Once you’ve got a fiction or nonfiction piece ready for prime-time, there may still be a word count limit you have to worry about. It may be a restriction imposed on you by the publisher, or you may want to get your piece as short and concise as possible- not just for simplicity’s sake, but also to reduce its overall file size. A smaller file size means a larger per-sale commission when you sell your work through sites like Amazon.
Reducing words while leaving meaning intact can be a real art form. Here are some tricks that aren’t so much “art” as “stupidly easy wins.” With any luck, they’ll trim your word count and make your prose stronger- and you won’t even break a sweat!
X of the Y -> the Y’s X or Y X
Holy crap, did I just go all math on you? No, I’m just referring to the very common of the structure for indicating possession. Common, but also wordier than necessary. Instead of “The branch of the tree,” for instance, you can say “The tree branch.” Instead of “The edge of the lake,” you can say “The lake’s edge.”
It’s really easy to perform a find operation in your word processor, look for occurrences of of the in the document, and see how many of these conversions make sense to do. Each time, you’re cutting out two words!
Was Xing, Started/Began/Try to X -> Xed
A lot of times, the construction of [subject] + [to be] + [verb]ing does nothing to add meaning to the sentence, and just pads it out unnecessarily. For instance, “I was poring through photo albums on Sunday” can easily become “I pored through photo albums on Sunday.”
Similarly, you don’t always have to announce when someone begins to perform an action. When they begin, they begin; it’s understood. And trying to do something is similarly redundant. Follow Yoda’s advice here: “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Limit how often you use begin to, start to, try to, and similar constructions. When you eliminate these wishy-washy phrasings, your prose gets stronger and shorter.
Oh- but if you do use “try?” It’s always try to. There is no try “and.”
Not X -> UnX
If you can sub in un- instead of not, that gets rid of a word. “Not happy” to “unhappy,” for instance.
I discussed this recently, but simply axing unnecessary adverbs does a lot to lower word count and strengthen sentences. You’ll reap big wins for eliminating adverbs like really, quite, almost, somewhat, mostly, truly, very, etc.
Sometimes, a simple delete will do. Other times, you may want to look for a stronger verb or adjective to get the job done. For instance, you may change “very cold” to “frigid.”
Be on the lookout for phrases that can be eliminated simply by using an equivalent, but shorter verb. For instance, “I turned to him” can become “I faced him.” Or “We got up to the counter” can become “We reached the counter.”
Unnecessary lead-in expressions
I don’t have a good name for these, but any time you start a sentence like “It’s a fact that…” or “I strongly believe that…” just cut that phrase out entirely. These words add nothing to the point you’re trying to make.
There are a few cases where you can remove the word that and reduce your word count. If you can take that out and the sentence still makes sense, then do so. An example would be “He realized that he needed to do it.” This can easily become “He realized he needed to do it.”
Another example is “that” followed by a verb of some form. “The hands that restrained him,” for instance. You can take out that and tweak the verb to get “The hands restraining him,” which is shorter. Shorter still would be “The restraining hands,” but this construction may or may not make sense in context.
That’s it for now! When reducing word count, do be careful to preserve the meaning of your sentences. It’s easy to get so caught up in the number game that your prose suffers for it. When in doubt, err toward being CLEAR rather than CLEVER.
If you have any other dead-simple word count tricks, rattle ’em off in the comments below!