Writing Concisely–Tips from an Editor


This post contains excerpts from editor’s comments I made to one of my clients on the importance of writing concisely. I hope you find it helpful.


I have attached a copy of your original manuscript, with words, phrases, and even some paragraphs highlighted that I feel you could withdraw from the manuscript without affecting the meaning. In fact, tightening up your writing will make your themes stronger, improve the flow, and overall create a much better “read.”

One of the signs of a good writer is the ability to make your manuscript as good as you can—and then go through it and ruthlessly remove any and all words that don’t “for sure need to be there.” This is a painful exercise for a writer, but it really does improve one’s writing. Most times, ¼ to ½ of a manuscript can be deleted!

As writers, we love our descriptive words (especially extra adjectives and adverbs), and our “examples” and so on. They sound pretty and we feel they make the writing more pictorial. And we were taught to do that in school! BUT we have to learn what is actually necessary, and what is “frills.” And too often, a lot of our words are frills.

Nowadays, readers are not as willing as they once were to read long, rambling stories and documents. Even a generation or two ago (before the internet) many people were happy to read a 200,000 to 300,000-page novel. But now, it is the 80,000-word novels—and the 50 to 60,000-word novels (and even shorter novellas) which are selling the best. Novels which require a lot of world-building, such as in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, can be up to 110,000 to 120,000 words, but that’s pretty much the limit.

Readers tend to be in a hurry nowadays, and they don’t have such long attention spans. While I’m not convinced this is always a good development, it is the way things are. And actually, in many cases, getting rid of the extras really does improve the writing.

I’ll give you an example. A while back I wrote a “note” on my Facebook page. That note was about 1000 words. Quite a few people “liked” it – but one of my friends pointed out to me that it could be a “fantastic” piece if I tightened it up. She and I sent it back and forth 3 or 4 times, and she kept demanding that I “cut more.” Along the way, I realised I needed to include another important point, which resulted in even more cutting of less important parts from what I’d originally written. In the end, I got it down to 400 words. This made it short enough to be published in the local papers as a “letter to the editor.”

And the thing is—I got amazing responses. People I’d never heard of looked me up in the phone book, and called to say how much they liked it, and how well written it was. This included people like English professors and other highly educated writers and speakers in various fields. It wasn’t just my “friends” liking it—it was people who are highly respected. This was a good lesson to me!

I would suggest you read the article, A Key to Great Writing: Make Every Word Count, by Stephen Wilbers. It is an excellent “how-to” post with many specific tips on writing concisely and effectively, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Questions and Responses: What are your favourite tips for concise writing? Have you had experiences in which you’ve improved a piece of writing by ruthlessly making it more concise? Please share your tips and experiences in the comments. Thank you!

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s