WordCount – Freelancing in the Digital Age

By Michelle Vranizan Rafter

7 steps to cutting a story that’s too long

with 5 comments

Some stories take on a life of their own and before you know it, a piece that was supposed to be 750 words has grown to 1,000.

Unfortunately, editors are pretty adamant about sticking to assigned word counts. So some trimming is in order. It may be tempting to turn in a too-long article and let your editor deal with the cuts. But would you rather have someone else decide what stays and what goes? I didn’t think so.

The best option is to judiciously pare your own copy before turning it in. Here are my favorite ways to trim a story that’s gotten too long for its own good:

1.  Go through the entire piece paragraph by paragraph. Look for repeats or extraneous words, including adjectives or adverbs that could be sliced without altering the context of a sentence or phrase. A former newspaper assistant business section editor showed me this a long time ago, and I still use it on almost every story I write. Thanks Mike Hewitt!

2. Re-examine every quote. Does the quote advance the story or merely repeat information you’d already included in the text? If it’s the latter, tighten it up or lose it altogether. Quotations are like condiments, a little goes a long way. A piece of 300 to 500 words can get by with one or two and they don’t even have to be that long.

3. Make sure the size of the introduction fits the overall word count of the story. You wouldn’t spend 350 words of a 750 word piece on the lead and nut graph, just as you wouldn’t limit the lead of a 2,500 word feature to a couple of lines. A 500-word Web piece needs a snappy lead that pulls the reader in the story right away.

4. Summarize. Instead of whole paragraphs, use bullets, lists or other space saving devices to pack more punch into your prose without adding to the length.

5. Use sidebars. Did you go off on a tangent somewhere in the middle of the piece? If so, could you move the information into a sidebar? Ask your editor. Sometimes he’ll need an additional visual element for a page anyway and a short sidebar could be just the ticket. Even better, suggest turning the extra material into a chart, graphic or “charticle,” a short chart-like article.

6. Condense descriptions. If you’re writing about a complicated subject and included a couple paragraphs of background information explaining how something works, rework the material into one or two short sentences. Can you leave it out all together?

7. Can’t decide? Give choices. If your 1,500 word piece ends up at 1,700, choose the paragraphs you’re willing to part with. Then indicate them by writing something like OPTIONAL TO TRIM and END OPTIONAL TRIM before and after the graphs. Or set them off in brackets. This gives your editor choices, but then again, he may see your lovely words and decide he wants the whole thing.

Written by Michelle Rafter

September 12, 2008 at 12:20 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Michelle, these are great tips, so thanks for writing this. Also, congrats on making it into the finalists for Top 10 Writing Blogs!

    Susan Johnston

    September 14, 2008 at 7:57 am

  2. Susan, I had no idea I was a finalist until you wrote this, so thanks for the head’s up. Readers, be sure to check out Susan Johnston’s great blog for freelancers called The Urban Muse, which is also a finalist in Writing White Paper’s top 10 writing blogs. Here’s the URL: http://www.urbanmusewriter.com/

    Michelle Rafter

    September 14, 2008 at 2:27 pm

  3. […] 7 steps to cutting a story that’s too long […]

  4. Excellent information! Just one typographical error the anal-retentive editor in me couldn’t help pointing out: under the heading “Re-examine quotes,” when asking if a quote advances the story or just reiterates information, you refer to the “former” needing to be tightened up or omitted. I believe you meant the “latter.” Again, I’m a knit-picky guy… sorry!


    September 18, 2008 at 10:36 am

  5. […] 7 steps to cutting a story that’s too long – Why let someone else hack away when you can easily trim that extra graph or two yourself. […]

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