Time for a trim

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‘Without doubt, the ability to summarize is one of the most critical skills in the editor’s toolbox. Drafts can be much too wordy and verbose, sentences too lengthy, and paragraphs — frequently stuffed with subordinate clauses and parentheses — just too complex to allow the reader to understand the meaning with any immediacy. To be able to capture what is being communicated in a way that preserves its essential meaning while reducing the word-count is an invaluable asset, and one that should be applied more regularly than it is: the job of a good editor is to remove what is surplus to requirements while keeping what is important.’

Whoa — hang on a moment! That opening paragraph is a perfect example of some prose that could really do with a haircut. It’s composed of just three sentences, but contains over a hundred words — far more than necessary.

A quick analysis shows that the paragraph has just two main points: it explains what a summary is for, and expresses the opinion that summarizing is something every good editor should be able to do. Yet the piece of writing as a whole is full of repeated and redundant phrases.  For example, ‘wordy’,  ‘verbose’ and ‘lengthy’ all mean pretty much the same thing. It should be possible to combine all these words into one.

The long second sentence is also a candidate for editing. It suffers from exactly the mistakes it describes: too many clauses bunched together. It can be considerably simplified by cutting it down to a single clause with one main verb: ‘Drafts are often too complex for readers to understand at first sight’.

In the final sentence, we read that good editing ‘preserves essential meaning while reducing the word-count’, and at the same time that an editor should ‘remove what is surplus to requirements while keeping what is important’. This is saying the same thing in two different ways. One of these sentences must go.


Here are my own attempts at a summary. I have set myself targets, respectively, of 50 words, 30 words and 10 words.

50-word target:

‘The ability to summarize is a critical skill for editors. Drafts are often too complex and lengthy for readers to understand straightaway. A good editor should be able to reduce the word-count while preserving the essence of a piece of writing. And they should do so more often than they do.’ (51 words)

30-word target:

‘Summarizing is a critical skill for editors. Drafts can be too complex to understand straightaway. Editors should therefore reduce word-counts while preserving meaning, and do so regularly.’ (27 words)

10-word target:

‘Good editing includes the ability to reduce length while preserving meaning.’ (11 words)