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Some tricks to reduce word count in academic writing

Reduce word count

More often than not, you end up needing to reduce word count in your academic writing. This can be a painful task, because you don’t want to lose the substance of your writing, but you’ve got no choice if you want to hand the piece in as required.

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There are one or two things you can do to reduce word count without affecting the substance of the writing, though. One thing to remember is that reducing word count actually means reducing the number of spaces (i.e. word delimiters) in the text. It’s not about making it faster to read, necessarily.

Also, make the following quick checks that might let you cut out a lot of word count without making any changes:

  • Does the bibliography count?
  • Do footnotes count?
  • Does the abstract count?

Quite often those can take at least a thousand words off on their own.

Reduce word count by simplifying your style

The goal here is to reduce your writing down to its bear bones, leaving little else behind. This may make your writing less pleasant to read, but realistically you can’t be marked down for that. This isn’t a literature contest - it’s about getting your ideas down on paper in the least amount of words possible.

Also remember that the person reviewing your work and giving you credit is most likely going to scan through it at high speed. They may not even notice your prose style particularly, instead looking for the important content to follow the thread of your argument. In that case, you’re actually making the experience more pleasant for them by cutting out the extras in your writing.

Delete adverbs

Adverbs are usually very deletable in academic writing. At the very least, adverb-verb pairs can be converted into a better chosen verb on its own. For example, “dropped rapidly” could be replaced with “plummeted”.

Tip: using ctrl + f to search through your document for “ly” is a quick way to find a lot of adverbs.

Delete adjectives

Whilst adjectives make your writing livelier and more interesting to read, you can nearly always sacrifice them to reduce word count in academic writing. You probably won’t lose credit for duller writing, but you will for exceeding the word count.

Instead of using adjectives, try to keep your prose clear and straightforward, and get straight to the point. Avoid detailed descriptions unless they are absolutely necessary for following your argument and you are sure that the reader needs the detail.

Delete connectives

This is another tip that will reduce the flow of the text but is effective in reducing word count. Rather than having longer sentences linked with “and” or “but”, just delete those connectives and have two separate sentences. This will reduce the word count.

Again, remember that your reader will most likely be scanning your text at high speed, not reading it in close detail. Keeping everything clear and simple will make this process easier for them.

Delete prepositions

This tactic is a little harder to explain. The idea is to convert chunks of text that use a lot of prepositions (thus adding spaces and increasing your word count) into rephrased, shorter versions without prepositions.

For example, you could replace “tea from China” with “Chinese tea”. It’s only one word, but this adds up if done consistently over a long document.

“Of” is frequently a good candidate for deletion. You can often avoid using “of” just by changing the word order. For example, “writer of fiction” could just as well be “fiction writer”.

Delete auxiliary verbs

As with adjectives and adverbs above, auxiliary verbs might make your sentences more aesthetic if read in close detail, but that shouldn’t be your goal with academic writing. As always, keep it concise and to the point.

The auxiliary verbs you might want to remove in academic writing are ones like “could”, “may”, “might” and so on. These can be useful to express tentativeness, which is often a good thing in academic writing, but sometimes it’s just not necessary. Say what you mean directly and drop the extra verbs wherever you can.

Replace phrases with words

There are certain phrases in English that have become fixed and are used repeatedly in the same form. You can often replace these with single words to reduce your word count.

Again, there isn’t a set rule for identifying these, but go through your text looking for phrases of several words that seem to be expressing one concept. Whenever you spot one, use a thesaurus to identify one word which conveys the same idea.

Eliminate redundancy

You’re likely to have achieved this in steps above, but there may still be some redundancy in your writing that’s increasing the word count unnecessarily. Definitely delete sequences of descriptive or explanatory words and replace them with one word that summarises the list, even if you lose some of the nuance.

Beyond that, eliminating redundancy is about finding parts of your writing that inadvertently say the same thing twice. You can test sentences by deleting various words and seeing if the meaning actually stays pretty much the same. In those cases, always stick with the deletion.

Reduce word count by rearranging your content

Beyond the word and phrase level tricks above, you can achieve some big reductions in word count by making some structural edits to your work.

Reduce the introduction and conclusion

The introduction and conclusion are hugely important parts of a piece of academic writing. Remember, though, that their main function is really to summarise. Give a very concise explanation of your work in the introduction, and reaffirm and back-up your reasoning for it all in the conclusion.

Beyond that, you’re probably wasting word count. There’s no need to go into a lot of detail in these sections - that’s what the main body is for. These sections are all about summarising and condensing. Also remember that you should not include new information in the conclusion - keep it all in the main body.

Cut out repetitive chapter-linking sections

Another habit that a lot of people have in academic writing is to ‘tie off’ each section with a mini-summary and then ‘refresh’ the reader again in the beginning of the next one. This is redundant and wastes a lot of word count.

Try to keep section closings extremely concise and short. The reader has just read the content in that section and shouldn’t need anything beyond a short summary of key points to keep things clear.

You can probably delete the ‘refresher’ at the beginning of sections entirely. Just get right into what that section is about. Leave it up to the reader to follow your argument, and make sure that the main content enables them to do so.

Got any more tips for reducing word count in academic writing? Please share them in the comments below!

Other resources for reducing your word count

Contact me: mhg@eastasiastudent.net