Category Archives: For Authors

Practical posts relevant to authors, including resources and ideas about the craft of writing, as well as tips on the business of writing.

metal type laid out to print

How to Reduce the Word Count

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!

old fashioned computer keysThere 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)”

Combine sentences

  • “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.

colorful hashtag symbols

Understanding Hashtags

At one of my jobs, they told me to Use More Hashtags! I know this might come naturally to some folks, but I began using social media later in life and decided to research a bit. I read a lot of articles that repeated each other, but the information organized in my head in a different way. Here’s how I see hashtags.

Hashtags in General

The general advice can be summed up as follows:

  • Keep hashtags short, memorable, unique, relevant, and specific
  • Don’t overdo hashtag use
  • Use hashtags to add to a conversations (e.g., don’t use #NationalCoffeeDay just because it is National Coffee Day if you’re not writing something relevant to #NationalCoffeeDay)
  • Don’t use spam hashtags (e.g., don’t use #NationalCoffeeDay for a random photo of your cat, just to get viewers to see your post on National Coffee Day)

I found this advice for using hashtags on specific platforms:

  • Twitter: Hashtags are used to categorize posts or to focus a conversation; one or two per post is best
  • Facebook: Hashtags do not boost engagement and might even hurt it; use one or two at most, but maybe none
  • Instagram: Hashtags are used to describe the photo and to build community, and should be unique and detailed; some say to use eleven or more, while others say five or six maximizes engagement

Branded versus Unbranded

An area of confusion among my coworkers was what kind of hashtags to use. Should the hashtags contain our company name (i.e., branded), to stay unique to our events? Or should they be general hashtags (i.e., unbranded) that others might already use, resulting in more people finding us? The confusion resulted from confusion about the goals of using hashtags.

Branded hashtags are used for the following:

  • Group together viewer-generated content, posts about a campaign, or contest entries
  • Raise awareness of a campaign
  • Organize posts relevant to a certain topic
  • Drive participation and engagement within your community (for a local business, this would be the local community)

Unbranded hashtags have the following characteristics:

  • You can use them to join a trend
  • You can get people to notice you, thus increasing participation and engagement from newcomers to your community
  • They are usually global but can be local (e.g., #firstworldproblems versus #carrboroproblems)
  • You should use hashtags that fit your brand
  • You should make sure you understand the hashtag before using it (e.g., #instabuns is about bunnies, not bread buns)
  • You should use the hashtag only to add to the ongoing conversation, to avoid looking like a spammer

hands holding smartphone with laptop nearbyA key point to me was the global versus local nature of unbranded and branded hashtags, respectively. It might benefit a nationwide company to use an unbranded hashtag and have people all over the world discover the company. As a small business without online sales, we would do better to engage with people living nearby who might come into our store.

So, we would create our own, clever, branded hashtags to have an official hashtag for each event; use them on our posts; and include them on event banners and materials to encourage others to use them. On Instagram, where there is enough space, we could use both the official branded hashtag and other unbranded hashtags; it wouldn’t hurt to have engagement from people who might never visit our store. (As a final note, any engagement on Facebook at the moment helps a post gain traction, but since hashtag use doesn’t help on Facebook, and might even hurt engagement rates, it’s a moot point. As far as I know, engagement on other platforms does not increase a post’s visibility.)

people reading at computers in a library

Tips from the Top for Would-Be Science Authors… and Editors

Last month, UNC–Chapel Hill hosted Marc Lavine, a senior editor at Science magazine, to talk on “Communicating Science, Communicating in Science: An Insider’s View.” Most of the audience seemed to be students who might someday seek to publish a paper in Science, and I suspected that most of the talk would be tips for authors. I hoped the topic of editing would come up.

Tips for authors

Lavine talked about what has changed in science journals since 2001, when he began at Science, including all the new journals available to scientists, the ability to include supplementary materials with papers, altmetrics, open access, and predatory journals. In 2000, Science rejected 70% of the papers submitted after an initial screening; 20% more were rejected after an in-depth review. And the numbers have only gotten worse. One thing hasn’t changed, though: Science still publishes the best science.

Wilson Library with a dome and columns and steps

Wilson Library on the UNC–Chapel Hill campus

One problem that earns a paper an immediate rejection is the topic or length of the paper not meeting requirements. Many papers fall into a gray area. What determines the fate of these papers?

Missing data or an unclear point might cause the paper to be rejected. An author immersed in research might forget to include initial steps in the paper, or an author might rush to finish the paper instead of allowing a deeper writing process to occur. Lavine also said, “The difference may be the quality of the writing.” The Science editors can’t send all the gray-area papers out for review. If the writing is of poor quality, they might decide not to bother with the paper. In addition, a well-written cover letter can only help. Lavine summed up the secret to being published in Science as (1) doing good science and (2) writing it up well.

Lavine shared the steps that a paper goes through on its way to publication:

  • The author submits the paper.
  • An editor takes on the paper.
  • A board of reviewers performs a quick assessment and suggests referees.
  • The Science team discusses the paper and decides whether it passes.
  • The editor finds two or more referees for the paper.
  • The referees perform a cross review—they comment on the paper and also on each other’s comments.
  • The Science team discusses the paper further and decides whether it passes.
  • The paper enters the cycle of revision and re-review.
  • Science accepts the paper.

He added that it’s best to write the paper well the first time, to avoid a cycle of rewrites. The paper should include the “big picture” behind the research, figures should be in a logical order, data should support claims made, results should be presented honestly (not cherry-picked or hidden), and all possible relevant research techniques should be included.

reprint of science article published in Science magazine

My own article in Science from waaaaay back when

People read Science not for in-depth studies in their own discipline, but to gather ideas from other disciplines. Articles published in Science should have a good story that encourages readers to keep reading. (That said, Lavine also pointed out that it’s better to bore your readers than to lose them to confusion.) Metaphors that any reader can understand are helpful to illustrate scientific concepts. Readers should understand why the work is important now, without the author resorting to hype. The paper should also explain why the results are outside the norm; control data and baselines should be given.

Authors should not submit every paper they write to Science. When considering it, authors should ask themselves, Will the research have a big impact? Will it interest researchers outside its field? Does it overturn any established ideas? Is it my best work?

Lavine shared two online resources:

Lavine gave these additional tips:

  • Write your abstract last, and clarify the importance of your work, without trying to hype it.
  • Have a colleague, particularly someone outside your field, provide feedback on the paper.
  • While you might hope to advance your career by publishing in Science, the editors who are assessing your work do not consider this a reason to publish you, so don’t push this point in your letter to them.
  • Referee comments are intended to benefit the author, not attack.

Thoughts for Editors

While Lavine mentioned the quality of writing several times, I did not hear him advise students on how to achieve this quality. I had prepared a few possible questions on the topic of editing—maybe, “What do you think of an author working with an editor to improve the writing?” or “Do you have an opinion on working with an academic editing company versus an author working directly with a freelance editor?”

man holding book with bag on his shoulder, in front of chalkboard with math equationsPreparing questions led me to think how I’d respond if asked. Many freelance editors believe that editing companies pay poorly and wish that authors would work directly with editors. But some journals recommend these companies to authors whose papers need help. I tried to see the situation from the author and journal perspective: why do journals recommend those companies and not us freelancers?

I would argue that direct contact between the author and editor can foster a better result, since a back-and-forth dialogue can best resolve queries; that the low rates paid by companies encourage editors to work as quickly as possible, producing a lower quality edit; and that, as I have witnessed, the second edit provided by a company’s managing editor can result in inadvertent changes in meaning.

From the author and journal perspective, however, the companies use vetted editors and have quality control; they have standard prices and sometimes offer guarantees of satisfaction or a refund; they work on standard deadlines; and they may seem less financially risky, being well-known companies.

This led me to think that, to start recommending freelance editors to authors, journals need (1) a database of freelance editors and (2) vetting for those editors, such as a certification program. It would be nice if the certification program were relatively accessible, regarding cost and who is allowed to apply for it. I’d also appreciate (3) a system that holds payment and transfers it when the product is delivered. If these items existed, would journals start recommending freelance editors instead of the large editing companies?

woman reading book in shelves of booksDuring the Q&A, someone asked if he should hire an editor: would it help his paper be accepted by making his writing better, or would the journal frown upon it because he did not create the entire paper himself?

Lavine responded that he’d be concerned about an editor changing the author’s voice. The problem with editing services, he said, is that while they might be experts in journal submission, they are not teaching authors how to write. Using a service “games the system,” giving the author an advantage, but he encouraged the student to have a colleague edit the paper instead, which, he said, would gain more for the student. He did concede that he does not know if papers submitted to Science have been edited, so he is not sure if editing helps papers be accepted.

My impression was that editors who work directly with authors had not even crossed his mind, and that the authors in the room might benefit from some encouragement toward not only editing but editing directly with a freelance editor.

I also had not considered the role of academic paper editors in helping authors become better writers, although I’d always considered this part of fiction editing. When I was a TA, I spent hours grading papers because I could not resist writing comments to the students about every lost point, hoping they would follow up and learn about their mistakes. So it seems a logical next step to aid authors not just by correcting their papers but by making them better writers.

stacks of colorful post-it notes

Organizing with Post-its

I’d like to share my system of organizing tasks and deadlines. It involves a physical calendar and a lot of Post-it notes.

I’m a paper person. I’m not a luddite, and I’m all for “going green” to avoid waste, but I actually enjoy writing and reading on paper. I don’t want another task that requires checking a device, especially not multiple times per day. I use a paper weekly planner for my personal life,* and I needed a system for my writing and editing business. Here’s what I eventually came up with.

calendar covered with post-it notesI hung a calendar near my desk. (I picked from the dozen or so free calendars my parents get from wildlife and veterans organizations; I went for nice photos but also large squares.) Each time I have a new task to do, whether it is an assignment or simply something I want to look into, I write it on a Post-it note and stick it to the calendar, like this:

  • Items with a deadline go on the date of the deadline
  • Items I’d like to do soon go in the borders of the current month
  • Items I’d like to do in the near future go on an upcoming month
  • Items that must be done in a certain month go on that month
  • Items for someday go on the wall near the calendar

When I finish a task, I move the note to the top page of the calendar. (I’m working on color-coding the tasks. I just have so many colors of Post-it!) (UPDATE: I now use pink for writing and editing, blue for education, and yellow for business and marketing.)

This system works for me because I can move the notes around if dates change, if I don’t accomplish something when expected, and when I finish a task. I hate a messy calendar; the Post-its enable me to keep it neat. I like the “reward” of moving a note to the finished pile, and often push to finish a bunch of items toward the end of the month. Then I flip to the new month and leave them behind. Sometimes, when I get overwhelmed, I’ll postpone an item, moving it a month or two ahead and then easily forgetting about it. As an added bonus, I also use the calendar to write down the tasks I work on each day, which makes me feel good.

*Several years ago, I decided to look for a more sustainable planner—recyclable and made from recycled materials. I stumbled upon Little Otsu, a company in Portland, Oregon. In addition to being sustainably produced, their planners are designed by independent artists, and they are a small company I feel good about. The planners are actually cheaper than what I was getting at my big office supply store. They are not dated, so you have to spend some time filling in the dates when the planner arrives; I actually kind of love doing this each year.