A Journalist’s Advice to an Academic

Rarely have I written with such a sense of urgency.  Someone out there needs my help.  A doctoral candidate in Egypt has a 120,000-word dissertation, but she needs to turn it in at under 100,000 words. Her deadline is looming.

How, she asks me, does an editor cut articles in this age of the 140-character Twitter post, the impatient and overwhelmed reader? I’m an editor, so trimming articles comes automatically to me. But I’ve come up with some advice:

 Hunt for repetition: Every writer tends to say the same thing two or three times. Sometimes writers try multiple approaches to make a point but never cut the ones that don’t work. Repetition isn’t persuasion, it’s bludgeoning. Say it once and say it well.

 Look for unnecessary evidence:  In supporting a point, both reporters and academic researchers often throw in all of the evidence they have collected, just to show how hard they have worked. They don’t necessarily focus on what’s most relevant. Once a point is well supported, cut the rest  of the evidence and move on.

Use a printout: It’s old school, and it uses a lot of paper, but on printouts it’s easier to find paragraphs or whole pages that can be lopped out. Far too many people (including me) try to write long articles on laptops, where they can see only a few vertical centimeters of text.

Start at the middle sometimes:  A writer’s temptation is to keep revising an article by starting at the top.  The top is important, since it is the place where you are trying to seize the reader’s attention. But when deadlines hit, many writers turn in a finely tuned first half and a sloppy second half. Pay attention to endings. Don’t leave verbal flab at the bottom of your article.

 Watch the pace, not just the length: Editors I used to work with at The Chronicle of Higher Education would pass well-written 2,000-word articles to one another with the knowing remark, “It doesn’t read long.”  Those writers had welded the sections together seamlessly and made sure that the readers’ interest would never sag.  Finding what needs to be sliced out or spruced up means having an inner sensor for boring text. If your attention is wandering, that’s a good sign your reader’s attention will also be wandering.

The ability, and the willingness, to shrink a piece of writing—whether a 1,000-word news story or a 120,000-word academic dissertation—is a measure of the author’s attention span.  And the quality of writing is usually proportional to the number of times the writer has read the article fresh. Maybe Agatha Christie, cited as the most published novelist in history, dashed off a few pages without reading them twice, but she is not a role model for academics. Stop when you are tired. A good night’s sleep works wonders. In the morning, find a quiet place with no toddlers, partners with needs, or phones that buzz with incoming texts. Work your way through your dissertation.  Focus.  Cut, cut, cut. Your readers will thank you for it.

Other ideas on how to shorten writing? Please let me know in the comments. — David Wheeler

One Comment

  1. Sage advice from a seasoned journalist who adheres to his own prescriptions. Thank you David. Anyone who needs to craft a document on a complex topic will benefit from these suggestions.

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