10 ideas to reduce wordcount in academic writing

Image by Erik Lindstrom from Pixabay

You have been given an assessment to complete and it has a word count. You panic. How do you write all your ideas to show your knowledge and understanding AND keep to the word count?

This is a common experience and I feel like I have spent most of the past two days advising students on how to manage their word usage in assignments to keep within the word count set. It seems to me that writing within the word count is a perpetual problem, so tomorrow I will be able to give my students a link to this blog and hopefully the ideas here will make a difference for them.

I had my own list of tips but thought I should check online first to ensure I was not simply going to repeat the advice already available. There are a lot of basic tips about the types of words to use, but a lot of what I am suggesting here is based on my own learning while I was a student. I believe we all learn differently, and no doubt write differently too, so while I hope these tips will help many people please feel free to take those you feel will help you, and if you have any ideas that I have not included, please feel to tell me through the comments.

  1. Keep Focused
    Have a copy of your assessment question(s) visible as you write and once you have written a sentence or paragraph, look back over your work and ask yourself how what you have written answers the question. If you cannot answer this, then you probably do not need it.

  2. Duplication/Repetition
    As a student this is something I was really guilty of. When I felt something was really important I would repeat my ideas for emphasis – how important was emphasised by how often I repeated it. I think my maximum was 4 times. However, now as a lecturer I know that because you are working within a word limit, you should only be providing important information and thus does not require further emphasis.

  3. Abbreviations
    Use abbreviations where you can (HRM instead of Human Resource Management) but ensure that you indicate what the abbreviation relates to the first time you introduce it.That said, be careful that you are permitted to use abbreviations – for me, using HRM is fine, but admin should be in full, for example.

  4. Headings
    Students regularly provide lengthy headings, sometimes typing out the full question. This is using up your word count, so pick out the key themes for the section you are writing. For example, if you had a question that asked you to identify 4 activities undertaken by a HR Department, your heading could be ‘HR Activities’.

  5. Rephrasing
    When I am writing, I find I write a lot of unnecessary information that I can easily remove. When writing academically and to keep within set word counts, it is necessary to be focused, so once I have finished a draft I can read through my work to see where I can condense my ideas, to get my word count down. It is necessary to be ruthless with your writing, but this is a skill that comes with time.

    So applying that, I would reduce the above paragraph thus:

    Academic writing requires focus, so I need to review my first draft to remove the excess information. Ruthlessness is a key skill to be developed.

  6. Phrasal Verbs etc
    There are some groups of words/phrases which can be replaced with a single word. You should always read through your work to see where you can make these changes. Examples which occured to me as I wrote are:

    Need to be – require
    make sure – ensure

    There are likely to be many occurrences of these words that you use without realising it, but once you are aware of them you will start to see them everywhere.

  7. Superfluous Words
    When writing, there are some words and expressions that do not really contribute anything to your work – such as the use of the word ‘really’ I just used. It is unnecessary. Some examples, to get you started are:

    Try to write – write
    It could be/it is possible/it is likely – it is – reduces your word count but also will add to the confidence that comes across in your writing
    Apparently, evidently, obviously – not necessary
    Most of the time – frequently/often

  8. Negative v Positive Expression
    Writing in the negative tends to use up more words, than writing positively. Often it will be possible to find a positive word to replace the negative. Eg:

    Do not exceed the word limit – stay within the word limit (and look for an alternative for stay within)

  9. Paraphrase
    Paraphrasing means putting the ideas you have read into your own words rather than copying from the text and presenting as a direct quotation. Typically, by paraphrasing, you will be able to express yourself in fewer words. Not only is this a better standard of academic writing, but shows you understand what you are writing about.
  10. Sentence Length
    By writing shorter sentences you will be more focused, your ideas will be clearer and you will use less words. It is better to use simple, straightforward language which means you will convey your message clearly and confidently. Longer sentences can become very complex, confusing and difficult to read.

    By shorter sentences I mean less than 25 words. I have not checked every single sentence, but certainly most of what I have written here complies with this rule.
Image by Jerry Kimbrell from Pixabay

These are tips I share regularly with my students, and I hope they may help others. Please contribute to this discussion if you have any tips; or ask questions if you are struggling with your own writing.

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  1. This is great advice. I agree, especially with the phrasal verbs. I’m an editor, and a lot of dissertations include these types of unnecessary phrases.

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