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How to make cuts

James McConnachie

James McConnachie
Image credit: Julia Conway

So you have finished your piece of writing. Congratulations! Except—you haven’t. It’s much too long. This moment can be demoralising, but it needn’t be. There are techniques and approaches that will make the process of cutting words (mostly) painless.

Begin by considering the editorial mindset. Many of us just dive in and start trimming repetition and excess words here and there. Instead, pause and imagine yourself as a tree surgeon viewing a tree. Going straight for individual cuttable words is like climbing to the top of the tree and starting by pruning the tips of the tiniest twigs.

Cut boughs off the tree

No. The first thing to do is assess the whole. Is there a paragraph or section that you could live without? Would lopping it off damage the shape of your work—or might it let in some air and light, and make the architecture of the piece and the line of argument clearer?

Sometimes this kind of cut is a simple excision. One press of a key and a whole paragraph is gone. More often, you will need to replace the passage with a summary line or two to

cover the point and indicate that it could (or will be) investigated elsewhere. For example:

Other ways to support student writing were explored, including academic writing workshops and online writing support; this article focuses on academic writing workshops.

Sometimes, you will find you have padded out a section with extraneous details, when all you need is one key example or case study. Would it be better to pick the best one and add a half-line summarising how the other examples relate to it? For instance:

The switch of battleground at such a late stage is a classic Napoleonic manoeuvre. Napoleon’s strategies in Russia and Spain were different in some respects, but they are not discussed in detail here as his underlying approach was the same.

Cut branches and twigs

Once you have cut the larger boughs, it is time to start looking at a smaller scale. But not too much smaller. Don’t be tempted to start plucking out individual words like a beautician with a pair of tweezers—or, to stick with the arboricultural metaphor, like a gardener with a pair of secateurs. Look first at what can be removed at the level of the sentence, the clause and the phrase.

Look for repetition and redundancy. Take the third sentence in the paragraph above. It would be better if I had chosen to use either the tweezers or the secateurs as an analogy, rather than deciding to deploy both.

The cuts can go further. Read the last sentence of the previous paragraph. It does not need the phrase ‘rather than deciding to deploy both’, which adds nothing.

Now look for cuts that are one step smaller still. Let’s call it the branch and twig level. Search for small adjustments in sentences that will reduce the word count. Sometimes it really is a tweezer job. Instead of ‘It would be better if I had chosen to deploy either the tweezers or the secateurs’, I could cut down the sentence to ‘It would be better to use either tweezers or secateurs’.

The most satisfying and efficient cuts often involve spinning a sentence on its head or simply starting it in a different place. It is extraordinary how small changes in the place or the manner in which a sentence begins – and/or splitting long sentences into more than one sentence – can transform a piece of writing, leaving it far clearer and shorter than it was before you started the editing process. How about this revision? ‘

Starting a sentence in a different place or manner can often make it clearer and shorter, as can splitting up long sentences. Both techniques can transform your work.

The first version of the sentence is almost twice the length of the second. (47 words, compared to 28.) The longer version uses many little words, such as in, which, it, is and was. I call these words ‘flies’, and they are a sign that a bit of writing is rotten. Other classic ‘fly’ words are for, that and of. Try squinting at a piece of writing, so you can see the white spaces between the words. You can almost see the flies gathering around an unwieldy sentence—one that needs the dead twigs to be cut out.

Prune the tips of the twigs

You are now really at the absolutely final stage of cutting down a piece of writing: pruning off the tips of the tiniest little twigs.

Notice, in that last sentence, all the adjectives and adverbs—the little interjections that tells you how the writer feels. ‘Now really at’… ‘absolutely final’ … ‘tiniest little’. If you removed the words in italics, would the meaning be any less clear? Would it be any less emphatic? Arguably, the crisper, shorter version would actually pack more punch.

There goes another classic unnecessary word: ‘actually’. It’s one I tend to overuse. And the more you edit your work, the more you’ll know the traps you habitually fall into. If you want to make an important point, make it plainly and make it briefly. Short sentences feel weighty. They can slow down the experience of reading. They really can. See?

Ultimately, the main point of cutting back a piece of writing isn’t just to make it squeeze beneath the ceiling of an arbitrary word limit. It is to make your work more impactful— more energetic and more persuasive.

11 November 2021

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