Condensing texts: Lessons from a recent project

At the Editors’ Association of Canada conference in June, Elizabeth Macfie gave a talk about shortening text. From the program:

All editors and writers need to be able to shorten texts. Brevity enhances readability; squeezes content into limited spaces; saves money on translation, proofreading and printing; and increases social-media quotability. This session provides principles, techniques and tools for efficiently trimming texts, as well as the justification for that trimming. We’ll practise on material such as correspondence, newspaper articles and headings, reports, instructions, interview and meeting transcripts, PowerPoint slides, abstracts and tweets.

I was disappointed to have missed Macfie’s talk, which was at the same time as Helena Aalto and Laurel Boone’s, but I got a chance to chat with her during breaks at the conference and have looked through the excellent notes that she’s made available on the EAC website. At the time I was working on a project to shorten several academic reports—average length 20,000 words—to no more than 6,000 words each, for an upcoming anthology. I’ve completed the first major phase of that project and wanted to jot down some quick thoughts about my approach in case I ever find myself doing a similar project again, and I figured I may as well share them here.

The project

Way back when I was a student journalist, I was taught to load the front of a news article with critical information so that an editor working on deadline could easily trim from the bottom if the text didn’t fit. Too bad other genres aren’t as straightforward to cut.

My project consisted of nine master’s-level, thesis-length academic reports, each of which included standard components such as an abstract, introductory chapter, main body chapters, concluding chapter, and back matter (notes, bibliography, and up to several appendices). My job was to cut them down to digestible papers that would be compiled into a collection and used as teaching tools in both undergraduate and graduate classes.

Initial read-through

Look—don’t touch. Well, that’s the idea, anyway. I have to admit to cutting the abstract and appendices right away, to eliminate those distractions and to get a better idea of my true starting word count. Beyond those cuts, though (which were especially cathartic because they didn’t require much thought and they made me feel as though I’d accomplished something early on), I did my best to read through all of the text without deleting anything.

Putting the machete down for the first read prevents you from premature cutting; content that seems unimportant in an early part of the text may grow in relevance later on. It also allows you to get a good sense of the author’s main ideas. Highlight if you want—but try not to delete.

Structural cutting

“To retain the author’s voice, cut large chunks of text rather than individual words,” suggested Macfie when I spoke with her during the conference breaks. This phase of what I’ve called structural cutting—deleting whole sections, paragraphs, and sentences—is the analogue (or perhaps a subset?) of structural editing, and it’s a crucial step if you’re expecting to cut more than, say, 25% of your text. Working with changes tracked allows you to easily restore passages when you’ve decided you’ve cut too much.

Cut in several passes

What seems essential during one reading may reveal itself to be expendable during the next. If the schedule allows, let your brain and the text rest a bit before starting the next pass.

Cut introductions, conclusions, and back matter

Academic writing, particularly theses, can have a lot of repetition: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them” is an approach academics often quote and follow. Redundancy may be the antidote to confusion, but when your goal is to cut a text down to 30% of its original length, redundancy is a luxury.

The abstract, introduction, and conclusion are typically just summaries of the main body, and in those cases they can be cut right off the bat. You may have to restore part of the conclusion to give the final text a satisfying ending, but the introduction, which is usually a lot of signposting and scene setting, often doesn’t communicate the essence of the text. (In all of the reports I condensed, I could cut the introduction without losing meaning.) Certainly all appendices and go, as can most of the notes that don’t cite sources. Presumably if these were critical, they would be integrated into the main text.

Background and historical information—and academic reports and theses can have a lot of it, particularly in introductory chapters—can usually be cut or heavily condensed. If you find yourself asking if a paragraph really needs to be there, more often than not it can go. I also took advantage of authors’ tendencies to structure each chapter with introductory and concluding sections; again, because these repeated information within the chapter, I could cut these with no loss in meaning.

Cut quotes—especially block quotes

Writers often make a statement and then buttress it with a quote from an authority, essentially repeating information. Evaluate which one—the statement or the quote—holds the most weight, and cut the other. (I found I hung on to authors’ statements more than quotes, since they were often more concise and worked better with the surrounding text.) You can attach the citation for the quote to the statement if you need to, and keen readers wanting to know more can follow up with the source.

Cut examples

Writers use examples, much as they do with quotes, to support their point. But if their statement is understandable or authoritative without them, those examples—or at least most of them—can go.

Cut cross-references

Cut every reference to appendices or sections that no longer exist. My target word count was so much smaller than the initial word count that I took out internal cross-references entirely. Clauses like “As we’ll see in Chapter 2″ were obvious flags for sentences that I could delete: either the information was repeated (in which case one of the instances could go), or it would be so much closer to the reference to it that such way-finding and priming tools were unnecessary.

Stylistic cutting

When I had the reports down to about 9,000 words, I refocused my efforts on phrase- and word-level cuts, concurrent with a stylistic edit that naturally eliminated wordiness. Although I don’t agree with everything in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, this phase is where “omit needless words” holds true.

If you’ve got a strict target word count (as I had), try to come a but under it so that you have some wiggle room if you need to adjust the text in the final phase.

Cut parentheticals

Parentheticals, whether they set are set off by commas, parentheses, or dashes, can usually be taken out without sacrificing the main point of the sentence. (Case in point: that last sentence.) Cutting them also preserves the author’s voice, because you’re not changing the way the author has expressed the main idea.

Cut metadiscourse

“It should be noted that” and similar phrases are self-conscious and unnecessary. Get rid of them.

Shorten lists

And I don’t mean cutting list items (unless they’re superfluous examples). Rather, because a list consists of a stem followed by list item A, list item B, list item C, and so on, see if you can find ways to integrate repeated information in the list items into the stem (e.g., “…followed by list items A, B, C, and so on”).

Apply usual stylistic editing principles

A cop-out? You bet. But eliminating redundancies, cutting wordiness (“a total of” is almost always unnecessary; “in an X manner” and “on a Y basis” can usually be shortened), changing voice from passive to active where appropriate, and using verbs and adjectives instead of nominalizations will not only shorten text but also make it a more engaging read.

Final read-through

Always—always!—read through the final text before submitting it to the author or client. Obvious advice, perhaps, but it’s especially important when cutting. If you can, let the text sit for a day or two and come back to it with fresh eyes and a (relatively) blank mind, so that you can easily spot where you’ve inadvertently cut out a definition or where you have to smooth the transitions between paragraphs and sections. Another option is to work with a partner who could do a cold read and identify confusing or choppy content.

Other thoughts

Terminology

As liberally as I’ve written “cut” in this post, I tried not to use the term when I corresponded with the authors; “condense” or “distill” did a better job of capturing the spirit of my task. When I asked authors to review my work, I did acknowledge that condensing a text down to less than a third of its length necessarily meant that not all of the content was there but that I hoped they found the final text stood well on its own.

Scheduling

I was lucky to have had a flexible schedule for this project, which let me set the reports aside for a bit before returning to them for another pass at cutting. Once the information got a chance to percolate in my brain, I had a better handle on what was important and what wasn’t. So often I’d feel as though I’d hit a wall and just couldn’t possibly cut anymore, but being able to leave the text and come back to it always highlighted further opportunities to trim.

If you ever have to do major condensing, try to schedule plenty of time for it. The time you actively spend cutting is a small fraction of the time you need to let the text simmer.

Importing other skill sets

You don’t have to be an indexer to cut texts, of course, but my experience indexing certainly helped me pinpoint the authors’ main arguments in each paragraph and identify what not to cut. (It’s no wonder many indexers also work as abstracters.) Twitter, oddly enough, has also honed my cutting skills: I found myself applying the same critical thought process to cutting words and paragraphs as when I’m trying to squeeze a tweet down to its 140-character limit.

***

These notes are just a case study of one editor’s experiences with one project. Certainly if you were working with different genres, audiences, and word limits, you’d have to adjust your tack accordingly. I’d strongly recommend Elizabeth Macfie’s notes from her EAC conference talk for a more general overview of techniques and strategies for condensing text.

2 Responses to Condensing texts: Lessons from a recent project

  1. This is awesome, Iva: in-depth and useful! thanks for sharing your experience. -Kelly M

    • Thanks for the feedback, Kelly! I’m sure you’ve got tons of insights on the topic, too, and I’ve love to hear them sometime.

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