With some of my final papers for the summer term due in the next week, I figured this might be a good time to share some basic tips for decreasing word count. In the past, I’ve written papers, thought I was pretty much done, and then checked word count and realized I was 500 words over the limit.
Like so many others in the same position, I’ve found myself desperately googling “decreasing word count” to find tips for whittling down my writing, and for some reason, all of these articles I’d find would themselves be extremely wordy, and would all seem to offer the same information in scary lists of 50 or more time-consuming strategies for decreasing word count. Those 50+ tips can be boiled down to “5 Basics of Decreasing Word Count” ahead.
Basic #1 – Cut out articles when possible
Cut out a, an, the, that, which, of, from, and other similar words anytime they’re not vital for making a sentence clearer (“that” is usually my most commonly used unnecessary word). Usually they’re not needed, and you can rearrange sentences so they work without them. Try using ctrl+f to look for these words, and check if you can cut them. Sometimes you can!
Basic #2 – Cut out adjectives and adverbs when possible
Cut out unnecessary adverbs and adjectives if they don’t add necessary detail. You don’t need to say people are “incredibly passionate in their motivation to help others” if you really mean “people want to help others.” In fact, any uses of incredibly, extremely, significantly, passionately, intense, severe, etc. can usually be cut without losing meaning. You can use ctrl+f to look for any instances of “ly,” since this can help you find unnecessary adverbs.
Basic #3 – Be less wordy
You can say things in an unnecessarily loquacious manner, or you can just be straightforward. Here’s unnecessarily wordy:
The fruits known as apples, bananas, and oranges are all examples of those that some individuals may enjoy eating from time to time. It may well be that these fruits are among the most preferred in their taste, or perhaps it is simply that these fruits are the most visually appealing.
First of all, the first version makes you sound bourgie, and secondly, the shortened version is just as effective:
Apples, bananas, and oranges are fruits people enjoy. Maybe they taste, or look, the most appealing.
Basic #4 – Replace phrases with words
Avoid phrases like “it is possible that” when you can just say “possibly.” Avoid “it may be that” when you can just say “perhaps.” You can do a quick ctrl+f to find the word “that” and check if it’s surrounded by nonsense. Just look through your writing to see if there are simpler, one-word ways to say certain things.
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do”
– Thomas Jefferson
Basic #5 – Cut out anything that doesn’t explicitly relate to your point
If you’re way over your word count, you need to cut out entire sections. This approach will allow you to drop your word count drastically. So go in, and remove anything that doesn’t explicitly support or help contribute to the main point of your manuscript/essay/article. Remember that some things just don’t strengthen your argument or research as well as others, so be brutal. And remember:
“Brevity is the soul of wit [and good academic writing].”
– William Shakespeare [with aside by me]
A QUICK NOTE IF REDUCING PAGE LENGTH IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN REDUCING WORD COUNT
Bonus tip: If you are more concerned with page length maximums than word count, then you have another factor to consider: length of sentences and words. What I find works here is looking at sentences that don’t “stretch across the page” all the way (they don’t align with the left margin), and finding ways to make the preceding sentences even shorter, thereby cutting down the actual visual length of the paragraph, and therefore buying me page length back.
Aaaaaaaaaaand there you have it. While some of these tips will seem obvious if you’ve written an academic paper, they are still valuable. They can become miserable if you’re trying to cut 100 or more words, but hopefully the tips still help. Got any more tips for reducing word count in academic writing? Please share them in the comments below!