How to reduce word count (or letter count) in a document

A relatively common task assigned to copywriters and editors is reducing word count or letter count. The motivation is usually:

  • aesthetic (making the copy fit on the page more pleasingly);
  • restriction (where certain counts are mandatory or advisory, for example in tweets or meta descriptions, or perhaps to make sure a booklet is exactly 32 pages long);
  • simplicity (where the original is technical and heavy-going, but needs a simpler rendering for a general audience); or
  • for readability (simply shortening rambling text to make it shorter and quicker to read).

Although the reasons for shortening copy might differ, the end product is consistent: to say the say thing with fewer words. Let’s have a look at how to do it.

Techniques for reducing word or letter counts

So you’ve been instructed to reduce the word count or letter count (I’ll just use word count for now, unless it’s specifically letter count). Copywriters are quite used to doing this, as we do it to our own work all the time. We’ll create a first draft, then self-edit several times until we are happy with what we see. It’s not always to meet word counts, either – it’s just generally good practice to write less. However, to non-copywriters or editors, it can be a challenge. Assuming you’re given some copy to shorten, here’s how you go about it.

Assess the scale of the reduction

First, absorb the size of the reduction you need to make. If it’s reducing 1000 words to 900, this can usually be done with a bit of editing, but reducing by 50% or more can require more structural changes. For now, just bear that in mind as it’s too soon to make changes.

Give the text a full read

Read the whole thing, whether it’s a book, a brochure or a product description. Without knowing what the whole piece is about, you can’t hope to understand the point of the writing and which parts are important. Parts that might seem trivial early on can end up being key to the conclusion. And conversely, that 300-word description of a background fact could be superfluous to the story and a strong candidate for the chop. You need to understand your subject before you can judge which parts can be removed.

Consult the client/author about important parts

Always have a chat with the client about what the aim of the copy is. It isn’t always obvious to an outsider, and you could end up taking the copy in the wrong direction if you remove emphasis from the wrong parts.

Make several sweeps of the text

For average pieces of content in the 300–1500-word range, go through the copy several times, making small changes each time. If you can take 5% off the length each sweep, you can cut it by more than a fifth after four sweeps. You always see opportunities for reduction that you missed on previous sweeps, and re-treading your path helps you make sense of the text.

Use bullets

If you can use bullet lists and numbered lists to replace sentences, and the format is appropriate, do it. Bullet lists mean you don’t have to bother with grammar as the entries are often single words or phrases. Bullet lists also break up the text and make it more visually interesting, and therefore easier to read.

Do note, however, that if you’re reducing text to squeeze more material onto an area of a physical page or PDF, bullet lists can say less per cm² than a block of text can.

Pleonasms, redundant phrases and tautologies

Because the items in this paragraph’s subheading all mean the same thing, you can get rid of every instance of such redundant copy without harming the meaning. That’s because all the items in the subheading mean the same thing.

Is there a shorter way to say something?

Why say “we’re an engineering company based in Salford” when you can say “we’re a Salford-based engineering company”? Be alert to how changing the word order can take away grammatical necessities that use up valuable characters.

Finally, rewrite it

If, after assessing the scale of the task and reading through it, you conclude that it can’t be shortened, it will need to be re-written. Think of a better way to say what’s being said, work out how you can get to the end more efficiently, and create a brand new draft. It’s often quicker to do that anyway, especially with shorter texts. A copywriter or editor will be able to do it, too …

How to reduce word count in a document

The role of typesetting

Good typesetters know plenty of tricks to reduce the physical size of a block of text without making it less readable. They can subtly change letter-spacing, leading, font sizes and kerning to achieve text blocks that are identical to the layperson, but which can save valuable space on the page. If your word reduction is for visual reasons and the required reduction is relatively small, ask yourself if there’s anything typographical you can do with it.

Image: Mark Tegethoff