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Last month I ran an editing boot camp aimed at helping late-stage doctoral writers whip their theses into shape. My late dear friend, Heather Kerr, used to talk about the ‘large, loose, baggy monsters’ that PhD candidates often confront towards the end of candidature. The phrase comes from Henry James when describing big 19th-century novels, and seems particularly apt for those doctoral candidates who have been writing and writing for several (sometimes way too many) years. The boot camp was designed to tame those baggy monsters into tightly argued, concisely written documents ready to submit for examination. Here I outline four exercises we used to achieve this.

“Writer’s Diet” (Helen Sword)

Sword’s stylish writing guide offers a fun way to start paying attention to writing as writing. The website has continued to grow over time, and offers a solution: “Is your writing flabby, cluttered, cloudy?  Congratulations, by clicking this link you’ve taken the first step towards transformation: you’ve walked into the gym, picked up the broom, summoned the sunshine!”

The idea is for authors to post a section of text into the test box and receive an automated analysis of its linguistic features. My test for the opening paragraph of this post revealed patterns in use of:

  • Be-verbs
  • Zombie nouns
  • Prepositions
  • Ad-words
  • Referents & pronouns

This gives authors a way to identify their own writing patterns and notice where they might reduce words to tighten up the writing. (By the way, if you don’t like the “flabby or fit” metaphor, there are other choices available in the current version; I chose “Clear skies”, but you might respond to “clean houses” or “solid ground”.)

BBC Test (Patrick Dunleavy)

The BBC Test works through the sentences of a paragraph to identify their contribution to the argument: does that sentence (or part of the sentence) build, blur or corrode communication about the central point?


(Explanations quote from Dunleavy’s Writing for Research, 2014)

By taking a paragraph and assigning a label of B, Bl or C to each sentence, it becomes clear what needs to stay in the document, and what needs to be deleted or adjusted. Sometimes a long sentence might have a combination of B, Bl and C – again, this is helpful to see which parts of the sentence can be edited out.

Working words & glue words (Mary Morel)

Morel provides very helpful advice on how to “delete your own clutter”. This exercise distinguishes between the “working words” that are necessary for meaning (often the nouns and verbs, plus some important adjectives and adverbs). The rest of the text is made up “glue words” – the grammatical constructions that help the sentence stick together.

The exercise asks authors to highlight the working words in the text to focus attention on the key words and thus the message that is being communicated. Then the task is to see how many glue words can be deleted – often quite a few! Sometimes reducing the word count requires sentences to be reorganised, and that too can be beneficial. By reducing the word count, the main ideas come to the surface instead of being obscured by lots of extra bits and pieces.

Smoothing out the rough: paragraphs that won’t flow (Katie Grant)

Grant’s exercise is particularly useful for those situations where paragraphs circle round and round the main idea without managing to pin it down. This can happen especially when doctoral writers have worked on many iterations of the piece, responding to supervisors’ feedback and developing ideas along the way. The process goes like this:

  • Highlight the key content words in the paragraph (nouns, verbs and short phrases).
    • Leave out fillers and connectors (Morel’s “glue words”).
    • Put the highlighted words into a fresh document out of order (whiteboard, fresh sheet of paper, new screen). You can even cut them up and shuffle them if you like the tactile presence of words.
    • Go off and do something else for awhile – have a tea break, talk to a friend, go for a walk, or at least work on some different writing if you are under time presser.
    • Return to the shuffled words and look at them through fresh eyes. What is the main idea these words are trying to communicate?
    • Rewrite the paragraph with the minimum extra words needed for the paragraph to make sense.

Do you have some other writing exercises to help reduce word count and tighten up the writing? I’d love to hear about other ways of doing this.