Monthly Archives: November 2019

Over the limit: reducing the word count

By Claire Bacon

Most journals impose word limits on the articles they publish. Saying the same thing in fewer words not only increases an 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 a research paper to keep the journal editor and the 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)

Nominalisation (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 emphasise the author’s perspective and engage the 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. Keep the tone objective when describing 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 the 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 a reader through the author’s evolving argument.

Be specific

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

Patients with pancreatic cancer were examined by oncologists.

is 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 (eg 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.

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 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.

Emphasise 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 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 the 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 first used:

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 the word count if they are used 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 a paper will draw attention to the important content. If time allows, put an 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 the word count under the journal’s limit.

 

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist and an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copyeditor for The Canadian Journal of Anesthesia.

This article was published on Claire’s blog on 23 October 2019. Many thanks to Claire for granting permission to amend and republish it.


If you’re interested in learning more about helping authors to make their writing more clear and concise, then consider taking the SfEP’s Plain English for Editors course.


Photo credits: You choose your words – Brett Jordan on Unsplash; Books – Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Proofread and posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

SfEP conference 2019: what they said

The SfEP’s 30th annual conference, ‘In the beginning was the word’, was held at Aston University on 14–16 September 2019, and in the days and weeks that followed there emerged a crop of blogs by those who attended. A few overall themes emerged. [Disclaimer: this post contains strong language.]

Celebration

By next year’s conference the SfEP will be the CIEP (the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading). These glad tidings were announced during the AGM and celebrated with a glass of fizz during the gala dinner, where Chair Sabine Citron and chartership adviser Gerard Hill were given a standing ovation. But what does it all mean? Sarah Dronfield explains: ‘This doesn’t mean that we, as individuals, will become chartered editors or proofreaders (although that might be a possibility for some of us one day) but hopefully it will show the world what a valued profession this is and how much our skills and knowledge are needed.’

Accommodation

Bloggers expressed delight with the facilities provided by Aston University. The rooms were luxurious and comfortable, and the meals, too, had a high TOG rating: ‘There was chilli in every main-course dish and even in the cheesecake’ (Sarah Dronfield). Amazed conference newbie Matthew Pinnock described the lunches: ‘I must admit I was expecting buffets with unidentifiable sandwiches … but these were worthy of dinners!’ Marieke Krijnen actually took photos of the food. Impressive.

Coronation

A disproportionate number of those who blogged about the conference (Annie Deakins, Sarah Dronfield, Matthew Pinnock, Sophie Playle and Kia Thomas) were also members of a team called [checks notes] ‘Kevin’ that was crowned the winner in the Saturday evening post-dinner quiz. (This is statistically interesting. Are bloggers good at quizzes, or do successful quiz participants like blogging?) Victorious Team Kevin celebrated well into the next day, sharing its booty – tubs of Cadbury’s Heroes – with fellow delegates. Thanks very much for that, folks.

But the true coronation came on Sunday morning. Kia Thomas, whose session on swearing had been a highlight of the 2018 conference, sportingly observed, having attended the Whitcombe Lecture: ‘I need to concede my “SfEP’s sweariest speaker” crown to Chris Brookmyre.’ And indeed Chris’s colourful language was noted in many of the blogs, particularly his fascinating detail that ‘the BBC tolerates a maximum of fifteen “fucks” in any radio episode’ (Marieke Krijnen). With true tales of his life as a writer and subeditor, Chris inspired the same levels of hilarity as a stand-up comedian, with several bloggers observing that his early morning lecture (9.30am start) did a great job of waking everyone up.

Concentration

The different conference sessions were covered by the bloggers in a way that made you wish you’d been to theirs, whatever ‘theirs’ was – this even extended to the trainer day on the Saturday, described by Liz Jones as three-dimensional CPD. It all sounded amazing, but particular highlights seemed to be Gerard Hill’s The Art of Querying (Claire Bacon and Annie Deakins), Louise Harnby’s Switching to Fiction (Anne Gillion and Claire Bacon), Laura Poole’s From the Failure Files (Marieke Krijnen and Anne Gillion) and the Lightning Talks, which included everything from the Welsh language (Sue Walton’s talk) to what editors can learn from cats (Eleanor Abraham’s talk).

Perspiration

Two of the bloggers – Claire Bacon and Marieke Krijnen – managed to join the Run On group run on the Sunday at 7am. Anne Gillion wasn’t so lucky, due to a back problem: ‘My biggest disappointment was not being able to take part in the inaugural conference run with fellow members of the SfEP Run On group.’ But, she wisely concluded, ‘there’s always next year’.

Relaxation

The gala dinner, on the Sunday night, was an opportunity to kick back with good food, good company, sweet music (The Linnets’ wonderful performance of Riffat Yusuf’s hilarious lyrics to the tune of ‘He Who Would Valiant Be’ – Annie Deakins includes a photo) and another entertaining talk, this time from Rob Drummond, reader in linguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. Although most of us had progressed through at least some of the stages of linguistic pedantry depicted in his graph, we were encouraged to relax completely about others’ language use with the words of Rob’s teenage son: ‘Mate, let it go. It’s non-standard.’

Acceleration

Our honorary president, David Crystal, gave the final plenary lecture on Monday afternoon (Anne Gillion dedicated a chunk of her blog to this). The overwhelming feeling delegates took away from David’s account of developments in the years between the second and third editions of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language is that things in language and editing are changing, and changing fast – so fast that if you want to express the fact that you have laughed out loud at what someone has said, you can’t write ‘lol’ any more: you have to write ‘actual lol’. Emojis, which some of us are only just learning how to use, are moving on, too: ‘Emoji use is already past its peak, and David Crystal wonders if in a few years we’ll be on to the next thing.’ (Kia Thomas)

Participation

But the really magical moments from the 2019 SfEP conference seemed to come from just being there with everyone else. Sophie Playle (in her newsletter) put it like this: ‘There’s often quite a lot of buzz around the conference, and I think it’s mostly down to the fact we editors so rarely get together in such numbers.’ She wrote: ‘You’d think being a solo business owner who mostly works from home would mean you don’t have a professional community, but the SfEP community (well, the editorial community globally, really) is incredibly active and friendly. Even if we only see each other less than once a year, we often talk so much online that we feel like we all know each other well.’ Kia expressed this too: ‘When you chat to someone online nearly every day, it’s really weird when you sit down together and work out you’ve actually only met once, two years ago.’ For online colleagues, the experience of meeting each other in real life was powerful. Claire summed up the feeling: ‘you are my people’.

Anticipation

So, are our bloggers excited about next year? You bet. ‘Here’s to #SfEP2020’ proclaims self-confessed loather of conferences, Matthew. ‘I will definitely attend #SfEP2020 in Milton Keynes next year!’ says Marieke. Anne exclaims: ‘Can’t wait to do it all again in 2020. Milton Keynes, here we come!’ Kia rounds up our round-up with: ‘I’ll see you all in Milton Keynes for hashtag SfEP2020 actual lol!’


See the November/December issue of Editing Matters for a full account of the 2019 SfEP conference.

Thanks to Sarah Dronfield for her work in compiling a list of blogs on the SfEP forum, and to a member of the social media team for pulling this round-up together.


Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.