How to Write Shorter

I overwrite everything.

For a long time, this has been my way in every form of writing that I do, from emails to work memos, from “short” stories to “short” novels.

When I was in university, my ecology lab reports were supposed to be six pages max, double-spaced, Times New Roman 12-point, with one-inch margins.  I went over every time, secretly resorting to 11.8-point and 0.9-inch margins to fit it all in.

Thankfully, what I’ve learned since those days is to write by rewriting—by cutting, chopping, pruning, subtracting, and then massaging the wounded remains.

My need to do this is a function of the way that ideas come to me.  That is to say, incomplete, and in hazy, ephemeral bursts.

I usually have a general sense of the sentiment I want to convey, but only by writing at least partway through every insight and angle I have on the issue am I able to zero in on the overall point of the piece.

A writing process like this thus makes for a lot of words written and wasted.  Generally, I have no problem with the act of throwing out words, for like prayer, no writing is ever wasted.

The long and longer of it

Yet I clearly also believe in the preciousness of words in general, to say nothing for my own in particular, especially on this blog.  For I write long blog posts—1000 words at their shortest, closer to 1200 words on average.

Even though the rumoured 500-word ideal for blog posts has largely been debunked in media circles, I wouldn’t mind knocking out a few 500-worders every now and then.

If nothing else, it would give my blog readers a bit of variety—a quick hit of wit that they can consume on the go.  Shorter posts would also take me less time to write.

Or that’s the theory anyway—the mathematics of the matter in its most literal (pun not intended) sense.  If 1000 words takes X amount of time, half the wordage should take one-half of X.

Except for my little problem with overwriting, and my habit of writing by subtraction.

I tried writing shorter blog posts before—tried limiting myself to 600 words max.  I was even able to do it for a while before my word count started creeping up again.

In the immortal words of writer and scientist Blaise Pascal:

I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.

I was doing it wrong.

Writing a shorter blog post (writing shorter in general) isn’t about mathematics.  It requires a change of one’s entire writing mindset.

My ultimate goal is to spend less total time on my blog without reducing my once-a-week posting schedule.  So here are some strategies I’m going to try (and even though I’m focusing on blog posts, I think these will work for any writing format):

1) Get to the point sooner

I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of my posts have a disproportionately long introduction.

I like to set the scene with some background on why the topic matters to me personally, but I do often go on longer than necessary.  Incidentally, I have this same problem with long intros in my fiction writing.

2) Limit the number of supporting points

I often write blog posts like it’s a graduate dissertation, trying to prove my point through the sheer number of examples and arguments in favour.  Some restraint is definitely welcome.

3) Let ideas stand on their own

(Yes, I definitely see the irony.  I need to accept that, in a blog post, it’s okay to make a statement and just leave it at that.  This is not a legal brief.  I’m not required to prove my case.)

4) Type faster

If unable to save time by reducing the total words that I take down, I could always get my first draft done faster so I can move on to the revision stage sooner.

5) Free my mind

If I’m going to type words faster, I need to think my thoughts faster—to just transcribe whatever flashes through my brain, whether the idea is fully-formed or not.

TKs are our friends.  Rather than pushing for completion in the first draft, I can think through the missing pieces sometime other than when sitting at the computer.

6) Chop it in half

Sometimes the writing stars align and posts come to me fast, fully-formed, well-argued, and irredeemably wordy.

These ones, like my so-called standalone novel-in-progress, are ripe to be chopped into a continuing series.

Do you write short or long in your natural state?  What advice do you have for someone wanting to write shorter?  Let me know in the comments.

Also, a reminder that I am still collecting your burning writing questions to answer in March as part of my 10th writing birthday celebration.  Send me questions in the comments of this post, via my contact form, or on Twitter.  All answers guaranteed to inform, inspire, or at the very least entertain.

(Image source)

2 thoughts on “How to Write Shorter

  1. I don’t do much revising of blog posts, so that’s another possibility: make yourself a tiny outline, fill in your points, post.

    If I have a lot to say, I just fill in that outline with more words, type fast, get it out of there.

    Which sounds odd, given that I write very long fiction. But what you don’t know about my fiction is that the reason PC is long is that the STORY is long (you’ll see why as I go), there are three main characters for a reason, and the supporting characters need the air time I give them to be supportive, and that the time span to be covered is around two years. My scenes get cut to the quick: once they do what they’re supposed to do, with a few nods to beauty and form, I’m out of there.

    The trick seems to be to make everything do double and triple duty AS I’m writing it, and that’s become easier with the mindset to do it as I go, instead of tellibng myself I’ll clean it up later.

    Good luck with your shortening.


    • I revise everything that I write, even blog posts. Every one begins as a messy, too-long first draft, gets pared down to a mostly final second draft, and is finally read aloud to me by my text-to-speech program before I post.

      Your idea of a tiny outline is a good one. I already do this with my posts where I share my historical research or write about controversial topics to ensure that I cover all the pertinent points and am able to support my assertions with some type of evidence. I could probably use tiny outlines for other types of posts as well.

      I’ve also been trying to do is commit more to mental blogging, which is basically thinking through the entirety of a post before actually sitting down to write it. Although I only recently heard the term “mental blogging” on ProBlogger, it’s something that I’ve done here and there for years, with all forms of writing that I do. I actually consider it a huge waste to my time trying to do my thinking in real time while sitting at the computer. When I spend a few hours mulling over what I plan to say beforehand, both the writing process and end result are much smoother.


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