Less is more: how to reduce the word count of academic manuscripts like a heavyweight fighter

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” –Mark Twain

Lecturer takes questions from his students in lecture hall

At last, you have completed your manuscript! After months of visiting distant archives or meticulously collecting data from a series of difficult experiments, you have finally finished hammering out a draft of your article. However, you open the author guidelines for your target journal and discover that your beloved masterpiece exceeds the word count limit. And you have only a week to make all the necessary reductions before the semester begins.   

Don’t despair! Manuscripts that need to be shortened for publication are a widespread problem, with plenty of solutions. This is an especially common issue with abstract editing, journal editing and conference submissions. And if you sent out your text for translation, unexpected, exceeded word counts can be an especially big nuisance.


Your best friend for academic editing: the delete key

Fear not. The answer to overlong texts may be right in front of you: the delete key. That may sound like an oversimplification, but the delete key is about to become your best friend. Here are a few tips to help you find the courage — and discretion — to use the backspace. Much like a fighter who sweats and starves himself to make his weight class before a big match, your text will be lean and mean by the time you have achieved a substantial word reduction.

Say more with less

If your text is just barely over the word count limit, the easiest approach is to revise your text carefully. Eliminate occasional adjectives. Reduce any sections of text that provide lengthy protocols or explanations by citing references that have previously provided these descriptions. Combine adjacent sentences that share a common sentence subject, or turn one of the two sentences into a subordinate clause of the other sentence. Academic editors can typically reduce most texts by up to 10% using these types of approaches with relative ease.  However, larger word count reductions demand input from authors to determine what is critical and what can be left out.”

Let it go

Sometimes texts are simply much too long. In this case, it is important to first remember that academic articles are not carved in stone. You can probably rearrange and reduce your text without detracting from your main ideas. So, the first step to meeting your word count limits is simple: let it go. When in doubt, make your deletions using the “track changes” feature in Microsoft Word. Try erasing anything that is not critical to your argument and see if your ideas still hold water. If not, the original text will still be waiting for you. And you can try again. 

So you now feel a healthy detachment from your text? Great. The next step is finding the excesses in your manuscript proofreading. If a sentence restates the sentence that precedes it, delete it. If you explain a concept that most of your intended readership already understands, delete it. Does that paragraph have some problem that you simply can’t put your finger on? Delete it. Until you have reached your target word count, you need to scrutinize the necessity of each and every word and sentence. Similarly, you should make sure that every subject discussed contributes to the remainder of your manuscript. A focused manuscript that avoids unnecessarily restating old arguments can meet your word count — and become a text that is of greater value to your field. (Shorter articles are cited more frequently.)

Drastic measures to meet word count limits

If your manuscript is still too long, don’t give up yet! Here are three last-ditch approaches that can get your lengthy manuscript published sooner.

  1. Try two manuscripts instead of one. If your manuscript covers a wide body of knowledge or includes an impressive number of arguments and analyses, consider splitting your text into two articles. In today’s publish or perish academic climate, it never hurts to have an extra manuscript ready for submission.
  2. Cite less. A well-cited article is considered good scholarship. But sometimes references can be too much of a good thing. If your text is too long, try to eliminate the less important citations. (Please note that many journals do not include references in text lengths, so this approach does not always work.)
  3. Just ask for an exception. If your writing is already as compact as it can be, but still too long, there is always one last resort. You can ask the Editor-in-Chief for an exception to the word count limit. The closer you are to the word limit and the more appropriate your work is for the journal, the more likely you are to get a positive response. Besides, it never hurts to ask.

Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? Best of all, you have done the unthinkable — you have managed to say the same thing, but in fewer words. And just consider how many more people will read your writing because you managed to save them 15 or 20 minutes through the judicious use of the backspace and a handful of other tricks. See that, we just stayed under our 1000-word blog limit!

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