How to Trim Down a Manuscript to Meet a Word Limit

by | Apr 21, 2016

Meeting a page or word limit in scholarly writing can be difficult. We usually want to say everything! But part of being a professional academic and a good writer is knowing how to edit. Below are several ways we help our editing clients trim down their manuscripts to make stronger arguments and clearer texts.

Ditch the passive voice

I know, you’ve heard this a million times. You teach your students about this. But how often do you actually set aside time to clear the passive voice from your own writing? In addition to making your argument clearer, getting rid of passive voice makes your prose shorter and more direct.

Cut an example or case study

Concrete examples or case studies are excellent ways to illustrate your argument. They should definitely be part of your writing. But see if there are some you can cut entirely or at least trim down to ensure you stay under the word limit set by the publisher, grant review board, or dissertation committee. Only include the minimum information a reader needs to follow your argument. The rest is just fluff and detracts from your point.

Move dates to before events or texts

Change “the fire of 1834” to “the 1834 fire,” and “Gloria Anzaldúa’s book Borderlands/La Frontera, published in 1987” to “Gloria Anzaldúa’s 1987 book Borderlands/La Frontera.” Easy way to trim words without losing any meaning.

Change modifying clauses to adjectives or possessives

Academic writing is stuffed with giant strings of prepositional phrases. Not only does this make for bad writing and confusing prose, it significantly bloats the word count. Turning these into adjectives or possessives clears this right up.

“The performance by Kerry Washington” becomes “Kerry Washington’s performance” and “the theory that Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan developed, which has become quite influential” becomes “Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan’s influential theory.”

Replace adjectives and adverbs with nouns and verbs

Adjectives and adverbs are generally weaker words. A vivid verb captures the feeling of many adjectives and adverbs and uses a fraction of the space. For example, consider how the weak phrase “very slowly and casually walked” pales in comparison to “sauntered.”

Additionally, get rid of “very”—it doesn’t add anything.

Change your citation style

This one is for when you’re really down to the wire and have done all the other things but still find yourself over the word limit. Some citation styles take up more space than others. Chicago Author-Date, APA, and MLA are shorter than Chicago Notes + Bibliography.

Obviously if you are writing an article for a journal or a dissertation for a school with particular style requirements, you have to follow those. But if not, converting your style can save you space.

Use these tips to trim down your writing and make it stronger.

Image credit: WOC in Tech Chat ( Check them out, they’re awesome!

<h3> Author: <a href="" target="_self">Cathy Hannabach</a></h3>

Author: Cathy Hannabach

Cathy Hannabach is the founder and CEO of Ideas on Fire She's the author of Book Marketing for Academics and Blood Cultures: Medicine, Media, and Militarisms as well as host of the Imagine Otherwise podcast.

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