The NIH grant that you are working on only gives you five pages to describe your research strategy. You’re wrestling with a research report for Science that has a maximum word limit of 2500. And the abstract for the conference you’d like to speak at this spring only allows you 300 words to summarize the work you will be presenting. Sound familiar? If you are a scientist, chances are that you have spent plenty of time struggling to reduce the word count of various documents. Here are five helpful hints for communicating your ideas more succinctly, with examples to make the process easier.
1. Remove Filler Words
Filler words take up space without conveying information. They are lurking throughout scientific writing, and once you learn to recognize them, deleting these useless words is an easy way to free up space. Here are some of the worst offenders:
- The fact that
- It has been reported that
- It was observed/found that
- There is/there are
Let’s practice! Here’s a sentence that you might find in the introduction of a research article:
The appearance of the filler words in bold immediately clues you in to the need for some loving care. You could easily change the sentence to:
The incidence of ovarian cancer is increasing in Korea, and numerous risk factors for the disease have been identified.
Just like that, you’ve gone from 28 words to 19!
2. Replace the Passive Voice with the Active Voice
Once upon a time, using the passive voice was practically demanded of scientists. While the passive voice still has its defenders, most journals and grantors now find the active voice perfectly acceptable. In fact, major journals such as Nature and Science actually prefer the active voice! This is lucky for you, as writing in the active voice tends to result in shorter sentences. Here’s an example:
We just saved a couple words and ended up with a fresher, more direct sentence. Reducing the word count by two words may not seem like a big deal, but if you make similar changes throughout a manuscript, you will find that it frees up a lot of space!
3. Don’t Present the Same Thing Twice
Yes, it sounds obvious, but too often we present the same information multiple times throughout a manuscript. Here are some trouble spots to keep an eye on:
- Do you repeat data from tables in the text of your manuscript?
- Have you included information necessary to interpret a figure in the body of the manuscript, as well as in the figure legend?
- Have you repeated information, almost verbatim, at both the beginning and ending of your manuscript?
While repeating essential information several times for emphasis can be helpful when done judiciously, too much repetition just bores the reader. Banishing redundancy is crucial when you are working under the constraints of a tight word limit.
4. Use Acronyms
Now don’t go overboard. Too many acronyms can make a piece of writing difficult to read, but for long phrases that are used often, consider using acronyms. Let’s pretend you are writing a proposal to study the molecular mechanisms underlying maternal-to-child HIV transmission, with an eye towards better prevention methods. You decide to employ two acronyms for terms used throughout your proposal:
Because you used the first phrase 10 times and the second 12 times, you have suddenly reduced your word count by 66. Score! But remember: use acronyms sparingly, saving them for when they are truly needed, and always define them at first use.
5. Avoid Nominalizations
The term nominalization may not sound familiar to you, but with a little practice you will know one when you see it! Nominalization simply means turning a verb into a noun. Instead of saying that something improved, for example, you might refer to an improvement. In addition to sounding a little stuffy, nominalizations can tack on extra words to your writing. Let’s look at an example.
Let’s get rid of those nominalizations:
We’ve gone from 13 words to seven, and the sentence is now much easier to read!
Practice these five tips and they will become second nature. Meeting word limits will become a lot easier, and you will have more time to spend on the more enjoyable parts of the writing process. Chances are that you will also find that your writing has become more engaging. Often, when we feel we have not communicated something well, we add extra words, hoping to clarify our ideas. Paradoxically, this makes matters even worse; our ideas are now just hidden behind a bunch of excess verbiage. Paring down writing is one of the best ways to improve it.
If you would like to learn more about the strategies discussed above, as well as other tricks of the trade, check out the resources listed below.
Passive Voice in Scientific Writing. Duke Graduate School Scientific Writing Resource.
Spangenberg, B. Style Tips: Avoiding Over-Nominalization. The Grammar Gang website.
Scientific Writing Style. University of Hull.