Getting over my word-count mania

One of the best writing instructors I ever had gave some advice that, for many years, I took too much to heart. “Wordy,” “repetitive,” “you can reduce this passage by a third”—these were among Mr. C’s most frequent comments in the margins of our English papers. My takeaway: the number one priority in revising your work is to cut out as many words as possible.

To this day, I continue to cut. And even when I’m forced into virtual clear-cutting—say when my first draft is several hundred words over the limit—I’ve generally found what survives to be much improved: denser with active verbs and precise nouns, freer of fillers like “it” and hedges like “seems”.

At the same time, I’ve realized that one can take this too far. Does it really improve things to replace “on top of” with “atop,” or “the fact that X happened” with “that X happened”? Sometimes reducing words reduces accessibility. Mr. C. had noted that “the fact that” is, to use his words, “wordy, repetitive, and often a lie.” But “I enjoyed that the Eagles won the Super Bowl” sounds stilted, and “That the Eagles won the Super Bowl meant I didn’t have to teach yesterday” is just begging for “the fact”!

The fact is… that “the fact that” can greatly enhance readability.

So can fillers like “it.” Compare “that the Eagles won the Super Bowl thrilled the heck out of most of my neighbors” with “it thrilled the heck out of most of my neighbors that the Eagles won the Super Bowl.”

Hedges, too, can be crucial. Even those that seem to add no actual content—like “clearly,” “obviously,” and “apparently”—often hedge the existing content in significant ways. Consider the “obviously” in:

Obviously, the U.S. is not a company, but a similar model can still work.

Without this “obviously”, the writer would appear to think it necessary to tell her readers that the United States isn’t a company. “Obviously,” acknowledging their awareness, allows her to state an obvious premise without insulting anyone’s intelligence.

Or consider the “clear” in this review of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem:

The equivalent of Stephen Dedalus here — Moore’s stand-in — is a painter in her 50s named Alma Warren (her name is a clear play on the author’s)…

“Clear,” besides granting that the Alan Moore/Alma Warren connection may be obvious to the reader, casts the word-play idea as a judgment of the reviewer rather than as an explicit intention of the author.

Finally, consider the “apparently” below (from a recent CBS/San Francisco report on a robbery at a Walnut Creek Tanning Salon):

But apparently that wasn’t enough, because he then demanded that she also give him every bit of loose change in the register.

“Apparently,” too, adds little semantic content. But it distances the writer from the judgment that “that” wasn’t enough, attributing it instead to the robber. The irony that results makes those four extra syllabus totally worthwhile.

3 thoughts on “Getting over my word-count mania

  1. Our 15 year old had an English essay due this week with 2 rules added on: no passive sentences, and extremely limited use of the “to be” verbs. That last one is supposed to force you to write more actively, but had our kid tearing his hair out.


  2. I agree with most of judgements here, but not with your fondness for “the fact that”. Adding “the fact” does not improve readability nor prevent the sentences from sounding stilted. It wasn’t the “fact” that you enjoyed, it was the winning. “I enjoyed the Eagles’ winning of the SuperBowl” is both terser and more accurate (well—not more accurate for me, as I couldn’t care less who won the SuperBowl).


    1. Me neither–I generally don’t care about football or who wins the Super Bowl. I didn’t watch the game at all. It wasn’t the process of winning that I enjoyed, but the fact thereof, which got my home town really excited (whence the big parade on Thursday and all the school closures).

      As with sports, so, too, with prose style: de gustibus non est disputandum. “I enjoyed the Eagles’ winning of the SuperBowl” sounds quite stilted to me! If I had enjoyed the winning process, I would say “I enjoyed watching the Eagles win the Super Bowl.”


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