When reviewing a text to shorten it beneath a fixed, externally imposed word limit, which strategies are available for shortening the text? What kind of shortening can be expected?

The most obvious is to find passages whose purpose isn't essential, such as discursive explanations. But there are only a limited number of such opportunities for shortening a text.

  • the kind of text (non-fiction, fiction, poetry) in whatever specificity you can provide would be helpful.
    – justkt
    Dec 20, 2010 at 14:18
  • @justkt: Personally, I care about nonfiction, and usually texts of length between 300 and 15 000 words. I do this professionally, though, and I'm asking the question as a service for the site: to that end, I'm interested in fictional work. It had never occurred to me that anyone would want to chop up a piece of poetry to fit a word limit, but I should think that must happen. Dec 20, 2010 at 14:24
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    Honestly, I think this question is too subjective to answer. This is something that's going to be unique to each manuscript and without being able to see the manuscript, we can't give advice on what to cut. Dec 20, 2010 at 14:49
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    @Ralph - I think a list of specific strategies, similar to the question on how to lengthen a chapter yielded some great specific strategies, might be helpful here.
    – justkt
    Dec 20, 2010 at 15:14
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    All answers should be in the form of the above question, shortened to twitter-appropriate length, by way of example. (Nah. Kidding.) Dec 20, 2010 at 17:39

2 Answers 2


For a novel, memoir, or literary essay

  • Compress your description. Take the most pertinent details, the most stand-out images, and use only those. Remove all other description.
  • Consider whether each sentence, each detail, is critical to plot or character development. Make sure each scene or paragraph is advancing your purpose, whether it is a fast-paced plot, a compelling character, proving a thesis, or world-building. If not, cut it entirely.

For poetry:

  • Compress your description. Poetry is the most compressed form of writing. You want each syllable serving a purpose
  • If removing words to fit a form with syllable count, consider entirely restructuring your lines to get your idea across in a more specific way.

For technical writing and scientific publishing:

  • For each section and chapter, ask yourself "does the reader need to know this?" If yes, think about the bare minimum that must be done to prove your point or educate the reader. Trim anything else.

This answer has been marked community wiki to encourage others to add to the list.


Follow these steps: Something different: Help me find the unnecessary words.

They will help you to find unnecessary words/sections and get rid of them. I reduced the word count of my novel by ten percent with these steps.

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