7 Strategies for Reducing Word Count in Your Academic Papers

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Academic writer looking for ways to reduce her word count.

Hey friends, do you have trouble reducing the word count in your manuscripts? In this article, we will discuss 7 strategies for reducing the word count in an academic manuscript. I hope this will help you if you're struggling with this.

Reducing the word count in an academic paper can be valuable for students or researchers. It can help you make your ideas more concise, improve your arguments' clarity, and simplify your papers. Additionally, it can help you adhere to word count restrictions set by your chosen publication venue, avoiding potential penalties.

Here are some key benefits of reducing a paper's word count:

  • Faster and easier editing and proofreading
  • Increased emphasis on the main points
  • Improved argument clarity
  • More succinct writing
  • Enhanced readability

You can communicate your points better to your readers. Additionally, you'll be able to present your ideas more concisely and clearly, making your paper easier to understand.

Unfortunately, many authors are unaware of strategies for reducing the word count of their papers and lack the time and resources to invest in learning this skill. We'll fix that in today's newsletter issue. Always think of your paper from the reader's perspective: brief is better.

1. Eliminate redundancies

A typical academic writing mistake is using redundant phrases and words that do not add value to the argument. These include phrases such as "in order to" and "due to the fact that," which can be replaced with shorter alternatives such as "to" and "because." As another example, instead of saying “in the event that,” you could use the phrase “if.” The purpose of this strategy is to reduce the word count and make the argument more concise. You want to make it easy for readers to digest the content quickly and clearly. Do not let them wade through excessive words to get to the point. Try to be mindful of the words you choose when writing. Replace longer phrases with shorter words and phrases wherever possible. Your language will be more direct and impactful. This is like packing for a trip; you want to fit as much as you can into the smallest amount of space. Replace your bulky words with more concise ones.

2. Use active voice

Passive voice—while enhancing formality—often adds unnecessary words. For example, it is possible to change "The data was analyzed by the team" (passive) to "The team analyzed the data" (active), thereby also reducing the word count while maintaining the meaning. Using the active voice in academic writing shortens sentences. The active voice allows the writer to present the subject as the one who performs the action. This also makes your writing sound more confident and assertive. In contrast, the passive voice often requires more words to convey the same meaning. Using the active voice is like driving a manual-transmission car. You can take control of your writing, shift into higher gears when you want to drive faster, and consume less fuel in the process. Passive voice, on the other hand, is like having an automatic transmission: it’s easy to use but can be inefficient and slow you down.

3. Prune unnecessary adjectives and adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs are often overused in academic writing, leading to long and wordy sentences. Adjectives, especially those modifying relationships, can often be deleted without loss of meaning. Instead of stating, "there was a tiny relationship between variables A and B", simplify it to "A showed ten times more negative effects than B." The essence of the relationship remains unaltered, while the word count drops. How much larger was one variable than the other? Don't hesitate to tell me. It adds no information to say it was much larger, very tiny, or enormously large. Removing unnecessary adjectives and adverbs can make your writing more succinct and improve your argument's clarity. For example, instead of saying, "The extremely significant results of the study were observed," you should just say, "The study results were significant." Another example is replacing "very difficult" with more exact words like "challenging" or "arduous." It’s like pruning a tree—by cutting away the dead branches and focusing on the living ones, the tree will grow stronger and become more vibrant. The same can be said for writing—removing superfluous details can make a piece of writing more substantial and more effective.

4. Disentangle nested information

Academic content often involves convoluted concepts. Academic writers commonly present these in layers, like a Matryoshka doll. However, this layering can produce redundancies. Let's consider the statement: "Quantum theory, which revolutionized our understanding of particle physics and, subsequently, has led to significant advancements in technology, is a seminal concept in modern science." This could be streamlined into: "Quantum theory, a revolutionary modern science concept, has significantly advanced technology." This clarity and concision are especially helpful for readers who are not experts in the field. It helps them understand the concept without getting lost in the details. Think of this as using a map to find your destination instead of wandering aimlessly. You get a bigger picture view of where you're going and how to get there without getting bogged down in the minutiae.

5. Combine sentences

Combining two or more sentences can make writing more concise and direct. This strategy allows writers to present related ideas in a single sentence. For example, instead of saying, "The study showed that there is a correlation between X and Y. This correlation can help explain Z," you can say, "The study showed a correlation between X and Y that can help explain Z." Or, as another example, instead of saying, "The survey was conducted in 2010. The results of the survey were analyzed in 2011," you can say, "We conducted the survey in 2010 and analyzed it in 2011." (In this case, I also added active voice.) Whenever possible, look for ways to combine sentences. You should take care to ensure that the merged sentences still make sense and that the meaning of the original sentences is preserved. However, be careful not to overuse this technique because it can make your writing overly formal and awkward. Imagine this as combining ingredients in a recipe to create an original flavour; each ingredient adds its own unique qualities, and together they create something more delicious than any single ingredient could be on its own (Ratatouille, anyone?).

6. Use abbreviations and symbols

You can use abbreviations and symbols to reduce your word count. However, it is crucial to ensure that abbreviations are commonly accepted and understood in your discipline. For example, an academic paper might use the term "e.g." to introduce examples of a particular concept, such as "e.g. the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare can reduce costs and improve patient outcomes." Likewise, the term "i.e." is used to clarify the meaning of specific phrases, such as "AI-driven healthcare is a rapidly growing field, i.e. the use of AI technologies to improve healthcare processes and outcomes." These are known standards. Common symbols used in academic papers include the ampersand (&) and the asterisk (*). Standard abbreviations include "et al.," which is used to refer to multiple authors, and "cf.", which means "compare with" or "consult." A good rule of thumb, though, is to always define your abbreviations and acronyms on first use. So, for example, even if most quantitative researchers understand what an "ANOVA" is, you might want to write "Analysis of Variance (ANOVA)" on first use.

7. All killer, no filler (words)

Inexperienced authors tend to use filler words in academic writing to fill space and try to add emphasis to an argument. These include words such as "very," "really," and "just," which can be removed without affecting the meaning of the sentence. Other examples of filler words include "actually," "basically," "essentially," "literally," "quite," "totally," and "absolutely." Nothing can be gained by adding these words to a sentence, and the message is not affected. So remove them. Never write something like this: "Basically, this study essentially literally shows that the results are quite consistent and totally reliable." Instead, opt for clarity and brevity that convey the same message: "This study shows consistent and reliable results." Avoiding redundant words keeps your writing concise. It's like cleaning a house; you don't need to take out every single item, but you do need to go through and get rid of the clutter that adds no value to your life. Removing words that don't add value is the same concept. Getting rid of extra words leaves your writing crisp and clear. Marie Kondo will thank you.

Following the strategies outlined above, you can reduce the word count of your writing while maintaining clarity. It is crucial for you to write concisely, clearly, and impactfully. Your message will be more likely to be heard if you make a strong impression on your readers.12