Everything You Need to Know to Cram Lots of Important Information into A Small Word Count
Need to Cram Lots Into A Small Word Count? Read On.
When I appeared as a guest expert on Anthony Fasano’s webinar entitled Writing 101 for Engineers. We covered lots of ground in an hour but when I asked if there were any questions, one of the listeners wrote in asking if I had any tips for packing a lot of information into a small space.
Did I have any tips?
Little did he know he was talking to a writer whose been called wordy, prolific, verbose…I could go on, but I’m trying to make this a five hundred word blog-post.
Kidding aside, it’s a great question–one all writers struggle with at one point or another. As a graduate student in M.A. and Ph.D. programs in English, I was often given assignments that required me to take a subject and write it in a certain number of words and then take the same subject and write it in fewer words.
Expanding and contracting writing is a useful skill I mastered in grad school. But you needn’t have a Masters or PhD in English to pare down your writing. The most valuable lesson I learned was taught to me as an undergraduate.
I was applying to graduate school and, as part of my application, I had to sum-up my whole life story in 500 words. Remember those? I do. And, the memory isn’t a fond one. I had an advantage I didn’t even realize I had. No, it wasn’t my soon to be English degree.
Because I had written so much as an English major…I knew my biggest flaw as a writer: I often wrote too much. Knowledge is power, though, and so, I sought help. I went to the office of my favorite professor and asked if he could help me out.
He brought my essay on his computer, pulled up an extra chair, motioned for me to sit, and said, “Watch this.”
What occurred next was a game-changer for me: Without changing an iota of the meaning I needed to convey, this man picked off words like he was playing Pac-Man. One, two, three, four….fifty…one hundred. I was astounded by how many unnecessary words crept into that piece.
Sometimes he would pause, hone in on a sentence, and wiggle with the order or some such thing but no essential meaning was lost. Editing this way requires getting in a zone where you are not attached to the words you cut. In fact, you “win” when you cut as many words as you can. Truth be told, it’s fun once you get into it.
I shared this story with the caller and also told him not to expect to write the piece in the required number of words on the first go. It just won’t work that way. Instead, write your heart/brains/subject out without constraints psychological or otherwise.
Don’t invest too much time in getting it right. Just, get it out. Then look it over. And start hacking.