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By Claire Aitchison

There has been an outcry in my neighbourhood over the butchering of municipal street trees. On a morning walk as I pondered the motivations and skills of the tree cutters, I saw a parallel with the dilemmas writers face when their words have grown too lush, too vigorous for their context.  IMG_0758 In such situations, often drastic measures must be taken, but let’s face it: you don’t want a final product that looks like an amateur has hacked at it, leaving your precious work lopsided, denuded or simply ruined.

Writers regularly face the need to prune their text. This can arise because of word count restrictions, or because authors recognise they need to control sloppy or verbose writing that leads to tiresome and unbalanced texts.

Unlike fiction writers, academics will almost always be writing to a word count. Strict word limitations are characteristic of academic genres such as formal ethics and grant applications, applications for awards and promotions. The size of journal paper submissions is generally tightly regulated with an upper level being 7,000-8,000 words, and for some STEM journals the word count can be as low as 4,000 words. There may be more leeway for chapters in an edited book.

While there is some variation between countries, institutions and disciplines regarding the size of the PhD thesis, it is unlikely these days for the manuscript to be much more than 80,000 – 100,000 words. Knowing this means that authors can map out how long each chapter needs to be to stay within the desired length for the thesis genre. Working to such parameters is disciplining — and can even stimulate creativity. Thus, right from the outset students begin to learn about the necessary academic conventions of writing within limits.

IMG_0788A word of caution: While I am advocating word count restrictions as a strategy for avoiding undue editing, if authors restrict themselves too severely in the early stages of drafting they may overly constrain their thinking, leading to a stunted written output. Most of us find it easier to scale back excess components than to have to create something brand new to build up a word count.

Nevertheless, no matter which way you look at it, constructing your message within a restricted word count is a key academic skill.

As I see it, there are two aspects to meeting word count restrictions with minimum heartache (but, sadly, still no absolute guarantees!).

  1. Try to get it right in the first place

Know the parameters within which you are working: always find out the word count restrictions and work to them as early as possible. In the same way as an author will target their text to a known or imagined audience, knowledge of the word count can make a significant difference to how you scope the content and style of writing. When restrictions are acute, such as with abstracts, then readers will expect succinct, precise language and a snappy delivery of key points with limited elaboration. But if you adopt this same writing style for the longer thesis discussion chapter, the audience will feel cheated and unsatisfied — and your word count will be seriously under what’s required.

A research article that has a 4000 word limit is going to have to omit significant parts of the story. Making judicious decisions about the content early on can reduce the likelihood of having to laboriously rejig the whole article later.

  1. Learn to be an arborist – know how to trim and shape your work

Even when authors work towards a word count, a text will need some fine tuning or pruning — and sometimes, serious lopping and chopping is required.

Knowing when, what, how and where to cut back can be tricky. To answer these questions firstly triage the situation. How much needs to be cut? Are there any non-negotiables such as the number of citations, or requirements for Methods sections, or a quotation you are really keen to include, for example?

When the drafting is done, however, and the manuscript needs to be made submission-ready, then it’s time to collect up the gardening tools and bring out the inner arborist. SFXI2561If it’s only a couple of hundred words that must go, it is likely you can keep the overall shape and content of the paper and simply trim off excess words, redundancies and tautologies throughout. Stylistically, fine tuning generally results in a reduced word count as we rework long and disordered sentences. And, of course, an effective word count reduction can occur by identifying and removing unnecessary references.

We’ve all spent hours cutting back here and there in an effort to retain the same content and shape of a piece of writing, but there are times when this won’t bring about the desired effect and serious pruning may be called for. My own thesis is a case in point: I spent days trying to prune back an oversized chapter hoping to bring it into line with the others. After some time I realised I needed a new strategy, one that involved decisions about content. I knew my handling of a particular theme from the data was underdone compared to the detailed treatment other themes had received. As is often the case, there were two choices: make a new chapter and do this work thoroughly, or remove it altogether. I opted for the latter, removing some 4,000 words in one fell swoop. Sometimes drastic measures are required. However, if this is the best option, beware – it is necessary to revisit the whole document to remove references to this now missing part.

We often work with doctoral students and novice writers who think that an author’s job is simply to put words on a page. To be sure, authoring requires writing but it also involves learning how to review and critique your own efforts, and then to take the necessary steps to improve that piece of writing. Writing, reviewing and editing are practices that every author must develop – and managing word restrictions is an everyday practice of academic writers.