Note: We’ve written a new version of this post with six extra tips. Read the new version.
Ever finish a draft of an essay, report, or proposal only to find out that you’re hundreds (or even thousands) of words over your word limit? It happens to the best of us. Instead of breaking out into a happy dance to celebrate the fact that you finally managed to sit still long enough to pull together a full draft, you’re left to figure out how you’re going to drop your word count from 3,765 words to 2,500 words. It’s a frustrating experience that many of us encounter all too often, so we’ve created a list of 10 tips to help you get that word count down.
Tip #1: Remove redundant words
Redundant words are words that repeat information that’s conveyed by other words in a sentence. Because these words don’t add any unique information to a sentence, removing redundant words will shorten your sentences without changing the amount of information expressed in the sentence.
- She prepared a (brief) summary for the project team. (9 words)
She prepared a summary for the project team. (8 words)
- The store is open to the (general) public. (8 words)
The store is open to the public. (7 words)
- When Obama (first) became president, he moved into the White House. (11 words)
When Obama became president, he moved into the White House. (10 words)
Tip #2: Remove unnecessary words
Unnecessary words are words that are included in sentences but don’t need to be. They’re typically part of phrases that can be replaced with shorter phrases. Like redundant words, unnecessary words add length to a sentence without adding unique information. As a result, you can remove unnecessary words from a sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence.
- A number of: several, many (3 words vs. 1 word)
- As a means of: to (4 words vs. 1 word)
- At the present time: now (4 words vs. 1 word)
- Due to the fact that: because, since (5 words vs. 1 word)
- In an effort to: to (4 words vs. 1 word)
- In close proximity to: near (4 words vs. 1 word)
- In order to: to (3 words vs. 1 word)
- In the near future: soon, shortly (4 words vs. 1 word)
- It is requested that you: please (5 words vs. 1 word)
- With the exception of: except (4 words vs. 1 word)
Hint: Use the “find” function in your word processor to spot these and other unnecessary words in your paper or proposal
Tip #3: Write in active voice instead of passive voice
Sentences are typically shorter when they’re written in active voice (e.g., “Mia kicked the soccer ball”) rather than in passive voice (e.g., “The soccer ball was kicked by Mia”). You can make your paper shorter by finding sentences in passive voice and rewriting them in active voice.
- The survey was conducted by the project team in January 2015. (passive; 11 words)
The project team conducted the survey in January 2015. (active; 9 words)
- The lawsuit was filed by Mighty Media. (passive; 7 words)
Mighty Media filed the lawsuit. (active; 5 words)
- The dance company’s performance was choreographed by Karen Kain. (passive; 9 words)
Karen Kain choreographed the dance company’s performance. (active; 7 words)
Hint: Need help identifying passive sentences in your writing? If you can place “by zombies” after the main verb in a sentence, your sentence is probably in passive voice.
The lawsuit was filed (by zombies) by Mighty Media.
Tip #4: Replace nouns with verbs
Many words can be expressed as nouns (e.g., “It is our recommendation that”) or as verbs (“We recommend that”). The verb forms are often shorter than the noun forms, so you can make your sentences shorter by replacing long nouns with their verb equivalents.
- The implementation of the program will affect teachers. (8 words)
Implementing the program will affect teachers. (6 words)
- The categorization of children by swimming ability rather than by age will make lessons more productive. (16 words)
Categorizing children by swimming ability rather than by age will make lessons more productive. (14 words)
- The addition of crystals to the dress will make it too heavy. (12 words)
Adding crystals to the dress will make it too heavy. (10 words)
Tip #5: Make words plural
Singular words often need an article (e.g., “the” or “a”) in front of them whereas plural words often don’t. As a result, you can shrink your sentences by making singular words plural when possible.
- A good doctor is intelligent, knowledgeable, and experienced. (8 words)
Good doctors are intelligent, knowledgeable, and experienced. (7 words)
- A pear contains more fibre than an apple does. (9 words)
Pears contain more fibre than apples do. (7 words)
- A child learns most effectively when taught by a compassionate teacher. (11 words)
Children learn most effectively when taught by compassionate teachers. (9 words)
Tip #6: Combine sentences
Sometimes you can make your paper shorter by combining related sentences. Just make sure that your combined sentences don’t become too long or difficult to follow.
- Six participants tested the product. They ranged in age from 19 to 56 years. (14 words)
Six participants aged 19–56 years tested the product. (8 words)
- Sophia is a senior accountant at Mighty Media. She is responsible for overseeing the work of four junior accountants at the company. (22 words)
Sophia, a senior accountant at Mighty Media, oversees the work of four junior accountants. (14 words)
- Anton is a hotel pastry chef. He works at a luxury hotel in Florida. (14 words)
Anton is a pastry chef at a luxury Florida hotel. (10 words)
Tip #7: Rewrite sentences to eliminate prepositions
Prepositions (i.e., words like “of,” “at,” and “in”) often make sentences longer than they need to be. In many cases, you can rewrite a sentence in a way that allows you to take the preposition out. Even though this may help you remove only one or two words from each sentence, the savings that you get in your word count can add up across a paragraph or full essay or report.
- The manager of the restaurant apologized for the undercooked meat. (10 words)
The restaurant manager apologized for the undercooked meat. (8 words)
- Because of the weather, they decided to stay at home. (10 words)
Because of the weather, they decided to stay home. (9 words)
- The weather in Vancouver is typically better than the weather in Edmonton. (12 words)
Vancouver weather is typically better than Edmonton weather. (8 words)
Tip #8: Remove the word “that”
It’s common to pepper sentences with the word “that,” but this word often doesn’t add much to the meaning of a sentence. For this reason, you can often make your sentences shorter by removing the word “that.”
- The car that Michael just bought broke down. (8 words)
The car Michael just bought broke down. (7 words)
- Being blamed for something that you didn’t do is frustrating. (10 words)
Being blamed for something you didn’t do is frustrating. (9 words)
- The report that we’ve been working on is almost complete. (10 words)
The report we’ve been working on is almost complete. (9 words)
Tip #9: Get rid of helping verbs
The words “be,” “do,” and “have” often function as helping verbs in sentences. From a grammatical perspective, helping verbs do what their name suggests: they help the main verb in a sentence. In some cases, helping verbs are important to include in a sentence to provide information about the time period for the action expressed by the main verb. In many cases, though, we end up including them in sentences when they aren’t needed. In these situations, you can make your sentences shorter by removing helping verbs.
- First, you have to enter your password into the scanner. (10 words)
First, enter your password into the scanner (7 words)
- Airlines are always trying to charge more. (7 words)
Airlines always try to charge more. (6 words)
- I do need to go to the mall. (8 words)
I need to go to the mall. (7 words)
Tip #10: Replace weak verbs, adverbs, and adjectives with powerful verbs
In some cases, we create emphasis in sentences by attaching adjectives or adverbs to weak verbs instead of by using strong verbs to begin with. This makes sentences longer than they need to be because we end up using more words to convey the same information. By replacing weak verbs and their accompanying adjectives or adverbs with strong verbs, you can shorten you sentences and make them punchier.
- She was really upset when she found out that her dog had died. (13 words)
She was devastated when she found out that her dog had died. (12 words)
- He was very tired after staying up all night to finish his essay. (13 words)
He was exhausted after staying up all night to finish his essay. (12 words)
- She looked absolutely stunning in her mother’s wedding dress. (9 words)
She rocked her mother’s wedding dress. (6 words)
Bonus Tip: Shorten long words
Shorten sentences by replacing long nouns and verbs with shorter words that mean the same thing. Although this won’t help you if you’re working with a word limit, it’ll help if you’re working with a character or page limit.
- Notification: notice (12 characters vs. 6 characters)
- Portion: part (7 characters vs. 4 characters)
- Remainder: rest (9 characters vs. 4 characters)
- Upon: on (4 characters vs. 2 characters)
- Usage: use (5 characters vs. 3 characters)
- Utilize: use (7 characters vs. 3 characters)
Have other strategies for reducing your word count? Let us know by leaving a note in our comments section below.
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