Cutting words is writing

If you’re like me, your first drafts aren’t perfect. As part of your editing, you may need to cut words.

I like what Joe Moran says about cutting words in First You Write a Sentence:

…cutting words is also writing. We make meaning not just by adding words but by taking them away.

Moreover, he says:

Michelangelo said that David was hidden in that rough block of marble all along. The art of it was freeing the body from within by removing the superfluous stone. All that sculptures flawless detail—the tensed neck, the bulging veins on the hands, the twist of the torso and the curve of the hips so frugally conveying that a moment of repose is about to turn into action—was made only by gouging out, flaking off and chipping away. Cutting words has this same creative quality. It seems to liberate a meaning that the writer was not aware of but was waiting there to be found. Distilling prose, like boiling down a sauce, releases its real flavor and its true essence.


Think of Moran’s words—and Michelangelo’s art—the next time you hesitate to cut words. They should make your task easier.

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

8 ways to cut word count and boost your impact!

Sometimes you need to cut word count (or character count). Maybe you’re answering an asset management RFP or filling a website template that limits your space. Or maybe you realize the document you’re editing is simply too long.

I have eight tips for how you can cut word count. These tips also help if you’re trying to cut your character count.

1. Cut paragraphs and sentences

You’ll lose the biggest number of words at once when you cut entire paragraphs and sentences. Read your document carefully to identify unnecessary blocks of words.

Although you can cut word count most dramatically by using this technique, I sometimes try it only after I’ve made one round of line-by-line edits. Why? Because sometimes I can’t identify superfluous content before closely reading the document.

2. Use Hemingway App

Try the Hemingway App if you don’t know where to start to cut word count. It automatically flags sentences that it considers too long. It also highlights some other potential problems that I discuss below.

I tend to use Hemingway App last because I’m confident about where to start. However, I’m less confident that I’ll catch all problems. Hemingway App has my back.

3. Cut adverbs and adjectives

Many adverbs and adjectives aren’t necessary. That’s especially true when you use a strong verbs and nouns to carry your message.

I agree with Mark Twain. He said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”  Also, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.”

When you use fewer adverbs and adjectives, you intensify the power of those you do use.

Hemingway App (see tip #2) identifies adverbs for you.

4. Substitute simple words for phrases

For example, “building my knowledge” becomes “learning.” “In advance of” becomes “before.”

A corollary of this tip is “Replace jargon.” However, sometimes removing jargon will boost your word count. That’s OK by me if it makes your document more readable—and you can remain within your word count limits.

You’ll find more examples in my post on “Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers.”

5. Replace passive verbs with active ones

For example, “Bond prices were depressed by the Fed’s actions” becomes “The Fed’s actions depressed bond prices.” The “after” version also makes the relationship between cause and effect easier to understand. That’s a double win!

6. Use pronouns

For example, write “it” instead of “investment philosophy,” if you refer to investment philosophy repeatedly and the meaning of “it” is clear from the context.

7. Rethink the content

Think about whether there’s a way to get to your point faster. This can help you implement my first tip. Like my first tip, I often leave this tip until after making line edits has made me more familiar with the content and its flow.

8. Read the content out loud

When you listen to content, you can hear problems that are hard to see when you read only with your eyes.

Recent versions of Microsoft Word have a text-to-speech function called Speak. If you’re working with software that lacks this function, use the workaround I discussed in “Why I love Adobe Acrobat Pro for proofreading.”

Bonus tip: Calculate your word count

If you’re aiming for a specific word count, make sure you know how to turn on the word count feature in Microsoft Word, or whatever software you’re using. This feature also shows character count—with and without spaces. Those spaces can make a difference.

If you’re not working in a program with a word count feature, you can visit a website like

The Cloze test for readability

Too much financial content is hard to understand. It uses technical vocabulary. It’s too wordy. It’s poorly organized. But sometimes it’s hard for authors to tell when content doesn’t work. What can they do?

I learned about the Cloze test from reading “Tips and Tools for Consumer Friendly Disclosure” by University of Georgia’s Professor Brenda J. Cude, a National Association of Insurance Commissioners consumer representative. It works as explained in her slide below:

Cloze Test instructions

Let’s experiment to see if the test works.

Cloze test experiment

Here’s a financial disclosure with words blanked out as required by the test. Try to fill them in.

ETFs are subject to ____ fluctuation and the risks ____ their underlying investments. Unlike ____ funds, ETF shares are ____ and sold at market____, which may be higher ____ lower than their NAV, ____ are not individually redeemed ____ the fund.

Options trading entails significant ____ and is not appropriate ____ all investors. Certain complex ____ strategies carry additional risk. ____ trading options, please read ____ and Risks of Standardized____. Supporting documentation for any____, if applicable, will be ____ upon request.

There were 16 blanks in the sample. If you guess 60% (10 words) or more correctly, then the text is considered well-written, according to Cude. Text for which readers score 49% (8 words) or lower needs to be edited, especially if the score is 39% (6 words) or lower, says Cude.

Here is the text of the original disclosure:

ETFs are subject to market fluctuation and the risks of their underlying investments. Unlike mutual funds, ETF shares are bought and sold at market price, which may be higher or lower than their NAV, and are not individually redeemed from the fund.

Options trading entails significant risk and is not appropriate for all investors. Certain complex options strategies carry additional risk. Before trading options, please read Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options. Supporting documentation for any claims, if applicable, will be furnished upon request.

How did you do on this test? I suspect that many of you have read enough financial disclosures that this text tested well.

My doubts

I wonder how good a test this. I figure that a highly redundant text would score well because there are so many clues to the missing words. However, I wouldn’t enjoy reading such text.

I looked around to see how others view the Cloze test. In “Cloze Test for Reading Comprehension,” the Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group speaks well of the test as a way to measure comprehension. “Cloze Tests provide empirical evidence of how easy a text is to read and understand for a specified target audience. They thus measure reading comprehension, and not just a readability score.”

Nielsen makes the interesting point that comprehension is different than readability. (I’ve discussed readability in posts like “7 factors that affect reading ease.”) After all, making a sentence short doesn’t guarantee that the reader will understand it.

As a result, I conclude that the Cloze test can be a useful tool to use along with others that I discuss on this blog and in my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.

Thanks, Linda Leitz!

I thank Linda Leitz for drawing my attention to Cude’s work in Leitz’s “Tell it to me like I’m an eighth grader” in the NAPFA Advisor.