So much to say, so few words…Condensing texts to comply with word limits

 

“The abstract is now 260 words, but the word limit is 250. Any corrections that shorten the text are welcome!”

To an editor of academic texts, this will probably sound all too familiar! Journals’ word limits can create annoying challenges for writers and make them feel restricted. And it’s not surprising. There is often so much to say! And all in x number of words!

Deleting words and rearranging sentences to shorten a text must be done with caution. The text still has to be grammatically sound. And it must still contain the writer’s main message and cover all the important points. It must sound intelligent and coherent and provide a great deal of information; but at the same time, it must be concise without being abrupt or too brief. This is a tall order, and an issue that many academic writers grapple with.

Below I have gathered a few points that will hopefully help you as a writer when you have to shorten your texts. They are methods that I use when I edit a paper that is too long. They all work and are handy techniques, but I advise you to always be careful. You mustn’t shorten your text at the expense of good quality!

 

1.     Rearrange word order

The patient received a diagnosis of asthma in 2019.  The patient received an asthma diagnosis in 2019. 
The document must include a list of patients.  The document must include a patient list. 

This only actually gets rid of one little “of”, but if you use this construction often in your text, it can be quite an economical move. Just be careful not to create “noun clusters” – a long list of nouns working as adjectives – which make reading more difficult. An example of this is “health service provision development project”.

 

2.     Delete unnecessary articles

This depends on the size, the shape and theweight of the tool. This depends on the size, shape and weight of the tool.  
The committee will consist of a physician, apsychologist and a nurse.  The committee will consist of a physician, psychologist and nurse. 

When you list things like this in succession, the article “the” or “a” can apply to them all and you don’t have to repeat it.

Another place where you can happily delete a few articles is in figure legends. See the examples below:

The results of the analysis conducted in thelaboratory.  Results of analysis conducted in laboratory. 
The cases of type 2 diabetes among theparticipants of the study.  Cases of type 2 diabetes among study participants.* *See what else I did there? 

 

3.     Activate the passive

In this study, it was shown that…  This study showed that… 
The results are presented in Table 2.  Table 2 presents the results. 

I admit to being a bit obsessive about the passive. I always try to avoid it unless it’s necessary – I don’t deny that sometimes it is. But the active voice makes the reader’s job easier, and these days many journals even advocate its use. And look how many words it saves!

 

4.     Use s for the genitive

The health of the employees.   The employees’ health. 
We determined the level of risk of the children.  We determined the children’s risk level*.*See what else I did there too? 

Again here, it’s a matter of removing only one “of”. But I think you’ll agree, that as a reader, the ’s version is also easier to digest.

 

5.     Replace phrasal verbs with a single verb

We carried on the data collection despite the difficulties involved.  We continued the data collection despite the difficulties involved. 
We left out the patients with other diagnosed illnesses.  We excluded the patients with other diagnosed illnesses. 

Phrasal verbs often carry a more casual tone and are not really suited to academic writing anyway. But the main thing is that they consist of two words, a verb and a preposition, and you can nearly always find a single verb with the same meaning.

 

6.     Remove repetition

The results were surprising. We had not expected to find that….  We were surprised to find that… 
Participation in the study was voluntary. The employees were told that they were under no obligation to participate.  The employees’ participation in the study was voluntary. 

This is something that is not always easy to spot in a text, but actually occurs quite often. I think that when the writer is so inside their topic, they become oblivious to repeating something that they want to emphasize. When you do spot repetitions like those above, you can usually delete a whole string of words.

 

7.     Eliminate redundancy

A total of 40 people responded to the questionnaire.  Forty* people responded to the questionnaire.*Remember, never start a sentence with a figure – write it out in words!
It has been reported that walking in the forest reduces blood pressure.  Walking in the forest reduces blood pressure. 

This is something we are all guilty of. We like to start off a sentence with a nice, comfortable, clichéd set phrase, like those above. But often they are completely redundant and add nothing at all to the text. Beware of using these!

 

8.     Sometimes, one word is enough

As a result of this…  Thus/Consequently, … 
During the course of…  During… 
The majority of…  Most of…

Again, this is something we all tend to do. We may think that using long expressions to stretch out simple concepts sounds somehow more sophisticated… and maybe in some instances, for example, when you’re speaking in a presentation, this may be true. But when you’re writing and are restricted by a word limit, you can safely just do away with these empty extra words. The text seldom suffers. 

 

9.     Verbalize!

We conducted an analysis of the words used by the interviewees.  We analysed the words used by the interviewees. 
We held a discussion on these issues.  We discussed* these issues.*Remember – no preposition after the verb “to discuss”!

I think this one’s fairly self-explanatory. Why use a verb+noun when a single verb will do?

Doesn’t it look AND sound better?

 

10.  Split up lengthy sentences

The results showed that working overtime is a risk factor of fatigue and that it sometimes even leads to burnout.  The results showed that working overtime is a risk factor of fatigue. Sometimes it even leads to burnout. 
The interviews lasted one to two hours and the managers gave their employees permission to attend during working hours.  The interviews lasted one to two hours. The managers gave their employees permission to attend during working hours. 

Ok, this doesn’t eliminate so many words at a time, but if you have a lot of overly long sentences in your text and can split them up, you can shorten the text quite a bit. Be careful though: too many short sentences after each other gives a staccato effect. Alternating between longer and shorter sentences gives your text a more natural rhythm.

 

Cutting it down may clear it up

When you write, it’s easy to just let your ideas flow. So, it’s understandable that word limits can make you feel hemmed in and that it’s difficult to know what to include and what to cut out. But having to make these decisions and stick to a specific number of words can also tidy up your writing immensely and help clarify your main message. 

I hope that I’ve given you some useful tips that you can really use to help with this area of your writing. It’s true that shorter isn’t always better, but at least we can try and ensure that shorter is still good!

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