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Writing

10 Tips for Improving the Word Economy of Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 4, 2020 • 4 min read

If you ever have the occasion to compare the first draft of a well-regarded novel or short story to the final draft, you may be surprised to find that the first draft is longer. Rarely is it longer because it was overstuffed with compelling plot; that first draft was more likely bloated with unnecessary words. With subsequent drafts, authors economize their prose, and by the end of the writing process, they emerge with a lean book that benefits from word economy.

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What Is Word Economy?

In writing, word economy refers to careful management of the words that end up in your text. In the simplest of terms, it means keeping sentences, paragraphs, and chapters as short as they can be without degrading your storytelling or rhetoric.

Does striving for economy of words mean that authors have to constantly track their word count and try to reach a fixed quota for overall words? No it does not. But it does mean that you need to monitor your word choice to make sure you aren’t filling your prose with superfluous words that make sentences longer but not necessarily better. When you review your own work, ask yourself: “Could I communicate this same idea using fewer words?” If the answer is yes, then rewrite the relevant sentences and paragraphs with that in mind.

10 Tips for Improving Your Word Economy

It’s rare to find good writing that’s needlessly verbose. If you want to reach large audiences, get a publishing deal, and perhaps end up on the New York Times bestseller list one day, you’ll need to learn how to economize your language. Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Use the active voice. When writing in the active voice, the subject of a sentence performs an action. Passive voice sentences contain subjects that are the object of the sentence’s verb. They are not the “doer” of the sentence; they are the recipient of an action. Sentences constructed with the active voice use fewer words and are easier to understand.
  2. Use strong verbs. If you want to revise a sentence to make it better, start by looking for a stronger verb. If you choose a verb that accurately describes the action of the scene, you can cut down on modifying words you might otherwise need to better explain that action. Precise, strong verbs get to the point, which is great for word economy.
  3. Avoid wordy prepositional phrases. A lot of inexperienced writers weigh down their prose with prepositional phrases without adding any further meaning. So instead of writing, “He ran in the style of someone who was a professional athlete,” just say, “He ran like a professional athlete.”
  4. Use the English dictionary and thesaurus effectively. Some young writers mistakenly believe that making a phrase longer will make you seem smarter. In reality, the opposite is true. Economical word choice makes your prose more fluid and clear, so use the dictionary and thesaurus to help you make phrases shorter, not longer.
  5. Have individual scenes accomplish multiple things. Introduce a character by writing a short, solitary scene. Place your character in a situation that both advances your story and provides character development.
  6. Keep chapters lean. Make sure each chapter has a purpose that ties in to the bigger story. Don’t fluff up the novel with irrelevant content. Establish trust with your reader that you will not waste their time with authorial indulgences.
  7. Plan your narrative, and stick with the plan. In a thriller, for example, people want to be on the edge of their seat the whole time, and this requires narrative focus. Don’t meander too far from your main storyline—that is, from scenes and dialogue that develop your stakes.
  8. Compress your dialogue. You should keep dialogue economical in the same way you do with your prose. Unless your character is naturally verbose, tighten up their language, conveying only the information that will deepen the character or move the story forward. Making people seem real on the page often means giving them shorter sentences. Most people are naturally economical speakers and will tend to say “I’ll go” instead of “Yes, I will go.”
  9. Avoid info-dumping. Beginning writers tend to drop large chunks of information onto the page all at once. This is called info-dumping, and not only does it bore readers, but it stops the momentum cold. You want to make your information feel natural and interesting. You can avoid the dreaded info dump by having your characters discover information in the course of a conversation. If that feels overly expository, let them discover information via action.
  10. Compress, compress, compress. Go through your writing and see how many words you can cut while keeping the original feel of your work. (Hint: adverbs—words like gently or beautifully that usually end in “-ly” and modify verbs or adjectives—are a good place to start.) Next, beware of places where you’ve given too much description, especially of a static object. Do you need to spend two whole paragraphs describing a building that’s not essential to the plot? One powerful detail will often do the trick.
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