May 15 2019

Writers, master the art of word economy

Adapted from a 2016 Center post about how to pare down a first draft by looking at specific elements of the writing, one at a time.

Word economy is the practice of using fewer words to say more. For less practiced writers, it means revising your work to eliminate redundant, unnecessary, cliché, or weak language to make your writing stronger and clearer.

Once you practice word economy enough during revision, you will teach yourself how to write more polished first drafts so your revision process won’t be so daunting and time-consuming.

So where to begin? Break out your highlighters and red pens, attend to these four specific areas, and watch the cream rise to the top of your messiest drafts:

Look at your verbs

A very practical and hands-on exercise to begin to train yourself to use fewer and better words is to print/write out a copy of your work and highlight all the verbs. Are they the strongest they can be? Consider the sentence “The boy threw the ball away down the hill with all his strength.” “Hurl” is a stronger synonym for “threw.”

Look for repeated words and phrases

Once you’ve highlighted and replaced your verbs, cross out any words or phrases that might now be redundant or unnecessary. Do you see how revising to use a stronger verb can eliminate the need for other information in a given sentence—how using “hurled” instead of “threw” makes the phrase “with all of his strength” unnecessary? This is, literally, how you show instead of tell! There might also be words and phrases you’re saying more than once. What is the strongest way you’re saying it? Keep that, and cut the other iterations, or write in ways that point to or bolster, but don’t outright repeat, important ideas.

Look for adverbs and prepositions

Next, try using a different colored highlighter to locate adverbs and prepositions, words that show direction. In the revised sentence “He hurled the ball away down the hill,” do you need “away down the hill”? No; the prepositional phrase “down the hill” is fine, so the adverb “away” can be cut. Another example: Did your character do something “angrily”? Can you eliminate the adverb “angrily” (i.e., the telling statement “the boy angrily hurled the ball down the hill”) in place of describing that character doing something in anger (i.e., showing us how “the boy gritted his teeth and bit his tongue to keep from yelling as he hurled the ball down the hill”)? Find opportunities to eliminate adverbs to make room for more details.

Look for weak details

When adding details, make sure the ones you choose are the best they can be. Identify details that might not be adding enough, or anything at all, to your story. Details are great, IF they’re working as hard as they can to convey your intended meaning. We don’t need to know that the ball the boy hurled is actually his older brother’s ball, unless the story is really about the older brother stealing the boy’s hat and the boy is angry and retaliating by throwing the older brother’s ball down the hill. Then, the true owner of the ball becomes a strong and necessary detail: “When he saw his hat on his older brother’s head, the boy gritted his teeth and bit his tongue to keep from yelling as he hurled his brother’s ball down the hill.” To just say “The boy hurled his older brother’s ball down the hill” if the older brother doesn’t factor into the story is presenting information the reader doesn’t need to know. Trim away details that are weakening your story because they either aren’t necessary or they aren’t specific, accurate, or interesting enough.

Integrate these practices into your revision process and you’ll say more by saying less, and better engage your readers.

Have you or will you try this systematic method for achieving word economy through revision? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: Writers, revise or edit? How and when to do both

Avoid repetitive writing with these four tips

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Comments on ... Writers, master the art of word economy

  1. Jude Smith says:

    This article was especially timely. I have to revise some work which I have not looked at for a couple of years. now I can address specific areas to tighten up. Thanks, Stacia

    • Stacia M. Fleegal says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jude, and I’m so glad this was helpful for you!