If you follow some of the advice on this blog, chances are one of your biggest challenges is keeping your assignments within the specified word count limits. It’s a good problem to have (at least compared to having not enough to say), and in this post, I’ll discuss 4 steps to reduce word count in your academic work.
First things first – write to think.
Before I get started, it’s worth making an important point regarding writing in general. There are essentially two ways to think about the process of writing:
- Writing as the outcome of thinking – in other words, you think deeply first, construct your argument, and then simply transfer it to paper by way of writing. You do little revising.
- Writing as a form of thinking – in other words, writing helps you flesh out your thinking and develop your arguments. Writing is an iterative process, wherein you might revise numerous times and even rewrite altogether, but this all contributes to a better quality of thinking.
Which side of the fence do you sit on? I’m an avid advocate of the latter perspective and approach – and I’m not alone. Numerous books and journal articles have covered the topic of “writing as thinking”. If the idea interests you, have a look at Henning’s “Finding your way in academic writing.”
In short, putting pen to paper as early as possible (i.e. before you feel “ready”) and then revising as your thoughts develop (as a result of writing) is an excellent way to improve the overall quality of your arguments and academic work. To do this, you cannot constantly fret over word count (at least not while you’re writing). Instead, you need to let the words flow onto paper, and then sort the wheat from the chaff at a later stage. Sure, you need some constraints, but forcing yourself to apply X model within 350 words is going to stifle your flow and limit your depth. Rather let your thoughts flow onto paper, and then trim them down once your thinking is fully fleshed out.
What does this have to do with reducing your word count? It means that word count reduction (particularly, the techniques I’ll cover below) is something you do once you’ve wrapped up your writing, not while you write. Accordingly, all the steps I’ll propose here are to be applied after the fact.
Right, let’s get into it. Follow these 4 steps (in this order) to strategically reduce your word count without losing the “meat” of your assignment/dissertation.
Step 1: Audit for purely descriptive content.
Broadly speaking, content can fall into one of two categories – descriptive or analytical. Simply put, descriptive content eludes to the “what”, whereas analytical content describes the impact and consequence of the event/factor/situation – in other words, the “so what”. The table below highlights some of the differences between the two:
Ideally, you should try to keep your discussion analytical, rather than descriptive (read more about this here). There’s always be a need for some descriptive content, but ideally, this should be limited to only that content which forms the foundation for analytical content. Therefore, the first step of word count reduction is to audit for descriptive content which does not lead to analytical content. In other words, content which is purely descriptive, and is not required to get to the “so what?” content.
Read through your assignment and trim out all content that doesn’t make the analytical cut, or doesn’t form a foundation for analysis. This is your first target – be aggressive with your trimming. Descriptive writing is pure fat and will not earn you marks – kill it!
Step 2: Audit for content which does not contribute towards answering your research question(s).
One of the reasons that it’s so important to set unambiguous research questions in your introduction is that this practice allows you to ringfence the focus of your assignment. In other words, it helps you to narrow the discussion to only that which is most relevant.
That said, as you write, you will invariably produce a fair deal of content that does not contribute towards your research questions. You’ll naturally digress into an interesting but irrelevant discussion about A, B and C – this might be very intellectually satisfying, but it doesn’t contribute to answering your research question. Therefore, this sort of content is your next target. Re-read your assignment from start to finish through the lens of your research questions or assignment objectives. That which does not in some way contribute to answering the research question(s) or achieving the assignment objective(s) must go.
Step 3: Audit for overly-detailed section summaries and connectors.
A good piece of academic writing should always feature summary paragraphs that link the end of one section/chapter to the beginning of the next. They should do this by summarising the key points of the former to the direction and purpose of the latter. For example:
“In this section, the analysis revealed that the key contributors to the issue included A, B and C. Accordingly, these factors will be analysed in the next chapter.”
By stating this link very clearly, you help the reader (marker) to understand your argument (which is, after all, completely new to them), which in turn helps you earn marks. Therefore, these summary sections are important. However, they can become wordy and repetitive, and you should, therefore, audit them.
Make sure that they are summarising only the absolute highlights of your argument and providing a clear, well-justified link to the next section. Don’t restate your entire chapter. The example above is what you should aim for, namely:
- Key observations/insights/highlights – followed by
- Logical link to next section
If you are extremely over word count, you may even consider removing these sections altogether. After all, it is better to remove summary content than core content. This should, however, be an absolute last resort as doing so can seriously reduce the overall flow of your assignment and blur the “golden thread” of your argument(s).
Step 4: Audit for wordy, bloated discussion.
This is the easiest of the four steps, and typically what most students look for when trying to reduce word count – but it usually has a comparatively minor impact. Therefore, I’m positioning it as the last step.
Naturally, your assignment will contain sections which are just plain wordy. This is a result of “writing as thinking” (whether you agree with the approach or not!). Therefore, the last step is to audit for sentences and paragraphs which are just plain wordy and rewrite them more concisely.
Some common trimming opportunities:
- Adjectives and adverbs – although these are sometimes necessary when developing your arguments, they are often just bloat contributors. Additionally, they can create an emotive, subjective tone, which is typically not encouraged in academic writing (where objectivity is essential).
- The word “that” – oftentimes, a sentence can communicate the same point without the inclusion of the word “that”. Use Word’s find function (Ctrl+F) to search for “that” and check where it can be omitted.
- Spaces around mathematical operators – if you’re copying numbers from Excel, chances are there are spaces between mathematical operators which can be removed. For example, p < 0.05 (3 words) can be reduced to p<0.05 (1 word).
- Abbreviate/acronymise repetitive phrases/names – if you’re repeatedly referring to a person(s) or organisation(s) that have multi-word names, create acronyms for them and replace all instances with the acronymised version. For example, “Blue Basket Enterprises” (3 words) can be replaced with “BBE” (1 word). Make sure you introduce the acronym early in the assignment and consider presenting a list of abbreviations. A word of warning – don’t overuse this tactic, as too many acronyms can make it difficult for the reader to understand what’s going on!
There you have it – four steps to reduce your word count without losing your core arguments. To recap, you need to:
- Audit for descriptive (rather than analytical) content.
- Audit for content which doesn’t link to the research question(s)/aim(s).
- Audit for overly detailed section summaries.
- Audit for general wordiness and bloat.