Cutting your academic writing down to meet a specific word limit can be tricky – sometimes more so than writing the essay itself! But don’t panic, you don’t have to start from scratch. There are some quick fixes that can help you get your word count down.
Below are our top tips for students who need to decrease their word count.
Look Out for Wordiness
It can be tempting, particularly in academia, to be wordy in your writing. Whether it’s intentional or not, most of us are guilty of this at some point.
To reduce your word count, look out for wordy sentences. If you can say the same thing in fewer words, make the change. Here’s an example:
Wordy: By far the most important aspect of this study to take into account is the way in which the participants responded to the final course of hair loss treatment.
Not wordy:The most important takeaway is how the participants responded to the final course of hair loss treatment.
Not only does reducing wordiness help decrease the word count, but it also makes your work easier to read and understand.
One common source of wordiness is redundancy. This means using two words when one will do. Take the following sentence, for example:
Participants were then subjected to an unexpected surprise task.
Here, the phrase “unexpected surprise” involves a redundancy: i.e., Since a surprise is by definition unexpected, adding “unexpected” here doesn’t tell us anything. And this means we can cut “unexpected” without losing anything from the sentence.
Other common redundant phrases include “past history,” “consensus of opinion,” and “end result.” Keep an eye out for phrases like these so you can remove any redundant terms.
Watch Out for Nominalizations
Another common source of wordiness is nominalization. This refers to describing an action using a noun and a verb when a verb alone would work. For instance:
We conducted an investigation into the effect of sleep deprivation on memory.
Here, “conducted an investigation” is a nominalization comprising a verb (“conducted”) and a noun (“investigation”). But there is a verb form of “investigation” we could use instead:
We investigated into the effect of sleep deprivation on memory.
This simple switch immediately removes two words from the sentence. If you need to reduce the word count in a document, look out for places to make changes like this.
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Use Fewer Modifiers
Cutting back on modifiers such as adverbs and adjectives can be a good way to reduce the word count in a document. For example:
The whole experiment was massively impacted by the weather.
Here, while “whole” and “massively” do emphasize the extent of the impact described, they’re not essential to the meaning of the sentence. We could therefore rephrase more concisely and say:
The experiment was impacted by the weather.
Another one to look out for is “very.” A lot of the time, this can be cut as shown above. But you can also often change the word being modified to remove the need for the “very” in the first place.
For instance, while you might be tempted to say “very hungry” or “very happy,” you could look for a single term that communicates the same idea in each case (e.g., “famished” or “delighted,” respectively).
The key is to consider whether the modifying term is essential to the meaning of the sentence. If not, then it can usually be removed. If so, think about whether there is a single word that would express the same idea more concisely.
Use the Active Voice
Another great tip for reducing your word count is to use the active voice where possible.
People are often encouraged to use the passive voice in academic writing because it can give your work an objective, scholarly tone. But it can also be wordier than the active voice. For instance:
The recall task was then completed by the participants.
This sentence is in the passive voice because it foregrounds the task (i.e., the object of the action) over the participants (i.e., the people performing the action). But it would be more concise to phrase this in the active voice, placing the participants first in the sentence:
The participants then completed the recall task.
Looking for places to rephrase in the active voice throughout your work can therefore help to reduce the overall word count.