During the writing process we can get carried away. Every word feels important. Unfortunately, you know what? It's probably not. In this article, we'll look at how to review your drafts, distill the point of what you're trying to say, then cut that word count!

We'll take a look at the process using this example from a module on leadership.

Step 1: Distill the point

This may sound silly, but you should check your sentences are actually saying something.

Step 1, involves reading one sentence at a time and trying to figure out what the point of that sentence is. Ask yourself:

If I was a learner...

  • What would I think this sentence is telling me?
  • How would this sentence further my understanding?
  • What could I do with this information?

Then try to write the gist of that sentence in as few words as possible.

Let's take a look at this excerpt from our leadership module.

Professional feedback: (1) It is important that you talk to people you know - network with your team members, customers and suppliers. [Talk to your team etc.] (2) Learn what steps you can take to develop your leadership abilities. [Learn steps?] (3) Sit back and listen to the ideas and feelings of others. [Actually listen.] (4) Take note of what you can learn from their perspectives. [Write it down.] (5) When we say 'take note', we mean literally that record what you hear. [Write it down.]]

In the example above, our goal for the page is that learners will be able to gather professional feedback to improve their leadership skills. But that second sentence...

"Learn what steps you can take to develop your leadership abilities."

...doesn't actually tell our learners anything! What are these steps? If they don't know what the steps are, then what? In its current form, this sentence doesn't help learners "gather professional feedback" at all. It's not helping us towards the goal of the page.

When you read the points (coloured text) one after another, you can see it's a little disjointed. We can also see that those last three sentences have essentially the same point - Write it down. We're probably "over-egging" that one.

Now for step 2...

Step 2: Keep only what's useful

So for step 2, we highlight keywords. But... we can only highlight keywords that:

  • align with the point of the sentence (from step 1); and
  • say something useful

The aim is to highlight as few words as possible that capture your important points from step 1.

Text from previous image with these phrases highlighted: talk to people, team members, customers and suppliers, listen, record what you hear..

Hopefully, the highlighted words show the distillation of what you're really trying to say. In our example we find that to get professional feedback you should...

"Talk to people. Your team, customers and suppliers. Listen and record what you hear."

So the point of this paragraph seems to be to tell learners:

  1. Who they should talk to for feedback (team, customers, suppliers);
  2. That they should actually listen to these people; and
  3. Record some notes so they don't forget.

Note: Point 1 is the who of feedback, points 2 and 3 are the how of feedback.

Step 3: Cut (or re-write)

Put the keywords you highlighted in step 2 back together into coherent sentences. To be honest, you could just keep your highlights:

"Talk to people. Your team, customers and suppliers. Listen and record what you hear."

But here's another alternative.

We've gone from 86 words to 42. Less than half!


This is one method we find particularly helpful in cutting down text.

  1. Distill the point
  2. Keep only what's useful
  3. Cut (or re-write)

Once you've been reviewing this way for a while, you'll find you can do step 1 in your head, and just jump straight to the highlighting. Remember, be ruthless. Write less and say more.

Make no mistake, cutting reading in half will have a massive positive effect on your learners. They'll be able to quickly see the point(s) you're trying to make and not waste time reading irrelevant material or trying to decipher things.