Recently I had an article to write on assignment. After conducting all my research, I had 8,000 to 10,000 words, mostly in the form of interviews. It was a lot of material, and a lot of it evoked powerful emotions. I had to condense this material into a 700 – 1,000 word piece. Luckily, much of that material, while it wasn’t irrelevant, was off the topic of the piece. The focus of the piece made knowing what to cut pretty easy, but it didn’t make actually cutting it easy. I mean, I had some really good material, material that cut to the heart of the subject. But it wasn’t consistent with the focus of the piece, so after struggling for a way to keep some of it in, I cut it all. That left me with about 1,800 words.
Recently, my professor made the comment that the second draft should be shorter than the first, and that paying writers by the word is not conducive to good, tight writing.
I’ll note that I’m not paid by the word for assignments like these. More importantly, I’ve found that in the contemporary marketplace, articles are assigned (whether it begins with a query or not) to fill a particular space in a magazine, and that word limits are set to fit the article in the assigned space. So, being able to produce work that fits the proper length is important.
Usually, in fiction especially, I write the bones and then flesh it out. My second drafts are notoriously longer than my first drafts. I struggle to turn the the tables on that tendency so that I can tighten something to appropriate length. But, I’ve had practice. It’s a skill and it can be learned. It should be learned if you want to write nonfiction, especially articles.
Writing tight isn’t easy, at least not for me, but I’m glad I can do it. And I did. I pared down those 1,800 words to those that were the most essential for the article. I hovered right around the 1,000 mark. Then, I went back through it, polishing it up, and found 30 more words I could cut without negatively impacting the piece.
Keep it relevant. Maintain your focus. Let your subject do the talking. Make your words count. Cut anything and everything you do not need. Keep it in a separate file if you think you might put it back in, but, truth be told, I never have. Not once. And, if you find gold you weren’t panning for, don’t be afraid to talk to your editor. I did that, too, and it was worth it.