Your manuscript or grant proposal is longer than it should be? Find out how you can hit the word count and improve your writing at the same time.
“The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no time to make it shorter.” This is a quote from Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher of the 17th century. 350 years have gone and the sentence still applies today – even in scientific writing.
I know from my own writing projects that the first draft is usually the longest version. In subsequent edits, I keep cutting words, sentences and sometimes even paragraphs. The same happens when I edit papers for my scientist clients. A motivation for this can be that my clients need to meet journal or funding agency guidelines, which often specify a word limit. But there’s another reason: Shorter often means better.
When we are forced to cut down the word count, our writing becomes more structured and succinct. And think of it from the reader’s perspective: Would you rather read an 800-page or a 300-page book, which essentially say the same thing?
Exactly… So, here are the seven best strategies to reduce your word count and to cut out the waffle in your scientific writing:
1) Have one main thread
If you want to cut your word count, the first thing to examine is whether every paragraph in your manuscript is tied to your one main message. I have talked about why it is important to have a single main message in your manuscript and every paragraph previously. When you go through your draft paragraph by paragraph you might find that you are in fact not only telling one but several stories at the same time. Consider whether there is background information in the introduction that is not needed to contextualise your results. Also, look closely at your results: Are there some findings or aspects that don’t quite fit in? Could you move them to the Supporting Information or work them into another paper?
2) Implement a consistent structure
You might be wasting words because your paper or grant proposal is lacking structure. In this case, you might find yourself reiterating arguments on various occasions. I recommend using my “Story Method” to achieve a consistent structure in the manuscript. I use this technique in my coaching sessions and edits for clients.
3) Cut repetitive sentences
Even when you have a good structure in place, it might happen that you use two sentences to explain something that could have been said in one. Read your manuscript attentively. Does each sentence give the reader new information? Or have you just used different words to say the same thing?
4) Eliminate filler words
We all do this. First drafts usually contain a lot of filler words. Fact is your readers don’t need words that don’t carry additional meaning. For example: “There is a consensus in the literature that…” is better phrased as “The literature agrees that…”. Another place where filler words usually gather is in the results section. Authors often overemphasise when results aren’t certain. For example, if you use verbs such as “may” or “could” it’s unnecessary to have “probably” or “likely” in the same sentence. The same is true when you use “estimate”. There’s no need to include an “about” or “approximately” in the same sentence.
5) Swap nouns for verbs
I’ve pointed this out before in my post called 3 Language Tips for Writing Scientific Papers and Proposals. Using verbs doesn’t only cut down your word count, it’ll also make your article or grant proposal easier to read. And that’s what you strive for if you want to get your paper accepted or win that funding. Let me show you an example: “We present an analysis of the catalyst performance” is better phrased as “We analysed the catalyst performance”. That’s three words saved in just one sentence!
6) Kill conjunctions
Conjunctions are words that connect two sentences or different parts within one sentence. That makes total sense in many cases. However, you do not need to connect every sentence with the previous one using a conjunction. Read through your manuscript and see if you can delete some “and”’s, “then”’s, “furthermore”’s, “whereas”’, “also”’s and “while”’s. I have noticed that certain non-native speakers (Germans, I’m talking to you!) especially often overuse conjunctions.
7) Use parentheses
When you report values of different data series, errors or methodological details – such as brand names of instruments – parentheses are your friend. Instead of writing “The weight of sample X was 5.8g at 150°C and 5.0g at 250°C. The weight of sample Y was 4.2g at 150°C and 3.6g at 250°C” I recommend writing this: “The weight of sample X(Y) was 5.8g (4.2g) at 150°C and 5.0g (3.6g) at 250°C.” You haven’t only saved space, you’ve made it much easier for your reader to process the information.
These are my seven tips to reduce the word count of your academic writing. If you find it hard to delete words, sentences, and paragraphs in your draft, I recommend creating a “recycling document”. You can use this to paste the cut bits into. I have in fact a recycling document for each of my writing projects. I hardly go back and incorporate things from there back into my main text. But just knowing it’s there makes it easier for me to be rigorous in my editing.
Another option is to use the “Track changes” option if you work in Word. This is what I use when I edit my clients’ documents so they can quickly see what has been cut or changed.
Would you like me to help you reduce the word count in your paper or grant proposal and improve your writing at the same time? I’m offering structural reviews and structural edits. Find out more about my editing packages here.
About the Author:
I’m Dr. Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.
I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.
When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.