Editing Tip: Conciseness and Word Count Reduction

Concise writing in academic research is crucial for clear communication. Word limits and reader attention demand it. This summary emphasizes that researchers can write clearly and effectively by focusing on what matters most.

Updated on April 18, 2024

aje editing tips

As a researcher, you have many reasons to write concisely. Grants, conference abstracts and journal articles often have strict word count limits, making it critical to convey a lot of important information in as few words as possible. Even if you aren’t aiming for a specific word count, using clear, simple language can help you communicate your ideas more effectively. 

Nevertheless, it can be challenging to be brief in academic writing. In many cases, specificity is important to ensure that your reader understands exactly what method you applied, what result you obtained, or what claim you are making. Beyond this, our own preconceptions and habits can sometimes get in the way. Many of us were rewarded in school for using obscure vocabulary or unnecessary verbiage because it “sounded smart” (...or helped us reach minimum essay length requirements with less effort). Modern technology poses new challenges, too. If you have used ChatGPT or other generative AI tools to help with drafting, you may have noticed that the output often features excessive adjective use, repetitive phrasing, and long sentences with complicated structures.

In this article, I will share some of the tips that I have found most helpful for conciseness in academic writing, including some of the most common constructions that I target as an editor to reduce word counts and simplify phrasing.

First, and most importantly, make sure that the information you are including is actually necessary. Does the reader need it to understand the purpose or conclusions of your study? If so, does it belong in the location you are considering? For example, methodological details or supplementary results are usually unnecessary in an Abstract and may even distract readers from more important points. Similarly, background information from the field that is not immediately relevant to the rationale for your study can often be cut from the Introduction, and information that was already presented in the Introduction does not need to be repeated in a Discussion section. 

Second, consider redundancies in paragraph or sentence structure that can be condensed: 

  • Multiple sentences that express the same idea in slightly different ways: “Littermates with different genotypes were monitored for symptoms for 18 months. The symptoms were recorded for up to 18 months.” (second sentence can be deleted)
  • Adjacent sentences that overlap in content: “The immunofluorescence images were photographed by a Zeiss confocal microscope. Images were taken at 100× magnification.” to “Immunofluorescence images were taken at 100× magnification with a Zeiss confocal microscope.”
  • Within the Results section, sentences describing the contents of figures or tables: “Figure 1 shows a plot indicating the positive correlation between social media use and negative mood.” to “Social media use was positively correlated with negative mood (Figure 1).”
  • Across the manuscript, repeated definitions of abbreviations or other terms, or of study elements (cell lines, etc.). 

At the sentence level, look for words or phrases that do not add meaning or content. A few common offenders:

  • Descriptors that are redundant with the description presented (“a multicenter study performed at Center A, Center B, and Center C” (“multicenter” is implied), “disease progression during follow-up” (“during followup” is implied, often), “the EMT process” vs. “EMT”, “specific details”)
  • Unnecessary or repetitious adjectives (“a large and extensive study”)
  • Introductory clauses or transition elements (“However,” “Nevertheless,” “In addition,” “Next,” “Subsequently,” etc.) used in multiple sentences in a row
  • Phrases such as “the results showed that”, “as a result”, “it was previously shown that”, “it was found that”, if not necessary to distinguish the results of previous work and current work

When every word counts, one final place to hunt for word count savings is in constructions that can often be replaced with shorter alternatives with no change in meaning:

  • “as well as” vs. “and”
  • “in order to” vs. “to”
  • “reached a peak” vs. “peaked”
  • “were subjected to treatment” vs. “were treated” 
  • the X of the Y (e.g., “the sequencing of the microbiome” to “microbiome sequencing”)
  • a/n X experiment/analysis (e.g., “A western blot experiment showed” to “Western blotting showed”)
  • X of Y was performed vs. Y was XXXed (e.g., “Assessment of the samples was performed” to “The samples were assessed”)
  • that/which X vs. Xing (e.g., “we observed an increase, which indicated...” to “we observed an increase, indicating…”)
  • “the X gene/protein” vs. “X” alone, if it is clear what is being studied
  • Phrases that can be converted to compound modifiers (e.g.,  “a model based on imaging” to “an imaging-based model”)

Happy revising!

Sentence and paragraph structureConcise writingLanguage editingPrepositionClarity in writingWriting a manuscriptAuthor ResourcesGrammar
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