Prose Economy

by Tracy Strauss

When we’re sending out our work for possible publication, we are often required to submit our stories and essays within a specific, limited word count. How can we shape or carve or whittle down a longer work into one that will fit the submission guidelines of a particular publication, and still retain the original meaning, intention, and scope of our writing? Here are some techniques:

Know your audience: For whom are you writing? Research the publication in which you’d like to place your piece. As you shape an excerpt from a longer work, strive to maintain a self-contained work. In other words, your readers should not need an introduction to the work itself; the piece should stand on its own.

Verb Choice: We can revise verbs to cut out lengthy passages of explanatory details. The proper verb can articulate, condense, and heighten emotional tonality, and capture several lines of explanatory prose into one word. See if you are choosing the verb that best communicates action and tone in a particular passage. The “right” verb can turn abstract phrasing into concrete meaning, and even create dramatic tension.

Concision: Cut wordiness. One paragraph at a time, revise to see if you can say the same thing using half the words, then ¼ of the words.

Sculpt Dialogue: Slim down a moment of dialogue to its core message or purpose. Change passive writing to active, direct writing

Use Visual Cues: Eliminate interior thinking and excessive backstory by communicating these ideas through gesture. You can also use an object to symbolize emotion, relationship, theme, or to illuminate psychological layers of character and situation.


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Tracy Strauss has published narrative nonfiction and essays in The Huffington PostPoets & Writers MagazineSalonCognoscentiBeyond the MarginsThe Southampton Review, and other publications. She received a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award for her memoir-in-progress, Notes on Proper Usage. She currently teaches writing at the New England Conservatory of Music and Grub Street in Boston, and serves as the Vice President of Communications and Internship Mentor for the Women’s National Book Association Boston Chapter. Learn more about Tracy at


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