Editing Tip: Word Overload

EditingHave you ever read a sentence and thought, “Not much was said; why were there so many words?”

The extra baggage a sentence carries is directly related to the experience a writer has had with editing, whether self-editing or professional editing. Although some writers recognise this word overload soon after they pick up a pen, many of us learn about it through others.

In my teens, I took a creative writing course. That was my first real experience in self-editing and chopping unnecessary words.

At that time, my sentences may have looked like this:

Quite simply, I was telling him about this and that when the alarm sounded.

Oh, my, anyways, he was going on about the food and all that jazz.

Well, we were picking up things and this and that sort of stuff.

These samples may over-simplify the poorly-written sentences, but it is surprising how many new writers add these bold phrases to their work when they begin writing.

Today, I would zap those useless phrases.

I was telling him about the emergency when the alarm sounded.

He complained about the poor quality of the food.

We spent the afternoon buying sleeping bags, a tent and other items we’d need for the camping trip.

I write a weekly genealogy column for several newspapers. The word count must land around 550 words, give or take 20 words. I’ve been writing it for more than ten years, and I’ve trained my brain to know what 550 words look like. Still, sometimes I run overboard and write more than six hundred. The task then is to whittle it down to as close to 550 as I can.

A forty-word span is easy after all these years, so I often sharpen my skill with extra, more precise, writing exercises. For the next six months, I’m writing exactly 300 words twice a week. These are Castle Keepers Vignettes, a moment in time in the life of a character who lives within my fantasy novels.

I can easily reach around 300 words but getting it exact takes a little work.

If you’ve never edited like this before, give it a try. Take a paragraph from your work in progress and reduce it by a certain amount, say five or ten words. You soon learn which words are more important.

Exercise

Take this sentence and rewrite it in the comment section, making it exactly 12 words—it’s currently 20 words. You’re the author, so tweak it whichever way you want, rearrange phrases and delete words, but keep the original meaning. Tomorrow, I’ll post my edit of it. Remember, it is just an exercise for fun.

The thick forest was actually full of fantastical creatures who hid during the day and stalked unsuspecting travellers at night.

UPDATE: As promised, here is my sentence (edited when I wrote this post): The forest creatures hid during the day and stalked travellers at night.

It’s very interesting to see how each of us handled that edit, choosing to keep the words we  thought most important and adding words that would improve it. Thank you for participating.

Editor Diane Tibert

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8 thoughts on “Editing Tip: Word Overload

  1. Dragons hid in the forest during the day, stalking travellers at night.

    Not big on fantastical creatures so dragons is a substitute for whatever you want. I rather like doing this with short stories. In the last few days I’ve cut one by a third – removing one aspect of the story – to make it suitable for a competition the story seems suited to. Agree with you that it’s an excellent strategy for honing in on the important.

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