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  • Writer's pictureCatie Phares

How to trim and condense your document in 4 steps

A major reason people use an editor is to trim the length of their document and make it more concise. This makes sense: editing your own writing is hard enough, but omitting it entirely is gut-wrenching (it’s been famously referred to as “killing your darlings”). It can feel like admitting that some of your carefully thought-out work was a complete waste of time (it never is, but that’s a conversation for another time).


Yet keeping your writing concise is vital if it’s going to be read by other people—particularly if many of those people are busy academics themselves. As a general rule, the longer the piece, the higher the bar to acceptance. 


We’ve talked before about how sticking to a journal’s guidelines, including its preferred word count, is one of the easiest ways to reduce the chance that your manuscript will be desk-rejected. But conciseness has many other benefits, too. 


Why cut?


It increases readability 

Worldwide, attention spans are decreasing, and people are both busier and more inundated with information than ever. This means that brief communications already have a leg up over their lengthier counterparts. 


Journals are well aware of and on board with this trend. I’ve noticed that some have actually started charging authors an additional fee for going over 10,000 words of body text (just like I do, and for the same reason I do: longer papers are harder to persuade readers to read and require additional editorial work, too). Research shows that this passion for conciseness even applies to titles, with shorter ones potentially getting more citations in some fields.  


In short (no pun intended), all types of readers find a shorter article more readable—and more readable means more likely to be accepted, published, read, cited, and overall successful as a piece of research.

 

It strengthens your research

To understand why less is often more, we need to talk about dilution. Essentially, dilution means that when you mix stronger or more relevant elements with weaker or less relevant elements, the overall impact of the combined elements is reduced. Hence, as Dr. Niro Sivanathan (a brilliant client of mine who has researched this topic extensively) notes, “In the world of communicating … quality trumps quantity. By increasing the number of arguments, … you actively weaken [your case].” His fascinating TED Talk on the topic (selected by TED as one of its 10 most popular talks of 2021) can be found here. I highly recommend checking it out!

 

It demonstrates mastery of your craft and your material 

Anyone can ramble—in fact, we all should as part of the creative process of writing. But chiselling a well-crafted piece of scholarship out of the pile of unhewn rock is a much more refined process and one that readers deeply appreciate, even if they don’t consciously recognize it. The fact that it’s a lot harder to explain something in 30 words than in 300 words (the irony is not lost on me that this blog post is proof!) means that concise writing stands out, now more than ever, demonstrating a thorough understanding of both the material and effective writing. NOTE: At the same time, I don’t recommend having “concise” as a goal while writing. We want to separate the creative and critical processes as best we can at first—and cutting or condensing text is a primarily critical exercise.


How to cut

Unless you’re just trying to shave off a few hundred words or so, the standard sentence-level tips won’t cut it (again, no pun intended). You’ll need to trim off whole paragraphs and even sections, which, after all the work that’s gone into creating them, can feel rather like chopping off body parts! 


So here’s my handy guide on how to “kill your darlings” with the least time and angst. I recommend doing Steps 1–3 (in that order) on any paper; the result will be a tighter, stronger manuscript. Step 4, however, is usually only necessary if you’re really struggling to reduce the word count to meet a journal’s requirements.


Step 1

Look at your Methods and Results sections, if you have them; are there any details that could be moved from those sections to become an appendix or a table and then replaced in the paper with a sentence or two summarizing their overall significance? For instance, “We replicated the conditions of Study 2 with two main changes—participants were supervisors rather than employees, and were located in the United States—and several smaller, less significant changes; full details can be found in Appendix A.” or “Results were largely as expected, in line with those of Study 1; see Table 2 for a comparison of the two studies’ outcomes.” Note that relegating all of your data to tables or appendices is a mistake (you want to keep key data in the body of the paper to show how you arrived at your findings without making readers jump back and forth between your arguments and their supporting materials). However, at least some data can usually be moved out of the body text if length is an issue. 


Step 2

Write out your central question or thesis—just that. Now zoom out and scan the document’s headings only; are there any sections that, now that you think about it, may be deeply interesting or relevant but not strictly necessary to understanding this central idea that you’ve written down? (Be ruthless here!) If the answer is yes, cut those sections/spots entirely and ensure that they’re not mentioned elsewhere in the paper; a Ctrl+F (Command+F for Mac users) search for key terms and select snippets from the removed content can help catch any leftovers.


Step 3

Read the paper with fresh eyes (i.e., at whatever time of day you’re most “on” mentally) and ensure that you make the same observation or argument no more than twice if it’s foundational to the research and no more than once if it’s not. Convinced that something deserves reiterating? Use a little hack like “As noted in our discussion of x,...” or “Similar to our arguments on y” to remind readers of previously mentioned points without stating those points in full again. 


Step 4

Do a Ctrl+F (Command+F) search for the following: “example,” “for instance,” “e.g.,” and “i.e..” Ensure that every time you’ve used any of those terms is warranted—by which I mean strictly necessary to a full and complete understanding of your core idea. This step hurts because examples and explanations are wonderful: they help clarify and illustrate, and most academic work could benefit from a few more of them, in my opinion. Nevertheless, when cutting the word count is the top priority, many of these helpful clarifications may have to be sacrificed.


I hope these steps help you trim your next manuscript to be stronger, more readable, and more polished—with correspondingly stellar results.



-Catie Phares


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