As a writer, I have probably learned the most from having tight word counts. In several assignments, each piece had to be 150 words or less, or 250 words or less, or three lines or less. Sometimes the whole publication had to fit on one page, or in one column. This kind of micro-editing is common with summaries of news articles, query letters to publishers, and abstracts of academic papers.
Techniques for micro-editing
Cut ideas before words
Deliberately limiting the scope of your summary makes the editing process less daunting. A novelist writing a pitch letter to a publisher may look with despair at her story of an interplanetary voyage, an alien bacteria outbreak, and a romantic rivalry, and she may tear out her hair at the prospect of fitting it all into 200 words. But what if she just focuses on the interplanetary voyage? That would fit into 200 words.
Keep the main thing the main thing
Your summary can’t touch on everything that was in the original. So how do you find your focus? In most nonfiction or academic works, the beginning and end contain summaries of the whole. With fiction or creative nonfiction, of course, it could be different. But even if the opening, teasing paragraphs don’t give away the main point, they should at least be setting up the main point for later.
Turn sections into sentences
Once you have focused on a main point of the whole piece, look for the main points of each paragraph. Instead of writing an outline and then writing the piece, you are reading the piece and figuring out the outline. You could call it outlining in reverse. This process can also help you identify the main idea of the article, in case that was unclear.
Kill your littlest darlings
Writers are often advised to “kill your darlings,” which means that, if they don’t contribute to your main goals, you may need to get rid of your favorite parts of your book, even the ones you worked hardest on or are most pleased by. In a book, every chapter needs to pull its weight. In micro-editing, the author has even less room for gratuitous amusement. When you have few sentences and few words, every sentence, every word, needs to pull its weight.
Rely on your memory
When you first start writing your synopsis or abstract, don’t look at the details of the original. When you look away, your mind will automatically and subconsciously make sense of what you just read. Then when you’re done, of course look back at the original document to see if your mind was right.
Don’t trim out the 6 Ws
Keep that well-known journalist’s guideline in mind: ask Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Your summary should answer these questions just as the original article did, in less detail. You may not have room to use complete names, but use enough specifics so that your reader can follow what you’re saying.
Types of micro-editing
An academic abstract helps the researcher decide whether to read the entire article. So it includes no personal opinions or anything else that doesn’t appear in the original article. When writing abstracts, I often began with the researcher’s conclusion and then added only the details needed to support it. An abstract for a scientific research paper will follow the basic outline of the original paper, particularly if it deals with experiments. Begin with the purpose of the experiments, what motivated the research, and the problem it was trying to solve. Include the scope of the experiment – a researcher can’t study everything or anybody at once. Describe the approach the researchers took, the methods they used, and the basic design of the study. Then discuss the major findings of the research – the results of the experiment. Finally, go over the conclusions the researchers came to, their interpretations of their results, the implications of those results, and the authors’ recommendations for action.
In a query letter to a publisher, a novelist has less than 200 words – the hook – to summarize the entire book. Want to sell the book that readers can’t put down? Write a hook that publishers can’t put down. Unlike other kinds of summaries, the hook is deliberately incomplete: don’t give away the ending. If the publisher likes your query letter, they will ask for a 2 to 3 page synopsis in which they will want everything, including the ending, but this isn’t the time for that. In your hook, bring up no more than three characters, including the main character (the protagonist) and his or her opponent (the antagonist). Stick to the major plot points, the ones that force the main character to make a crucial choice. Tell the story, don’t talk about the story. The hook isn’t the place to dwell on your biography or why you wrote the book. You’ll do that in elsewhere in your query letter. Don’t boast: let your writing speak for itself.
Readers of topical newsletters or websites often enjoy an “In the News” section that summarizes what has been recently said about the topic. Unlike an abstract or a synopsis, a news summary may not point your readers to the original story. Unless you link to the original story, it’s hard for your readers to read it. Do credit your source if you can’t link to it. But often you should assume that your readers won’t see the original article. Instead, your main purpose may be to summarize the news for those who haven’t seen it. I want my readers of my summary to get what I got from the original article. If it was funny, I want my readers to laugh like I did. If the article gives health advice, I strive to accurately summarize the advice.
In micro-editing, the most important principle is to cleave to your purpose; that is, hold fast to it, stick closely to it. The discipline of having a immovable word count will help you do that. If you don’t have room to digress, then you can’t digress. And you’ll become a better writer.