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Over The Limit

How to reduce your research paper's word count

Most journals impose word limits on the articles they publish. Saying the same thing in fewer words not only increases your article’s chances of being accepted for publication but also makes it easier to read. In this blog post, I explain how to reduce the word count in your research paper to keep the journal editor and your readers happy.

Wordy phrases

Replace wordy phrases with concise alternatives. For example:

Explained instead of accounted for the fact that

Now instead of at this point in time

Many instead of a large number of

Because instead of due to the fact that.

You can also avoid wordiness by choosing the right verbs. For example, the active voice uses fewer words than the passive voice:

The questionnaire was completed by the participants (passive voice; 7 words)

Participants completed the questionnaire (active voice, 4 words).

Nominalization (changing verbs/adjectives into nouns) also introduces unnecessary passive verbs into your sentences. Use verbs that tighten your text:

A positive correlation between drug use and recovery time was observed (11 words)

Drug use correlated positively with recovery time (7 words).

This would lead to a reduction in patient mortality (9 words)

This would reduce patient mortality (5 words).

Using single verbs instead of phrasal verbs can also reduce the word count. For example:

We cut down on the amount of drug administered over time (phrasal verb; 11 words)

We reduced the amount of drug administered over time (single verb; 9 words).

You can cut this down even further by choosing more appropriate words:

We reduced the drug dosage.

The first person

Using first person pronouns (I, we, me, my, mine, us, our) is a great way to emphasize your perspective and engage your reader. But the first person isn’t always suitable. Take a look at the following example:

We discovered that regular exercise reduced stress levels in healthy participants.

This is not an effective use of the first person. You should keep your tone objective when describing your results – and doing so will use fewer words:

Regular exercise reduced stress levels in healthy participants.

Redundant information

Delete any words that do not contribute important information. Prepositional phrases (groups of words without subjects or verbs) are often redundant and can be deleted without changing the meaning. For example:

Large instead of large in size

Round instead of round in shape

Red instead of red in colour.

Also check whether the modifiers in your article are necessary. For example:

Careful hemodynamic monitoring is necessary to prevent tissue hypoxia during cardiac surgery (Nobody will infer that careless hemodynamic monitoring is acceptable if you delete careful).

Extensive inclusion criteria were used to define the target population (The inclusion criteria will be presented, so no need to tell the reader they are extensive).

Double negatives are also redundant – and unclear. For example:

Although the difference was small, it was statistically significant

is shorter and clearer than

Although the difference was small, it was not statistically insignificant.

Filler phrases such as it has been shown that, it is widely accepted that, and it should be noted that are often redundant, but can be used sparingly to guide your reader through your evolving argument.

Be specific

Concrete language is often more concise than abstract language. It also makes your writing easier to understand. For example:

Patients with pancreatic cancer were examined by oncologists

is more specific and less wordy than

Patients with pancreatic cancer were examined by appropriately qualified medical personnel.

Use tables and figures

Save space by presenting large amounts of data in a table. Remove any redundant information (e.g. a column headed Sex is not necessary if all participants were female) and put units in the headings or footnotes rather than in each data field. Find out more about using tables effectively here.

Don't repeat yourself

Avoid repetition. Unnecessary adjectives are a common culprit ─ for example, past history, end result, advance planning, in actual fact, various different. Adverbs can be repetitive too ─ definitely proved, completely eliminate, may possibly, repeat again. Check whether your adjectives and adverbs give new information. If not, delete them.

Do not repeat information from tables and figures in the text. A brief reference to what the figure or table is showing is sufficient. For example:

We collected data on age, sex, BMI, use of hormonal contraceptives, and Becks Depression Inventory score for all patients (Table 1)

is wordy and redundant. Try:

Patient characteristics are presented in Table 1.

Emphasize with care – intensifiers don’t always add meaning: exactly the same, absolutely essential, extremely significant, and very unique are all examples of redundant intensifiers and can be deleted.

Avoid continuous tenses

The continuous tenses indicate that something is ongoing. They are usually best avoided in research papers because they force unnecessary use of the verb to be. For example:

We measured creatinine levels in patient urine (simple past tense)

is concise and easier to read than

We were measuring creatinine levels in patient urine (past continuous tense).

Abbreviations

Abbreviations can make your text concise because they avoid repetition of long words. Many scientific words are better known by their abbreviations, such as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and PCR (polymerase chain reaction). These abbreviations improve the flow and clarity of your writing and usually do not need to be defined:

Patient DNA was amplified by PCR

will be understood by most readers. However, non-standard abbreviations should be defined when you first use them:

The SN, SC, and IC are components of the MB

is impossible to understand. The reader needs to know what the abbreviations mean:

The substantia nigra (SN), superior colliculus (SC), and inferior colliculus (IC) are part of the midbrain (MB).

Don’t define abbreviations more than once in the main text. Abbreviations will only reduce your word count if you use them consistently after they are defined.

Be ruthless with your red pen

Authors are often reluctant to delete the words they have taken so much time to write. But cutting unnecessary information from your paper will draw attention to the important content. If time allows, put your article to one side for a while before deciding what to delete. This will make awkward phrases and irrelevant information easier to spot. Following the tips outlined in this article will help you decide what needs to go to get your word count under the journal’s limit.

Reducing the word count is easier than you think.

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a medical journal.

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