How To Shorten Down An Essay

You’ve finally made time to sit down and write that key document. You’ve pounded something out on the keyboard and you desperately want to get it out of the door. But as you give it a final once-over before hitting ‘send’, don’t forget one crucial question: ‘Is it too long?’

If it seems to take an age to scroll down (and down) to the bottom, it’s quite likely that no one else will make it that far.

Yet, strangely, producing a short document often seems more challenging than writing an extravagantly long one.

This isn’t a modern problem either. Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal once made a quip in a letter along the lines of, ‘I would have kept this shorter, but I didn’t have the time.’ Editing yourself is a skill. But it’s also a huge favour to your readers – and more likely to result in your document being read, absorbed and acted on.

So how can you cut your document down to size?

1. Look for redundancy

Read through your work and ruthlessly root out anything that is unnecessary. That means any parts where you’re repeating yourself, adding too much detail, or giving excessive illustration of your points.

In cover letters, for example, many people try to justify claiming ‘organisational skills’ by talking about three separate jobs and listing all the ways they had to be organised in each of them. That’s usually overkill – you could demonstrate your point with just one or two examples.

Do try to allow enough time to give yourself a break between finishing the first draft and revisiting it. Unnecessary detail is more likely to be obvious when you return to something after a break.

And changing the way in which you’re reading (say, by printing out the draft rather than viewing it onscreen) can also make these sorts of things much more obvious.

2. Restructure

Illogically structured documents are often long documents. That’s because you’re constantly having to reaffirm old points and bring your reader back up to speed by repeating things you’ve said elsewhere.

And failing to work out the structure before starting can mean going in without a clear purpose in mind. This will also tend to lead to unfocused, lengthy writing.

[Want more practical, actionable guidance on creating tighter, more effective writing? Try Emphasis 360, our online business-writing training: short, interactive lessons to help transform everything you write at work. Try a lesson for free here.]

Ideally, you should make sure you’ve planned out your document before you begin: one way to do this is with a mind map.

If you’re already in the middle of a work-in-progress, be bold in moving paragraphs around until they’re in the most logical order. If you need to, create a copy of your document before you begin. That way you don’t need to fret about losing anything important.

Don’t be too precious about making sure that paragraphs fit neatly into each other at this stage. When you’re restructuring, it’s a bit like arranging your belongings when you’ve just moved house. You move the large pieces of furniture around first and get the broad layout right before worrying about small details. It makes no sense to spend your time meticulously arranging ornaments on the mantelpiece before you’ve even brought your sofa and bookshelves in.

Printing off helps here, too – try taking your hard copy and noting a few words that sum up each paragraph in the margin. This can help you get clear on what should go where, and which paragraphs may belong in other sections (or are merely repeating what has already been said).

3. Find and kill nominalisations

Don’t sacrifice sprightly verbs by turning them into nouns. By this, I mean writing something like ‘make a recommendation’ rather than simply ‘recommend’ – this is called a nominalisation.

Nominalisations are waffle magnets: they need more words around them in order to fit into your sentences. They’ll make your writing feel dull and heavy, drag your documents down with unnecessary words and prevent you from making your point clearly and succinctly.

… and one way NOT to shorten a document

We see this technique of cutting down the number of pages in a document a lot: namely, making the margins narrower (thereby making the lines of text longer).

This looks horrible, and is something you really should avoid. Few things – short of writing a business document in rainbow-coloured Comic Sans – will make the recipient less willing to read your writing.

Other common tactics to steer clear of are reducing spacing between lines (which can make text dense and uninviting) and shrinking font size.

In most cases, your word processor or report template will have a default font size for good reason: it’s one which is easy to read. So it’s better to have two-and-a-half pages of readable font than one page of 7-point font spread across long lines.

Better still, use the first three techniques here to lose the excess length, and you won’t need to lower yourself to such tricks ever again.

Image credit: DoublePHOTO studio / Shutterstock

We had a great question in the comments to a post last week asking how to cut down an overlimit essay (can’t believe nobody’s asked us this before).

Here’s some advice:

This probably won’t help any of you much, but starting your essays from OUTLINES can be a huge time-saver in the end. If you know what your main points are ahead of time, you can write to those and more likely stay on target, both in terms of messaging, and in length. When our clients do a good job with their outlines, they usually do a good job on the essays themselves, and they don’t end up with bloated monsters.

But, sometimes not.

Once you’ve got your drafts out on the page and you’ve recognized that they are in fact monsters, then you need to take a serious look at what you’re trying to say. Many people are repetitive and redundant and duplicative (get it?) in how they write. They do what’s sometimes called “throat-clearing”: they write a sentence or two of rambly introductory I’m-gonna-tell-you-something-here stuff, and then after a bit of that, they finally come out and say it. Sometimes it’s a rambly whole paragraph.

Here’s an example:

XYZ Business School will help me in achieving my career goals because of the curriculum and the clubs. I want to get involved with the Consulting Club and the Wine Club while I’m on campus.

The first sentence says nothing new. It doesn’t help the reader know anything about the candidate. It could be written by any candidate to any school. It adds no value. The second sentence (is very sucky please do not copy EssaySnark’s lame-o sentence into your essay) has the details of two specific club names. It has (marginal) value. When looking for what to cut vs. keep, always veer towards the specifics.

Try this: One at a time, examine every single sentence, and ask if it’s got:

If not — if it doesn’t meet all three criteria — then that might be an opportunity to tighten.

The first sentence in a paragraph is often superfluous. We frequently see lead-in sentences that are very generic; usually the second sentence in a paragraph has good details, but frequently it’s repetitive to the first one, which is a more vague or generalized idea that doesn’t have anything tangible or specific. Look to those first sentences and make sure they are packing a punch.

Another trick is to cut the sentence, then re-read the paragraph: Does it lose anything? Is the meaning still clear? If so, then maybe you can just leave the sentence out.

Finally, you should never submit an essay immediately after a heavy editing session. Always sleep on it, then come back and re-read, to make sure that you didn’t butcher the meaning with your last round of revision.

Sometimes when Brave Supplicants wrestle with the monster they end up mangling it but it still lives and breathes. More than once, we’ve seen essays deteriorate in the “final edit” stage, so be careful!

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