This week, I edited a paper that had a word limit of 8000. When I received it, the paper had 8905 words. The client asked me to cut as much as possible and to suggest sections that might be reduced. I was determined to return the paper with less than 8000 words—making writing more concise is one of my favorite things to do!
There were many ways I reduced the word count to 7964. When I’d finished, not only was the word count below the limit, but also the paper was much easier to read. While we hope papers are published for their academic merit, being readable can’t hurt.
Here are some of the ways I reduced the word count. To protect the author’s confidentiality, I’ll invent a paper topic: Let’s pretend the paper studied the effect of growing multiple varieties of pumpkin on farm profits in the fall season.
Replace groups of words with a better word
- “growing large amounts of pumpkins” → “growing many pumpkins”
- “in the farm environment” → “in farming” or “on the farm”
- “the pumpkins appearing in the photos” → “the pumpkins pictured”
Remove lengthy introductions
- “As can be illustrated with the color of pumpkins, there are many options” → “As seen with the color of pumpkins, there are many options” or possibly “Consider the color of pumpkins: there are many options”
Rearrange “of” phrases if possible
- “the color of pumpkins” → “pumpkin color”
- “the use of hoses” → “hose use”
Remove “in order” from “in order to”
Remove “furthermore,” “additionally,” “moreover,” and other such words; one or two might aid readability, but they are often overused—not every item in a paragraph needs such an introduction
Replace long noun-filled phrases with a verb
- “pumpkins are the possessors of nutrients” → “pumpkins possess nutrients”
- “pumpkin color has an impact on sales” → “pumpkin color impacts sales”
- “our hypothesis suggests that” → “we hypothesize that”
- “to obtain a better understanding of the colors” → “to better understand the colors”
Remove passive voice, which often adds words
- “Increased pumpkin growth has been seen by farmers” → “Farmers have seen increased pumpkin growth”
- “Similar results were found by Smith et al.” → “Smith et al. found similar results”
- “Farming has come to be regarded as” → “Many now regard farming as”
Remove use of “there”
- “There has been increased use of drip irrigation” → “Use of drip irrigation has increased” or “Drip irrigating has become more common”
Remove unnecessary references to studies: it’s not necessary to preface every intention or result with a reference to the current study or other studies; the reader will assume results are yours or others’, depending on the location in the paper (i.e., a section about the current study versus a section about the literature)
- “It was found that orange pumpkins are most popular” → “Orange pumpkins are most popular”
- “Growing a variety of vegetables has been found to significantly help farm profits, as shown in Table 1” → “Growing a variety of vegetables significantly helps farm profits (see Table 1)”
Own your results: if you found a result, you can state that
- “The current study aims to further expand our knowledge of” → “This study expands our knowledge of”
But, don’t repeat the importance of your results ad nauseam
- “Another important result is the benefit of displaying large pumpkins on the farm” → “Another result is the benefit of displaying large pumpkins on the farm” or better, “Displaying large pumpkins benefits the farm”
- “It significantly helps farm profits” might become “It helps farm profits” if nearby data shows that the difference is significant and if the significance is discussed elsewhere
- Sentences such as “our important results will be of great benefit to the farming industry” can often be removed—the data will illustrate this point to the reader, and trying to draw additional attention to it comes across as phony
Don’t describe what the reader can see for himself: if you list items, you don’t need to describe the number of items to the reader
- “A handful of studies have looked at pumpkin color (Jones, 2013; Smith, 2017)” → “Studies have looked at pumpkin color (Jones, 2013; Smith, 2017)”
- “Recent studies have demonstrated that orange pumpkins are more popular. This effect was seen at farmers markets but not in grocery stores.” → “Recent studies have demonstrated that orange pumpkins are more popular at farmers markets but not in grocery stores.”
- “We examined several factors. These include color, size, and shape” → ““We examined several factors, including color, size, and shape” or better, “We examined several factors: color, size, and shape”
Avoid repeating a lengthy phrase throughout the paper, simply because it was needed in the introduction and conclusions. For example, if the study examined the effect of growing other varieties of decorative winter vegetable in addition to pumpkins, such as gourds, squashes, and corn stalks, you don’t have to list these other varieties, such as gourds, squashes, and corn stalks, every time you mention them. You can simply write “other varieties of decorative winter vegetable” or even “other varieties” after the first one or two mentions of the list.
Avoid repeating the obvious. If your study looks at growing pumpkins on farms, you will let the reader know that. But you don’t have to repeat “growing pumpkins on farms” throughout the paper. Once the reader knows that you studied growing pumpkins on farms, you can reduce the phrase to “growing pumpkins.”
Authors can reduce word count using these tips, or hire an editor to do it. Ask specifically for the editor to make the writing more concise. While I prefer this type of writing, I also respect the author’s voice and might not have made as many cuts without the directive to shorten the paper.