How to Trim Down a Manuscript to Meet a Word Limit

by | Apr 21, 2016

Most forms of academic writing come with a word limit, whether it is imposed by a journal publisher, conference committee, or dissertation advisor. Meeting that word limit can be hard—we usually want to say everything!

One of the most important elements of good writing and publishing is knowing how to edit your work. This means separating necessary material for your audience to understand your point from material that detracts from that process.

Below are some easy ways you can trim down your manuscript’s word count to ensure your argument and stakes shine.

Ditch the passive voice

You’ve probably heard since you began writing that you should avoid passive voice whenever possible. You probably teach your students about this as you wax eloquently about clarity and direct prose. 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, changing passive voice to active voice usually shortens your sentences, trimming superfluous words from the text to ensure you stay within the word limit.

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Cut an example or case study

Using storytelling techniques like concrete examples or case studies is an excellent way to illustrate your argument. They should definitely be part of your writing as they help readers understand how your ideas play out in various circumstances. They ground your claims in material circumstances.

But if you need to reduce your manuscript’s word count, see if there is an example or case study that you can cut entirely or at least curtail to ensure you stay under the word limit.

Only include the minimum information a reader needs to follow your argument. The rest is just filler and detracts from your point. (You can always use those examples in another publication.)

Change modifying clauses to adjectives or possessives

Academic writing tends to be stuffed with giant strings of prepositional phrases. Not only does this make for bad writing and confusing prose (where is the subject?! who is doing the thing?!) but it also significantly bloats the word count. Turning these phrases into adjectives or possessives clears this up and helps you stay within the word limit.

For example, “the performance by Kerry Washington on Scandal in 2015” (9 words) is more succinctly phrased as “Kerry Washington’s 2015 Scandal performance” (5 words). Similarly, “the theory that Zakiyyah Iman Jackson developed in Becoming Human, which has since become quite influential” (16 words) can more clearly be written “Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s influential theory from Becoming Human” (8 words). The meaning is retained but the writing is more direct, less confusing, and shorter.

Move dates to before events or texts

As a specific case of the previous recommendation, consider your use of dates. Providing a date to locate an event or text in time helps make your manuscript accessible to diverse audiences. But where you place that date in your sentence affects the manuscript’s word count.

One easy way to cut a few words is to move the location of the date to before the event or text—place the adjective (the date) before the noun (the event or text it modifies).

For example, “the fire of 1834” (4 words) can be changed to “the 1834 fire” (3 words). Similarly, “Gloria Anzaldúa’s book Borderlands/La Frontera, published in 1987″ (7 words) can be changed to “Gloria Anzaldúa’s 1987 book Borderlands/La Frontera” (5 words).

This saves you a few precious words, which add up over the text. It also makes for an easier read in general.

Replace adjectives and adverbs with nouns and verbs

Adjectives and adverbs are generally weaker words in a sentence and we often rely on them when we can’t think of better options. They also can take up unnecessary space in a text and make it difficult to stay under a word limit.

In contrast, a vivid verb captures the feeling of many adjectives and adverbs but uses a fraction of the space. For example, consider how the phrase “very slowly and casually walked” (4 words) pales in comparison to “sauntered” (1 word). That one word conjures a much more vivid image for readers.

Get creative with phrasing and terminology to identify the evocative terms that best convey your meaning.

Vague, filler adverbs like “very” and “really” should also go—they just take up space.

Reduce your discursive footnotes or endnotes

Scholarly writers often cram a lot of material into the notes that isn’t actually necessary for the text at hand. As discursive notes (in contrast to citational notes) allow you to elaborate on things in the main text body, it’s tempting to use that space to add additional examples, provocative questions, or conceptual asides.

But the goal of notes should be the same as the goal for the body of the text: to provide the reader with the information they need to understand your point. Everything else should go.

If the material in a discursive note is not absolutely necessary for the point you’re making, you can delete it. You can always use that material elsewhere.

Trim your citations

For those publications where citations contribute to the word limit, set aside time to critically assess your citation practices.

In scholarly writing, it is vital to fully cite and credit those thinkers whose work shapes your own. But be honest and pragmatic about which citations are actually necessary and which you may have added out of obligation or wanting to show how well-read you are (we’ve all been there).

Obviously, if you’re directly quoting, summarizing, or paraphrasing from another person, they should be cited. Those are easy to identify.

But take a look at your citations that reference multiple texts in relation to general concepts or approaches. For example, if you have a methodology section explaining how you conducted your oral histories, you may find a citation that looks like “(Author A 2020; Author B 1971; Author X 2019; Author D 1934). Is each of those texts vital for grounding your point in that specific area of your manuscript? Are any of them redundant? Can several of those citations be replaced with a more current and relevant singular citation?

In this example, the 1934 and 1971 citations immediately stand out as quite old—now, depending on your field, they may be foundational texts and therefore quite relevant. But take the time to actually consider this rather than assuming you must cite everyone who was on your qualifying exams list or that you read back in graduate school. If those texts don’t actually inform your present manuscript in a direct way, and don’t help readers position you within the debates you’re engaging, they can often be cut without losing any meaning.

Change your citation style

A final technique for trimming your manuscript to stay under a word limit is to switch your citation style. Obviously if you are bound by a journal’s style guide or your publisher has specified which styles are allowed, you have to follow those rules. But if not, converting your citation style can save you space.

Some citation styles take up more space than others and you can save precious words by choosing one of the more succinct ones. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style’s notes and bibliography style (especially without shortened notes) tends to take up more space than the Chicago Manual of Style’s author-date style, APA style, and MLA style.

The techniques listed here allow you to trim down your manuscript to meet a word limit while also crafting stronger prose. Your readers and your publisher alike will thank you.

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Cathy Hannabach is the founder and CEO of Ideas on Fire as well as the host of the Imagine Otherwise podcast.

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