How to shorten a college essay

  1. Know how many words you have written and subtract from that the number of words you are permitted. The result is the minimum number of words you need to cut. Then increase the minimum by 10 percent. This is your target number of words to cut.
  2. Many inexperienced writers have trouble getting to the point and write a  long, unnecessary introduction before they get down to business. Find  out where you have actually said the first thing you want the reader to  know, and start your essay there. Ask yourself whether anything important will be lost if you arbitrarily cut the first paragraph, the first 100-150 words, or the first page. Cut anything that won’t be missed.
  3. Check the organization of your essay. Here’s how I do it:Print out the manuscript. Number the paragraphs from 1 to n, cut them apart, and then tape them to a poster board. Instead of taping them in order, tape them in clusters, with each cluster representing a different category, topic, or point of interest. Now look through the clusters for a strong statement that will pique the reader’s interest and at the same time start the essay in the direction in which you want it to go. (This may not be your original opening sentence or paragraph. Move that statement to a second poster board and tape it at the top left. Then look for a good closing statement, one that wraps up what you have said and will leave the reader satisfied that he or she has read something worthwhile. Tape that to the second poster board in the lower right corner. Incidentally, 3M makes Scotch Removable tape that works like a like a Post-it and is excellent for this purpose.
    3M scotch removable tape

    You now have a beginning and an closing. From your remaining clusters, select the paragraphs that best express the meaning and intent of your essay. Tape these to the second poster board in a sequence that leads the reader logically and comfortably from your opening statement to your closing paragraph. Cover each topic as completely as necessary the first time and move on. Do not try to include everything. The point to this exercise is to leave out anything that is redundant or unnecessary. As you consider each paragraph, ask yourself, “Will this really be missed if I cut it?” It’s surprising how much won’t be. The pieces left on the first poster board represent the cuts you have made. Reorganize your manuscript into a second draft that mirrors the content of the second poster board and get a word count.

  4. Print out the manuscript and go over it with a red pen, cutting sentences, clauses, and words that won’t be missed. Look for:
    • Any tendency to wordiness, such as wandering sentences that don’t get to the point or piling up adjectives and adverbs.
    • Redundancy, which is saying the same thing more than once, even though it may be with different words the second time. Cover a topic once and move on.
    • Awkward sentences that can be improved, simplified, and shortened by rewriting.
    • Anything that, on second thought, doesn’t belong.
    • Anything that impedes the smooth flow from the opening attention-getter to the satisfying closing.
  5. At this point, If you are still too long, have someone you trust read the essay and suggest cuts and revisions. You may or may not make the edits they suggest, but their suggestions will show you where additional cuts might be made.

Be sure to save each draft separately, so you will be able to recover anything that you cut in an earlier draft, but now need to include. And, of course, run it through your grammar and spell checker, then print it out and go over it with the red pen one last time, looking for typos, grammatical errors, words out of order, and factual mistakes.