Word Cutting: 7 Editing Tricks for Your SOP Word Limit

Cutting Text for SOP Word Limit

I’ve never met an essay I couldn’t cut by 10%. This happens without fail. When an applicant freaks out and says, “I’ve looked 100 times but can’t find a way to cut 5 more words!” …I can usually cut 50. It’s a turbo-nerd skill, one all experienced line-editors share, like Max Perkins, who cut 90,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, or Gordon Lish, whose editing skills Raymond Carver described as “surgical amputation.” Needless to say, these scalpel skills come in pretty handy when you’ve got to meet an SOP word limit at the last minute.

Lucky for you, some of these tricks of the trade are fairly easy to implement. Now that application season is upon us, let’s break out our trusty scalpels and figure out how you can slice off big chunks of text and meet your oh-so-restrictive SOP word limit.

1. Delete “To Be” and “To Have” Verbs

At some point in college, you probably had a writing professor who told you to steer clear of “passive voice.” They probably urged you to use “active voice” instead. These terms might confuse you. They sound like something a manic-haired theater director would yell at a nervous young thespian. “Active voice, you fool!”

Instead, it’s much easier to remember this simple idea:

“To be” and “To have” verbs are the devil.

Is.

Was.

Has.

Had.

It’s not that these verbs are innately terrible. It’s just that when we use them, they have a funny effect of making our sentences longer. That’s “passive voice.” Here’s an example.

“What good writers do, however, is to keep these duller, low-energy verbs to a minimum.” (15 words)

If we force ourselves to delete “is” and revise the sentence using what remains, we have to cut a lot of other dead-weight words too: “what,” “do,” and “to.” In the end, the sentence will look like this:

“Good writers, however, keep these duller, low-energy verbs to a minimum.” (11 words)

Boom. Just like that, we’ve cut 4 words. Do that 5 times throughout your essay and you’ve suddenly knocked 20 words off your total. I’ve found the vast majority of students write essays chock full of these passive-voice sentences, and that with this trick alone I can usually delete 50 words from an SOP.

As my friend John Maguire teaches in his remarkable Readable Writing Guide: “We cannot write correct English without using these verbs, but we need to balance them with lively active verbs. Good writers work hard to cut out all unnecessary instances of ‘is,’ ‘was,’ ‘has’ and ‘had.’”

Here are some examples to show you the power of cutting “to be” and “to have” verbs:

“She will be at home tomorrow.” (6 words)

“She will return home tomorrow.” (5 words)

“The shovel was exactly where he’d expected it to be.” (10 words)

“The shovel lay exactly where he’d expected it.” (8 words)

“It was at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital that his puzzling illness was given its first diagnosis.” (15 words)

“At St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, his puzzling illness received its first diagnosis.” (11 words)

2. Delete “Very”

Here’s the easiest word-cutting trick to help you meet your SOP word limit:

Delete the word “very.”

Yep. That’s it. Hit “CTRL + F” in Google Docs, search for “very,” and delete every single instance. In fact, this isn’t just a good editing technique. It’s an almost essential rule for writing. Great authors have taught us this for over a century.

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain

“‘Very’ is the most useless word in the English language and can always come out. More than useless, it is treacherous because it invariably weakens what it is intended to strengthen.” – Florence King

“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.” – Nancy H. Kleinbaum

If you’ve got a brutal 500-word limit, and you’re at 502 and feeling ready to tear out your hair and toss your laptop through the window, do a quick CTRL + F search for “very” and see if you can’t delete yourself across the finish line.

3. Delete Adverbs

Here’s the second easiest word-cutting trick to help you meet your SOP word limit. If you don’t remember your elementary school grammar, adverbs are the words that end in “-ly.” (For the most part, at least.) And they’re almost always useless.

Happily. Quickly. Surprisingly. Frustratingly. Particularly. Significantly. Ultimately.

Once again, Mark Twain told us how it is: “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” And he’s correct. More often than not, adverbs don’t add any extra meaning to your sentences, though they increase the word count every time.

“In this course, I will quickly gain expertise in recursive neural networks.”

“My purpose is to significantly improve low solar cell efficiency.”

“The problem was that I simply lacked the knowledge to address these questions.”

Once, a student sent me a first draft so full of adverbs it astonished me. I did a quick CTRL + F search for “ly,” and found exactly 33 adverbs. We deleted every one of them…every single one…and it didn’t change the essay at all. It only reduced the word count by 33.

4. Sharpen Clumsy, Heavy Phrases

Often, we can substitute clumsy and heavy phrases for lighter, quicker ones. We can’t do this in every case, of course. Yet if you need to quickly delete a few words to meet a word limit, you can probably find a good way to do so using the list below.

List of clumsy phrases to edit5. Break Up Sentences With Lots of Commas

Much as with passive voice, you probably had a dusty teacher somewhere who told you to avoid things like “run-on sentences.” God bless those teachers. I only wish they went further and told you to just keep your sentences short.

STEM students often have a problem with this. It’s bad because long, complex sentences are difficult to read. The reader has a hard time following your logic. For the purposes of cutting words to meet your SOP word limit, however, remember that these long sentences always depend on a few extra “the’s,” “thats,” and “ands.”

Here’s an example:

“The massive immigration of ethnically and linguistically unfamiliar groups that accompanied the industrialization of the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries exposed Americans to cultural diversity, and so also might seem to lie behind the current phenomenon of lifestyle enclaves.” (1 sentence, 44 words)

The Massive immigration of ethnically and linguistically unfamiliar groups that accompanied the industrialization of the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This exposed Americans to cultural diversity and so also might seem to lie behind the current phenomenon of lifestyle enclaves.” (2 sentences, 40 words)

Whenever you’ve got a sentence longer than 2 lines, you’ve probably got a chance to knock out a few words. Breaking up the sentence will make your essay easier to understand, and the reader will think you’re one smart cookie.

6. Apologies, But Just Stop Writing

I know, I know, you want to explain yourself. You want to make sure the reader gets your point. So, you keep writing, keeping adding words, because it’s necessary, you think. How else will they understand what you’re trying to say?

Well, stop.

When you’ve got that nervous, unconfident feeling, it’s almost a guarantee that you’re filling your essay with dead words. Empty words. Meaningless words. Here’s an example:

“It made me wonder why such an abundant energy source would be challenging to harness even with the minuscule energy the earth requires compared to what the sun generates.”

How much of this sentence is absolutely necessary? How much is 100% essential?

“It made me wonder why such an abundant energy source would be challenging to harness even with the minuscule energy the earth requires compared to what the sun generates.”

Better? How about this?

“It made me wonder why such an abundant energy source would be challenging to harness even with the minuscule energy the earth requires compared to what the sun generates.”

Or, could we go further?

“It made me wonder why such an abundant energy source would be challenging to harness even with the minuscule energy the earth requires compared to what the sun generates.”

Too far? I don’t know. That’s up to you.

Sometimes, it’s amazing how much we can cut from a sloppy first draft. Take the following 3-sentence example with 93 words:

“While my undergraduate career has provided me with some of the tools of the trade and sharpened my analytical mind, I am lacking the specialized knowledge required for engineering positions that apply machine learning, natural language processing, and computer vision in novel ways. I am eager to begin a Master’s in Computer Science in order to explore advanced topics in computer science and artificial intelligence. I am determined to leverage this experience into an advanced position as a software engineer in industry, applying my skills to the constantly evolving landscape of intelligent systems.” (93 words)

Let’s carve it up and see if it loses any of “the meaning.”

“While my undergraduate career sharpened my analytical mind, I lack certain Machine Learning, NLP, and Computer Vision skills required for industrial software engineering positions. In a Master’s in Computer Science, I hope to explore these topics in artificial intelligence and build the skills needed to work in the evolving landscape of intelligent systems.” (53 words)

Whoa. Exactly 40 “dead words” excised, and it ends up looking like a pretty good Sentence of Purpose, no?

7. Use the Hemingway App

Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear. It says so right there on the website!

Hemingway App helps meet your SOP Word Limit

Seriously. Grammarly sucks, and Hemingway is awesome. Copy and paste your essay drafts into Hemingway to get brilliant AI-driven feedback on the clarity and readability of your writing.  There are dozens of grammar and language checkers out there on the Internet, and I’ve never discovered a single one that worked very well. (Grammarly works kinda sorta okay, but it’s utterly lame for reducing word count.) But Hemingway works well. It works really well. It won’t actually change or edit anything for you, but it will tell you exactly which sentences are clunking along like a 1996 Ford Bronco so you can edit them yourself.

Whenever you see a yellow or red sentence in Hemingway, it means you’ve got an opportunity to cut words. Take advantage. Consider how you can use the tricks above to turn those red sentences white.

Conclusion

I almost guarantee we can cut your wordcount by 10%. Probably more. Start by deleting “to be” and “to have” verbs, and watch your sentences tighten in an instant. Delete “very.” Delete adverbs. Break up long, comma-ridden sentences, and trade clumsy phrases for quick, light ones. Get rid of sentences that just don’t add to the logic of the essay, then, finally, plug it all into Hemingway to make sure your essay is bold and clear.

Need help cutting words from your SOP? Let me know! It’ll be far easier than you think.

Which tricks are you using to meet your SOP word limit?

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