cutting it shorter

You’ve been working on a piece. It’s ok, but it’s too long. Here’s a routine to help get it down to size. Cutting is painful, but your piece will be the better for it.

step one: zap the weeds

Quickly check that there are no more obvious cuts, no more low-hanging-weeds that you can easily lop off. As you’ve worked on the piece you have most likely removed sections that seem non-essential. You will probably also have pruned those wasteful phrases that don’t add much: “In the majority of instances”, “in spite of the fact that”, “under the circumstances” and so on. But if you haven’t, do it now.

step two: pause and focus

Clear your head and just think exactly what you want readers to get out of this piece. Be realistic and be precise. People are not really likely to change their thinking or behaviour radically because of what you’ve written. Nor can they absorb more than one or two new ideas, especially if they’re complex. Your piece may include elements for interest or entertainment. But really, what is it aiming to do? Define it in a sentence or two and keep focused on it.

step three: cut sections that aren’t central

Now go through and start deleting whole sentences and paragraphs that are not directly contributing to that focus. Material may be good and interesting, but if it’s not core it has to go.

Eradicate anything else—anecdotes, quotations or illustrations—that is a bit thin or not entirely pulling its weight. Losing weaker material strengthens what remains.

Be ruthless with sections or phrases that you particularly like. It’s very likely that your fondness for them may be clouding your judgement. Yes, you like them. But do they earn their space, given that your readers have plenty of other things to do, and plenty of other things to read?

 

Embolden yourself as you cut by remembering the following.

  • You are writing for the reader, not to please yourself, colleagues, friends, family or management.
  • You do not have to say everything you know on a topic. That’s an absurd aim. Leaving readers wanting to know more is better than wearying them with so much that they lose heart.
  • You can keep what you cut for another piece. You’re not losing anything or wasting time or work. The sections you’ve cut evolved during a necessary part of the writing process. They played their part. Leaving them out makes the piece better.

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