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Five Tips to Reduce the Length of Your Academic Manuscript


Academics often struggle to work within a word limit, character limit, or page limit. The limit might be 250 characters for a title, 300 words for an abstract, 8000 words for a manuscript, or 100 pages for a thesis (with specific requirements for font size, margins, etc). At first glance, these limits seem to work against the goal of producing comprehensive scholarship. However, the requirements are there for a reason. Scientific manuscripts and other scholarly communications—including grant applications and graduate school applications—are only useful if they are read and understood. Many researchers, reviewers, and faculty members have resented spending extra time to decipher manuscripts that are disorganized, repetitive, and poorly worded. The frustration of these readers is why many journals, funding agencies, and graduate programs have very specific requirements for length.

Struggling with word limits is a problem for people writing in their native language, and for people writing in a second language (often English). In fact, people who are writing in their native language often have more trouble working within a word limit than people who must think carefully about every word they put down. Even researchers with many years of success can struggle with being succinct. They may publish high-quality work in well-respected journals, but force readers to take an unnecessarily long and convoluted path to understand their work. For any research project, clearly and concisely describing the work can only increase the likelihood of acceptance.

Many articles on reducing word count focus on tips for reducing the length of sentences or paragraphs. We will start with tips for organizing large sections, such as an individual chapter, an introduction, a materials and methods section, a results section, or a discussion section.

1. Organize each section so that major concepts are explained only once

A major reason why drafts of academic manuscripts can far exceed the word limit is because of poor organization. Authors may discuss the same topic in multiple places, adding just a bit of new information each time. If you find yourself in such a situation, it is often useful to reconsider the paragraph-by-paragraph organization of each major section. This task is difficult to accomplish on a computer screen for any section that's more than a few pages long, so I recommend printing out the text. You can use single-space and smaller font to save paper, but make sure everything is easily readable. The margins should have enough room to jot down notes. Then clear off a conference table, dining table, or other large workspace so you can lay out and organize your text.

Use scissors to separate paragraphs, and Scotch tape to join together parts of a paragraph that are on different pages. Use highlighters or colored pens to mark the main topic of each paragraph. Use your workspace to lay out the paragraphs in a logical order, with the goal of consolidating paragraphs that explain the same topic. Some paragraphs may need to be cut into multiple pieces.

Paperclips, tape, and notes in the margins can be useful for getting things organized. You should focus on the overall organization, but may want to cross out text that becomes unnecessary, and jot down new bits of text to include. For example, a paragraph about bioluminescence in deep sea fish may be incorporated into a larger section on bioluminescence in a variety of marine creatures. When introducing the research question about deep sea fish, the writer might add "Since bioluminescence is often used by predators in the deep sea..."

Once you have the reorganized the paper copy of your text, you will need to revise the electronic version so that it matches. The commands for "search", "cut", and "paste" will be very useful here. While it may be tempting to revise individual sentences at this time, I recommend first reorganizing the electronic version and saving a copy.

Depending on the requirements for the project, some information may need to be repeated in multiple sections. For journal articles, it is often appropriate to define a topic in the introduction, and go into more depth in the discussion. Figure legends usually need to stand alone, so an abbreviation used in 5 different figures must be defined in all 5 figure legends.

For shorter sections—such as an abstract, statement of purpose, or paragraph within a chapter—a good goal is for every sentence to describe a new concept.

2. Differentiate between what is essential and what would be nice to include

For the journal Science, research manuscripts are expected to be no longer than ~4500 words, including references and figure legends. In contrast, the journal Neuron has a limit of ~6800 words (specifically 45,000 characters), excluding references. Therefore, a manuscript for Neuron can include ~50% more text than a manuscript for Science. The additional space is often used to include more background information and interpretation.

A 2021 publication in Neuron starts the introduction as follows:

Genetics is a major contributor to autism spectrum disorders. The genetic component can be transmitted or acquired through de novo ("new") mutation. Analysis of the de novo mutations has demonstrated a large number of potential autism target genes (Gilman et al., 2011; Levy et al., 2011; Marshall et al., 2008; Pinto et al., 2010; Sanders et al., 2011; Sebat et al., 2007).


Excluding the 6 citations, this statement includes 38 words.

If the same research was prepared for publication in Science, a shortened introduction might start as follows: "Genetics is a major contributor to autism spectrum disorders. Analysis of de novo ('new') mutations has demonstrated a large number of potential autism target genes." This 25 word statement might be followed by 4 citations, using "1, 2, 3, 4" in superscript. The 2nd sentence in the original introduction was nice, but not essential for understanding the work.

Consider the specific requirements for your manuscript, and find the right balance between being thorough and being brief. Abstracts are very brief, dissertations and books can be quite expansive, and journal articles are somewhere in between. For longer manuscripts, there are usually many opportunities to condense text. For readers, longer than necessary is never better.

3. Make sure that every sentence adds value

As you refine your manuscript, you should read each sentence and decide whether it is needed. If you can remove a sentence and not lose valuable information, then it's probably best to leave that sentence out. At this stage of editing, it is not sufficient for a sentence to just be true or to just describe a new concept. Each sentence should contribute to the reader's understanding of your research. This is also a good time to make revisions at the sentence level to improve clarity and flow.

4. Check the specific requirements for your manuscript

Many journals, funding agencies, and graduate programs provide extensive "information for authors." Check to see exactly what does and doesn't count towards the word limit, character limit, or page limit. Does the abstract count? What about references, materials and methods, figure legends, and footnotes? What about figures and tables?

5. Make small changes to reduce manuscript length

Once you've made major changes, here are some small changes that can really add up:

Remove "the"

Original: "The increase in salinity was associated with..."
Revised: "Increased salinity was associated with..."

Remove "that"

Original: "Mice that lacked the enzyme..."
Revised: "Mice lacking the enzyme..."

Replace nouns with verbs

Original: "We provided an introduction to..."
Revised: "We introduced..."

Remove unnecessary adverbs (e.g. slowly, effectively) and adjectives

Original: "The small sample was carefully dissected."
Revised: "The sample was dissected."

Remove "of"

Original: "The lens of the microscope..."
Revised: "The microscope lens..."

Use the shortest form of a word

Original: "Graphite was utilized..."
Revised: "Graphite was used..."

Remove unnecessary transitions (e.g. then, furthermore, in fact)

Original: "Indeed, participants provided with..."
Revised: "Participants provided with..."

Define abbreviations for frequently used phrases, then use those abbreviations

Example: "Rodents of unusual size (ROUS) were discovered..."

When working with a page limit, focus on paragraphs that have just a few words on the last line.

Replace passive voice with active voice if possible. (Check your requirements)

Original: "Observations were made..."
Revised: "We observed..."

Don't explain that a citation is coming

Original: "It has been reported that supernovas contain. . . (Lee et al, 2017)"
Revised: "Supernovas contain. . . (Lee et al, 2017)"

Delete unnecessary spaces around mathematical operators

Original: "18 %, n = 65"
Revised: "18%, n=65"

Use "respectively"

Original: "Group A was treated with 2.5 mg, and group B was treated with 5.0 mg."
Revised: "Groups A and B were treated with 2.5 and 5.0 mg, respectively."

Simplify phrasing

Original: "Best of luck as you work to condense and refine your manuscript!"
Revised: "Best of luck as you refine your manuscript!"

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