Ways to Reduce the Word Count in an Abstract

Word limits can be frustrating, but there are several ways to reduce your abstract's word count in a pinch.

Updated on January 1, 2013

aje editing tips

How can you shorten your abstract if you are over a word limit? Of course, no tip will fit every situation, but we hope that these ideas will provide some helpful guidance.

One of the most agonizing parts of writing an abstract is paring down your hard-won draft to accommodate a publisher's word limits. This can be particularly challenging for non-native English speakers, where every potential edit risks introducing grammatical and stylistic errors. Based on our editing experience in a wide variety of fields, we offer the following suggestions for expressing your thoughts in as few words as possible. Even if your abstract already satisfies your publisher's guidelines, many of these suggestions will improve the conciseness and readability of your text.

1. Choose efficient verbs

Many sentences can be shortened by using efficient verbs. For example, “The measurements of the soil moisture were made at dawn” can be changed to “The soil moisture was measured at dawn” by replacing the bland verb 'made' with the more apt 'measured.' Similarly, “A comparison between the groups was performed” becomes “The groups were compared.”

2. Incorporate abbreviations and acronyms

Furthermore, judicious use of abbreviations and acronyms can reduce word counts. The introduction of too many novel abbreviations for common terms can confuse your reader, but if an abbreviation is standard, we recommend utilizing it after defining it at first use. For example, “root mean square” is often abbreviated as “RMS”, which saves two words per instance.

3. Avoiding succinct verbs when possible, such as “There is/are…”

In a concise sentence, each word carries an important meaning. In contrast, in the construction “there is (an X that Y),” 'there' and 'is' serve little function besides making the sentence grammatically correct. Such sentences can often be restructured with fewer words. For example, “There is a key that opens the lock” can be rewritten as “A key opens the lock” and “There is a correlation between the data” can be rewritten as “The data are correlated.”

4. Describing your findings

When tempted to use phrases such as “It was found that...”, consider whether your reader needs to be reminded that the following text is a finding of the study. If the nature of sentence is clear, such phrases can be deleted without altering the meaning. For example, “It was found that the bees in the treatment group were less productive” can be reworked as “The bees in the treatment group were less productive.”

One common issue in scientific writing is an overenthusiasm for indicating that results are approximate or likely but not certain. For example, “the value was estimated to be approximately 9.7” is redundant: 'estimated' indicates that the result is approximate. Therefore, “the value was approximately 9.7” or “the value was estimated to be 9.7” is preferable. Additionally, the sentence “The results imply that the disorder might be characterized...” contains two phrases indicating uncertainty, 'imply' and 'might be.' A better phrasing would be “The results imply that the disorder is characterized....”

5. Use parentheses when reporting numerical results

If reporting complex numerical results, consider incorporating parentheses to reduce the word count and improve readability. Consider the following examples (the more concise phrasing is in italics):

  • The value of A was 8.9 in 1956, 14.9 in 1966, and 17.4 in 1976. The value of B was 1.2 in 1956, 3.4 in 1966, and 5.5 in 1976.
    The values of A and (B) were 8.9 (1.2) in 1956, 14.9 (3.4) in 1966, and 17.4 (5.5) in 1976.
  • A, B, and C had a mean of 6 with a standard deviation of 1, a mean of 8 with a standard deviation of 2, and a mean of 5 with a standard deviation of 2, respectively.
    A, B, and C had a mean (± standard deviation) of 6 (±1), 8 (±2), and 5 (±2), respectively.

We hope that these tips will help you keep your text as concise as possible without losing meaning. Please email us with any questions or comments.

Finishing touchesAuthor ResourcesLanguage editingEditing tipsConcise writingWord choiceClarity in writing
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