Document Trimming: Cramming Ten Pounds of Stuff into a Five-Pound Bag

Tech writers and editors are often asked to trim content from a document so that it meets a specific page count requirement. Depending on the amount of content you’re facing and the compression requirements, I’ve heard this task called, “Cramming ten pounds of [excrement] into a five-pound bag.” The trick is to do so without sacrificing anything important.

Where Do I Start?


To avoid messing with the content, I start with formatting: fonts, spacing between paragraphs, margins, shrinking images…any visual changes that can be imposed without changing one word on the page. Mind you, there are some caveats to this:

  • Government proposals often have minimum font requirements (12-point Times New Roman is the usual) and margins (1″ all around).
  • Visuals/graphics still need to be discernible.

Unnecessary verbiage

This is usually where you transmute rambling prose into something leaner and meaner without changing the meaning or intent. My favorite go-to reference for this type of editing is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams. This book advises things like moving verbs closer to their subjects, eliminating unnecessary prepositional phrases (e.g., “the thrust of the rocket” to “the rocket’s thrust”), and generally windy prose (e.g., “can” vs. “is able to”).

Eliminating nice-to-know content

Once you’ve played with the formatting and the language, you might still have to start trimming content. You can take several different approaches:

  • Remove content that is plainly off topic or unrelated to what you’re supposed to be answering or explaining.
  • Remove details that are “nice to know” but not necessary to explain your product, service, or process. This might include things like specific statistics, who does what, or extraneous adjectives or adverbs. However, if some of those details are your market differentiators, you might want to…
  • Discuss with your subject matter expert (SME) which content can be sacrificed.

Bottom line: There are a wide range of tools tech writers have in their skill set that can cram that–stuff–into the bag without sacrificing meaning. Use the easy ones before you lose the opportunity to impress your reader.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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