The 500-Word Diet: How to Trim Your Essay’s Word Count

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When your essay tips the scales over an application’s word limit, these tricks will slim your story to its most essential parts.

 1.     Start every sentence of your draft on a new line.

During my own editing process, I often realize I’ve stuffed a six-sentence paragraph full of clarifications and cluttered phrases and backtracks. I carelessly cram in words instead of composing simple, powerful sentences.

In his book Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg prescribes a diet for these kinds of fatty paragraphs: press the Return key when you reach a period and start each new sentence on a fresh line. It tricks your mind into believing each sentence carries the full weight of a paragraph. It also helps your see your ideas more clearly, so you will repeat and clarify yourself less frequently.

I now write all of my drafts this way – in fact, it’s how I compressed a library of writing manuals into my 60-page college essay guide, The $100,000 Essay. (See what this post looks like using the technique.)

 2.     Identify and eliminate repetition.

Writers sometimes fear their words are too weak, so they repeat ideas and include synonyms in an attempt to avoid ambiguity. But consider this excerpt from a student’s essay about her conversations with local veterans:

There is so much wisdom and insight that gets wasted and thrown away when veterans’ experiences are ignored and forgotten.

The student’s otherwise strong idea is muddied by synonymous words and phrases (in bold). Isn’t something wasted the same as something thrown away in this context? Although the words wisdom and insight have nuanced meanings, does she really need both to make her point?

By selecting the stronger synonyms, the student can slash her word count by 50%:

There is so much wasted wisdom when veterans’ experiences are forgotten.

Pick your most powerful words, and slice out the synonyms.

3.     Ask a reader what is essential – and what isn’t.

Like a comedian and his jokes, you won’t know what material works until you get it in front of an audience. Let someone read your essay and identify where plot points stray from the main idea, which details seem superfluous, and whether the hook and ending are too long to deliver the proper zing.

Choose your reader carefully, though. Parents and close friends may know the story already; you’ll need a fresh audience to identify extraneous material.

(BONUS TIP: Ask your reader what’s missing from the essay, too. Since you already know the story, you may forget the important detail that your whole plot hinges on.)

Photo credit: Mixy Lorenzo, Flickr