Mary Fletcher
Jun 19 · 8 min read

We’ve all been there.

A student trying to submit a pesky essay

A writer trying to hit that editor’s sweet spot

A nervous speaker trying to make a kick-ass speech

You work your butt off to create something powerful that will leave one heck of an impression, slog over your writing for hours on end before finally sitting back, filled with proud satisfaction only to realise… you’ve gone over the word-count limit.

Damn it.

Do you:

a) Rant and rave about how unfair it all is and then eat that snack that’s been sat in the fridge calling you for the past half-an-hour?

b) Try to convince yourself it won’t matter and no-one will notice (spoiler: yes, it does and yes, they will)

or

c) Stop panicking and settle down with a nice cup of something warm and read this nifty little post.

If you’ve reached this point, I’m guessing you’ve decided on ‘c’ in which case go and grab that drink. Go on, I’ll wait…

Ah, good ol’ word-counts. Love them or hate them they’re something that many of us have to deal with. Who came up with them? Who knows! All we know is that thanks to this fiddly little requirement, many of us can be left banging our head against the keyboard wondering just how to fit these huge ideas of ours into an iddy-biddy limit.

However, there is hope! Here are some tried and tested methods to reducing that word-count and hitting that pesky word-limit without letting your writing suffer.

1. Cut down on unnecessary words
Yes, it sounds obvious, but you’ll be amazed at how much of a difference it makes. Words such as very and really can hog up that precious word-count and take the spot of a word that is more important.

Don’t be afraid to use abbreviations, even in more formal essays. Switching from it is (it’s) and there is (there’s) won’t draw too much attention and will help to give you more wriggle room. Just, don’t take it too far! Uncommon or unnatural abbreviations stand out and you don’t want a reader to dwell on a clumsy word-choice.

Fictiony folk:

Watch out for pointless or awkward adverbs. Try swapping ‘walked quickly’ with ‘hurried’ to give your writing a stronger impact and to cut down on extra words!

2. Does your plot-twist or point add anything?

Essayists and speech writers:
Think about your strongest arguments or the points your want to express the most.

Say you’re writing an essay or making a speech on the benefits of tea over coffee. Your key points may be that people are less likely to have a dependence on it, that there are many herbal varieties that contain no caffeine at all, and that it is used as a social ‘tool’ in many countries. The history of tea and coffee might be a nice bit of information, but it won’t help you push your key points and keep your argument strong. Instead, see if you can weave in smaller, more relevant bits of other information in with your key argument. For example, rather than say:

Tea can be dated back to XXXX where it was created by Mr/ Mrs X and their horse, Jebediah.

Consider using that information to make your point about it being a social ‘tool’ stronger. For example:

Tea has often been a method of communication and social bonding. Since its early days in XXXX, tea has been used across an array of countries to unite people and form new relationships.

Fictiony folk

While we can all enjoy a great plot twist or an added layer to a story, it can take precious attention away from the main conflict. With short stories and flash fiction, these twists can be fatal in eating up precious words and can cause problems with pacing.

Ask yourself, what is the point of your story? Concentrate on conflict, resolution and ending and then work out how to get your character from A to B. Instead of writing a lengthy passage about a character investigating the entire house after hearing a strange sound, write a brief line about them searching the area and then finding out what’s causing the commotion. Alternatively, why not have them be able to immediately locate the source of that odd creaking?

3. Does your description really matter? (Yes, essayists, I mean you too!)

Essayists:

Admittedly, this tip is more for the speakers and the prose-writers but, essayists, you can benefit from this point too.

Think about the introduction of your essay. How quickly do you state the point of your writing and what you will hope to express in it? While there’s nothing wrong with adding a bit of razzmatazz to your writing (especially if it’s on a rather dry subject), your reader will want to know what they will be stepping into sooner rather than later.

Stick to your points, don’t use too much flowery language and provide a knock-out with your mad logic skills rather than how many commas and convoluted sentences it takes to get the essay going.

Fictiony folk and speech writers:

Before people spit out their beverage of choice and say that ‘yes, of course it does!’, let me explain. In any story, whether it be recounting a rather embarrassing night out with the groom or a wicked short story, some description is necessary but how we share descriptions with the reader (or listener) can make a huge impact.

Fictiony Folk:

If you have a 500 word limit, you have not-too-many words in which to set the scene, describe your character and explain the conflict! It can be difficult, yes, but not impossible. Consider this, if we go back to our ‘strange noise in the house’ scenario, what information does the reader need? They must have an idea of what the noise sounds like to understand why it’s a cause for alarm. Is it a bang or a grating sound? A giggle or someone shouting?

When using description, it’s important to describe the area where you want the reader’s attention to be. So, in the house’s case, we want the reader to focus on the sound more than the person investigating. You can build tension by giving some key details about the protagonist (maybe they live alone or are young, perhaps they even have a limp from an old wound which slows them down) but the main focus needs to be on the sound and the reaction to that unseen threat, at least until you solve the mystery.

Integrate descriptive detail in with action, rather than listing characteristics. For example,

Hannah dragged her leg up the stairs, wincing as her knee gave an answering throb. Another thud echoed along the landing. She faltered.
Gives you a detail about Hannah (that she has an injured or weak knee) but doesn’t detract from the threat, whereas,

Hannah winced as her knee gave a painful throb. Beneath her jeans, a scar wrapped around the knee-cap and towards the back of the joint. The physiotherapist had told her it would get better in time but she wasn’t so sure. After all, she remembered that sickening feeling that had come after the boot had connected with her leg and the way the bone had jarred to the side.

Another thud echoed along the landing. She paused.

Draws more attention to Hannah rather than the immediate threat.

Speech writers:

Just like prose-writing, giving a speech is like telling a story, the key is knowing which details to include. If you’re writing a speech for your best friend’s wedding and want to share some hilariously embarrassing tales, you want to get the biggest laugh which means knowing which details add to the punchline.

Say you’re telling a story where your friend fell over drunk and ended up embarrassing himself in front of his future bride/ groom. You need to focus on building up how drunk he was and the awkwardness that came from meeting his future partner. Focus on the ‘plot points’ we discussed earlier, such as how daft he was behaving and just how he fell over. The messy kebab (or drunken food equivalent) he had after will not add to the end of the story unless he convinced his partner to pass along their number or found a way to make things up to them.

Alternatively, if your speech is more serious: focus on getting a more emotional response from your key argument points. If you’re giving a speech about why something needs to change, use your descriptive language to express why there’s an issue and justify your point. Don’t waste your words (or breath) going into a lengthy discussion about what you’ll be talking about. Express your points, say why they matter and deliver a powerful punch to the end of your speech by reiterating why your argument is important.

4. Kill your darlings.

No-one likes this piece of advice. Heck, I don’t like this piece of advice but I’m going to give it anyway because, unfortunately; it works. Kill your darlings.

What does it mean exactly? It means that awesome line you love; that thrilling twist; that clever wordsmithery… yeah, they’ve got to go. We don’t like to admit it but sometimes we know that little gem we love just doesn’t work with the rest of our writing. It hurts, no-one wants to get rid of it, but sometimes, for the good of the piece, it’s got to go.

That’s not to say that you can’t put it to one side and use it for something else. After all, when you mine a diamond, you want to keep it safe and ready for the perfect setting.

5. Have someone else read the piece

Now before you start panicking, I’m not suggesting you rent out a billboard and paste your words on there (well, not unless you want to, in which case you’re a lot braver than me) but asking a trusted friend or family member to read over your words and tell you what feels ‘off’ can help you pinpoint what words need to go. It’s like staring a word-search, sometimes you need someone else to point out the obvious because you’ve been staring at it for too long.

Fair warning, though: make sure you ask someone who is a) supportive of your writing and b) that you are willing to take criticism from. A ‘yes person’, though having good intentions, won’t help to make your writing any better but you don’t want someone who’ll purposely be spiteful for the sake of it. Likewise, you need to be able to take the criticism from the person who reads your work. If it’s constructive, listen to their opinion and consider their words. If you’re not willing to face criticism, you’re going to have a nightmare getting your work past an editor, reader or fidgety audience.

Now, stretch those hands and get back to it! You’ve got some editing to do. I hope these tips and tricks work. Let me know how you get on!

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Mary Fletcher

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Writer, reader and tea-enthusiast. Follow my profile to enjoy content that discusses writing tips and tricks, life-hacks, as well as the odd dash of philosophy.

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