Editing Writing


I just completed an article for a magazine. The original version was about 1400* words long, so the editors removed the last couple of paragraphs, made other minor modifications, and returned the article to me. I accepted most of their edits, added back the “missing” paragraphs, and sent them a note explaining their version was missing text, so I'd added it back. The editor replied explaining the article was too long, so they'd removed a block at the end.

I read their email several times, finally deciding it was worth a laugh. These folks had never heard of the 1/3 rule. I heard if first from Jerry Weinberg (the whole exercise is in Weinberg on Writing).

For a 1400-word article, I didn't need to cut 1/3 of the pages or 1/3 of the paragraphs; I just needed to could cut 1/3 of the words. And, without much trouble, that's what I did. The article is much tighter, reads more clearly is clearer, and feels “lighter” to me. When I do my 1/3 exercise, it feels a bit like refactoring.

(I tried to show you what I do with the above paragraph. I cut 15 out of 64 words, not quite 1/3, but close. I hope the strikes help you see how I think about cutting words. I excise adverbs and then reconsider adjectives. Then I look for compound verbs or nouns to see if I can replace them with a better–stronger–word.)

Now all I have to do is explain this to my editors, so they don't just excise. Pruning by 1/3 works, and works on every level.

* I'd originally written 200 here, not 1400. Bet this makes more sense now. Thank you, George, for letting me know.

5 Replies to “Editing Writing”

  1. Oh, but it’s so much easier to just lop off the last two paragraphs! 🙂 I remember this practice well from my brief stint in the newspaper business. One learned very quickly to put your least interesting/valuable material at the end of the article because if a layout person (likely working after the editor has gone home for the day) needed the space, you’d lose as much as it took from the end of your article.
    Jerry is right about 1/3 rule. I’ve heard these extra words called “fat words.” You can almost always tighten up any piece of writing by trimming some fat.

  2. Yes, it’s standard practice in the newspaper business, both for editors and reporters, to put the important stuff up front and consider the last stuff trimmable. Partly that’s because people will read articles from the beginning, but stop at different points.
    I would guess that Johanna’s editors are well-trained in this. It’ll be hard to break that training. I think the key to success will be getting them to express their length requirements.
    – George
    P.S. Speaking of editing, a 200 [sic] word article sounds already short, to me. 😉

  3. Thank you so very much! I’m in the middle of an article (for someone else) right now. I’m going to ‘trim the fat’ before I submit the final version.
    Thanks for the great tip.
    I guess I should remember to do this for our blog too, where I am my own editor.
    My dad tells me that ‘developers can’t test their own code.’ I wonder if that applies to writers and editing too.

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