High-school and college essays impose strict word limits to which students struggle to conform. It can be challenging to express your opinion, describe a historical event in full, or tell a good story within 500 words. When it comes to reducing the word count, most learners find it quite hard. “I struggle to shorten my essay without ruining it.” If your thoughts are similar to that, we will try to help you solve this problem.
To illustrate how you can reduce the word count in your paper without impairing its integrity, we will use sample sentences and go through a list of techniques you can apply. To shorten an essay, you can:
- Eliminate redundancy
- Combine sentences with similar meanings
- Avoid referring back
- Listen to your writing
Further, we will give examples of sentences that can be shrunk with their revisions.
Note: You can reverse some tips from our article about essay lengthening.
1. Edit out redundancies and reduce wordiness
What’s redundant? It’s something that exceeds what’s necessary or enough. Redundancy in linguistics implies the usage of words and phrases that repeat what has been already said or can be understood from the context. Although it can help the reader better understand emotions or situations in nonfiction, it’s unwelcome in academic writing. Hence, when trying to shorten your essay, start by eliminating redundancy. Wordy phrasing also falls under this section.
You can clutter your writing with repetitive phrases and needless words without even noticing it. You might want to make the text more detailed or get so inspired when writing that you can’t stop filling your sentences with adjectives and adverbs. That doesn’t mean you’re a terrible writer — you just need to do a bit of editing and reduce the essay’s word count a bit.
The best way to understand what can be cut out is to see if the meaning of the sentence stays the same when you do so.
Original: I was absolutely certain that each and every quote I provided in my essay about politics made my argument much more compelling.
Let’s edit and shorten the sentence above.
Edited: I was sure every fact in my essay made my argument compelling.
We removed 10 words, and the meaning hasn’t changed. Of course, we exaggerated our example for illustrative purposes.
As for what we deleted, the word “certain” doesn’t require a modifier because if you’re not completely certain, you are not certain anymore (if that makes sense). The words “each” and “every” mean the same, so we can remove one instance. You can remove “I provided” because you specify that the essay is yours, so it’s only logical that those quotes were provided by you. We removed “about politics” because this phrase doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the sentence. And “much more” also can be omitted without changing the context.
Below is a list of redundancies, removing which you can make your college essay shorter.
When revising your essay, make sure every word has its weight and role. Wordiness implies using phrases that can be replaced with one or two words without changing the meaning or choosing a sentence structure with too many articles and prepositions. Also, some words can be deleted without any harm to the text.
To eliminate wordiness, you can:
- Avoid using passive voice
- Replace heavy phrases
- Favor noun clusters
- Use verbs for action
- Stop the preposition train
- Use fewer fillers and qualifiers
Let’s look closer at each method.
Using the active voice
When you use the passive voice, the subject receives the action, and the action doer is often unknown. Instead, use the active voice whenever possible, especially if it’s critical to know who or what acts.
Original: The process of essay shortening is often found as a challenging task.
Edited: Students often find essay shortening challenging.
Simplifying long phrases
Writers might use longer equivalents of phrases in scientific papers or nonfiction, but you should simplify them in essays to reduce the word count.
Original: Due to the fact that the majority of papers have to fall in line with length limitations, students are necessitated to gain an understanding of how to put their thoughts into words clearly.
Edited: Because most papers must meet length requirements, students should learn how to express their thoughts clearly.
Below is a list of such phrases and their equivalents.
Use noun clusters
Prepositions are also counted as words, so by reducing them, you can make your essay shorter.
Original: There are many processes in the industry that must be considered first.
Edited: You must consider many industry processes first.
Express action through verbs
When choosing between using a noun formed from a verb (nominalization) or the verb, opt for the latter.
Original: The economic destabilization is the consequence of the government’s failure to implement effective economic policies.
Edited: The government’s failure to implement effective economic policies destabilized the economy.
Reduce the preposition and article count
Some grammar and readability checking tools call a preposition-riddled sentence sticky or bogged down.
Original: One of the most crucial events in the history of humanity was the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
Edited: The fall of the Berlin Wall was a momentous event in human history.
Reduce the number of fillers and qualifiers
Fillers are words that add no meaning and value to the sentence. Qualifiers are words that usually come before adjectives and change their quality. Check the list below for the most common words and phrases of these types.
Original: It’s quite important to note that the study revealed rather interesting results.
Edited: The study revealed intriguing results.
You can use the essay shortening tips above as a way to improve your overall writing. If you learn to write without being wordy or using a lot of fillers, the quality of your text will rise a lot.
You can use these eliminating wordiness exercises by Purdue University to check yourself.
2. Combine sentences with similar meanings
When speaking, we use new sentences to elaborate on previous ideas and add a new meaning. Typically, we speak with longer sentences than in writing. If you write the same way you talk, it will take a toll on your essay’s word count.
Original: Many students find it difficult to write within the essay length limit imposed by schools. I also often struggle to fit my essays into the word count confines.
That sentence contains a lot of information that we can combine into a shorter passage.
Edited: Like many students, I find it hard to write essays within length requirements.
The sentence above conveys the same meaning but is much shorter. We got rid of 15 words, more than half of what we got first. Multiply this by all the instances you could compress, and the number could reach 100-150 words! Look for ideas that can be combined in one sentence.
Compress you examples
In your essay, the most specific parts are the examples, and contracting them is an excellent way of shortening your paper. When using someone’s story as an example, you might get carried away and start providing too many details spreading over five or six sentences. If your essay has such parts, “zoom out” and shrink them as much as possible.
If you can’t do that, think about replacing them with other examples.
3. Don’t refer to previous paragraphs
Avoid linking to previous information in an essay — it’s a waste of time. Phrases like “as it was mentioned before” or “from the last paragraph, we can conclude” are redundant. They disorient the readers and prevent them from moving forward.
Original: As it was mentioned earlier, we can improve our education system by…
Edited: We can improve our education system by…
Many students make this mistake when writing a conclusion. They give a mere summary of the body paragraphs when instead, you must tie them together and provide a broader context without sending the reader back.
4. Listen to your essay
Luckily, you don’t need to wait for thunder and get your essay struck by lightning to do that. Use Google Translate’s “listen” button or ask somebody to read it out loud for you. Once you hear your writing, you might identify the parts worth deleting. When listening to your essay being read out loud, pay attention to:
- Sentences that feel too long and hefty
- Awkward-sounding words and phrases
- Areas that stray off the topic
Each time you spot something from the list above, pause and reread that part to see if it can be fixed.
This recommendation puts you into the reader’s shoes and lets you cut out all the wordy and strange-sounding passages.
The best way to shorten an essay is by combining all our tips. After several revisions, you will shrink your text without destroying content.
Some online tools can also help you with that:
- Grammarly — its free version is enough to weed out all the fillers and qualifiers.
- OneLook reverse dictionary — can help you replace a wordy concept with one or two words and avoid repetition.
- ClicheFinder — get rid of cliche phrases or substitute them with shorter equivalents. “You can’t draw blood from a stone” can easily become “impossible” or “futile.”
- Smmry — it’s a tool that summarizes texts. Use it if you lack time, but don’t forget to proofread the result.
Schools impose word limits to make sure students do not stuff their writing with lengthy phrases and learn to write clearly. Another reason is to ensure equality so that everyone does the same amount of research. Also, a word limit acts as a guide forcing you to be more to the point and plan your writing.
There are a few things that can help you stick to the word limit from the very beginning. First, create a clear thesis statement that allows you to narrow your focus and stay on the subject. Second, prepare a detailed outline that will define the ideas you want to include. Third, monitor the word count every ten or twenty minutes to see how much space you have left.
Besides the things we cover in our article, you can also try to replace phrasal verbs with their one-word versions (e.g., “get back” -> “return”). Many phrases that are separated with a comma can be safely removed from your essay (e.g., “to be honest” or “in fact”).
It depends, but a 10% margin should be fine. If another 100 words will make a difference, add them. However, you should always try to stay under the limit indicated in the requirements, especially for a college application essay. You might get away with writing a bit less text, whereas more will just annoy the reader.
The list of references
- Writing Concisely — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Effective Use of Language — University of Washington
- Writing Concise Sentences by the Capital Community College Foundation (with exercises)