Develop the Killing Instinct: Reducing the Word Count — Pamela Mytroen

How does a writer keep to the posted word count without losing all those inspired phrases? And why does it matter?

Editors have reasons for setting a maximum word count. Besides the premium of space in a publication, a stipulated word count attracts and creates writers with clear and effective writing. Slashing words from a manuscript is an exercise all writers should practice because it helps them discover their main idea. Finding that treasure gives them a tool designed to slice and dice until their manuscript is clear and easy to read.

I have discovered that pieces far exceeding the word count are tempting my delete button. Although I love editing, cutting several hundred words while trying to maintain the author’s style requires much thought and time. I have said “No Thank You” to pieces no matter how thoughtful and well-crafted the words are, and how accurate the facts. A generous spirit when it comes to words may be the demise of a brilliant piece.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is quoted as saying, “…. I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” He knew that tight writing takes time and is valuable.

I use two tools to rein my words in, a sword for slashing large amounts of words, and a jack-knife for notching out individual words.

Before making any cuts, though, I write freely on the first draft, ignoring the posted word count. Freedom needs to be present and ideas need to flow.

Sharpen Your Sword – Three ways to use it:

A writer’s sword is their theme, thesis or main idea. This key thought usually emerges about three or four paragraphs into your rough draft. Take this thought and sum it up in one sentence. This is essential. An article or story that cannot be captured in a few words is a sign that the piece is indecisive or too ambitious. Sharpen your sword; it is the tool you will use to slice ruffles and rickrack from your writing.

1). Use your sword (your main idea) to slash anything that does not belong. Rabbit trails, points, quotes, anecdotes and ideas that do not support your main thought must be severed. This sword will enable you to slash several hundred words. The one-sentence summary for this article might be: “Sticking to the word count is essential for clarity and publication.”

2). Use your sword to slash superfluous analogies. At first, I compared the posted word count to those live garden walls from “Alice in Wonderland” that sucked characters in if they got too close. Your writing will end up in cyber-trash unless it maneuvers safely between the garden walls of word count. However, this extra idea only added unnecessary expressions; it had to go. Stick with one analogy throughout and your writing will have more power as well as fewer words.

3). Use your double-edged sword to create composites of similar points in an article or similar characters in a story. If combining like thoughts or character traits does not result in a loss of meaning, then slice them both out and re-write them into one.

Part II of this article will focus on the second tool for cutting out individual words, the Jack-Knife.

It’s your turn. Practise writing tight using these suggestions:

  • Try writing flash fiction. sponsors four contests every year. Word count minimum 300 and maximum 500.


Exec-Pam-Mytroen-2Pamela Mytroen is an “English as an Additional Language Instructor” and “Language Assessor” in Saskatchewan. She loves baking, reading, and spending time with her family, which has grown to include a sweet grandson. She writes for her local newspaper and, as Acquisitions Editor for Fellowscript, she enjoys working with writers to see their ideas in print. She can be contacted at

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