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L is for Length – Don't worry, guys, I mean the length of your essay.


About a dozen years ago I found myself in a terrible before I was scheduled to fly to London and deliver a conference paper.


The paper was long since done. The problem was the length. I'd already cut every idea I thought I could afford to lose. I'd trimmed every joking aside and literary reference. (See K is for Kittens. I had started with a bunch of kittens, and now I was down to none.) But even reading it like an auctioneer, I was still way over the time limit, and I knew I'd be too nervous to "wing it."


My first big conference paper, and it was promising to be an epic fail.


After some panicked calls, two friends came over to help - a professor and another grad. They patiently listened to me read the whole thing through, but at the end, the professor just smiled and shrugged. She couldn't think of anything to cut.


It was the other graduate student who stepped in and took control of the situation. "Quit looking for whole paragraphs to cut," she said. "You need to go word by word.


"Cut every single word that doesn't add something important to a sentence."


It seemed daunting - ten pages, word by word! But she was right. Take this sentence, for example:


It was the other graduate student who stepped in and took control of the situation.


After a word-by-word pruning it becomes:


The grad student took control.


Neither sentence is terrific, but at least the second one is lean. After they left that night I managed to cut three pages, without deleting a single sentence. It took far less time than I feared, and the end product was stronger.


The next time you find yourself struggling to meet a page limit, try going word by word.