

In the spirit of learning if you’ve any additional editing suggestions please add them in the comments or let me know via social media.

Alistair Fox suggested that the introduction to this blog post "don’t use two words or more, when one will do” could be reduced to “use fewer words.” He makes a fair point.

Craig McGill and Giuseppina Valenza dislike the use of “that” to join phrases that would otherwise be better kept separate. It belongs to a class of word called conjunctives that can usually be deleted.

Olivia Lane-Nott called time on superfluous language such as “I am delighted” especially in quotes. People rarely are in my experience.

Midge McCall is a fan of lean writing. She suggests editing “a total of seven” to “seven.” I’ve added it to the list above.

Thank you.

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