Writing concisely

One of the most difficult parts of academic writing is cutting sentences you laboured over to meet a page, word, or character limit. Fortunately, the same writing and revising techniques that help to reduce word count can also contribute to clear and concise content. And shorter often means better: when we are forced to cut down the word count, our writing becomes more structured and succinct.

The main tip to keep in mind is to keep sentences short. Short sentences are easier to read than long sentences and they help keep your own thoughts in order.

If it is too painful to delete sentences and paragraphs you have previously spent time slaving over, you can always move the text that you take away to another document rather than just deleting it; it may come in handy later and make it the process feel easier for you.

Words

The right words don’t need modifying. Being concise means carefully choosing the most precise words for your message.

  • Delete“the"

You can often omit the word “the” from your text without losing any meaning.

  • When ”the” is necessary

But it can be hard to know when it is okay to delete “the” and sometimes it is necessary. Use the definite article in front of a noun when the listener/reader knows exactly what we are referring to:

because there is only one, e.g. The Vice-Chancellor is speaking today.

because there is only one in that context, e.g. Balder is the oldest building at the university.

because we have already mentioned it, e.g. A doctoral student is defending her thesis today. The thesis is on respiratory distress.

to say something about all the things referred to by a noun, e.g. The heart pumps blood around the body.

to refer to a system or service, e.g. I heard it on the train.

  • Erase “that”

Another word you might be able to erase is “that,” which is often overused in writing. Delete it unless it is essential for making the sentence clear.

  • Revise needless transitions

Transitions can help maintain the flow of your writing but some transitions (indeed, then, furthermore) can be deleted.

  • Eliminate conjunctions

Conjunctions (and, or, but, however) connect two independent statements that can often be rewritten as two separate sentences.

  • Use abbreviations and acronyms

Judicious use of abbreviations and acronyms can reduce word counts, so use them for some terms in your text after defining them at first use. If allowed by the journal, use abbreviations for journal names in your references.

  • Use shorter words

Using shorter words will help when character counts or number of pages are a concern. Resist the temptation to use long words where short ones will do. Instead of investigate, facilitate, or utilise, simply use study, help, or use. Use a thesaurus to help identify shorter alternatives!

  • Use hyphenated words

Most document-processing systems consider hyphenated words as one word, so opt for these wherever possible.

  • Eliminate unnecessary hedging words

Hedging words, such as “may” or “possibly,” are used to avoid commitment to a particular statement. While they are useful to convey to the reader a certain level of uncertainty about a statement and can be the best choice for your purposes, using more than one hedging word in a sentence is typically not necessary and increases your overall word count.

Introductory verbs

e.g. seem, tend, look like, appear to be, think, believe, doubt, be sure, indicate, suggest

Certain lexical verbs

e.g. believe, assume, suggest

Certain modal verbs

e.g. will, must, would, may, might, could

Adverbs of frequency

e.g. often, sometimes, usually

Modal adverbs

e.g. certainly, definitely, clearly, probably, possibly, perhaps, conceivably,

Modal adjectives

e.g. certain, definite, clear, probable, possible

Modal nouns

e.g. assumption, possibility, probability

That clauses

e.g. It could be the case that…
e.g. It might be suggested that…
e.g. There is every hope that…

To-clause + adjective

e.g. It may be possible to obtain…
e.g. It is important to develop…
e.g. It is useful to study…

  • Remove adverbs and adjectives

Adverbs modify verbs and adjectives modify nouns. Omit unnecessary modifiers to make your writing stronger and more concise. A thesaurus can help you to find the most precis nouns and verbs for what you want to say so that you do not need an adverb or adjective to communicate exactly what you want to say.

  • Avoid meaningless modifiers

It is especially important to avoid meaningless modifiers. Here are some examples of repetitive or unnecessary modifiers that people commonly use.

past history — history is past events

close proximity — proximity is the state of being near

carefully scrutinise — to scrutinise is to examine something carefully

combine together — to combine is to bring together

  • Avoid ”helping” verbs

The primary helping verbs are “be” “do” and “have.”  It’s so common to use them in speech that we insert them into our writing without thinking about it.

Original: The report was prepared by top scientists.

Revised: Top scientists prepared the report.

  • Choose efficient verbs

Also when it comes to verbs, be sure to choose efficient ones. Powerful and informative verbs are clearer and mean you don’t need to use additional words to convey your meaning.

Verb

Longer sentence

Concise sentence

Agree

These results are in agreement with prior findings.

These results agree with prior findings.

Analyse

We performed an analysis of several factors.

We analysed several factors.

Contradict

Our results are in opposition to Johnson’s study.

Our results contradict Johnson's study.

Improve

Our method is an improvement over prior systems.

Our method improves on prior systems.

Localise

AjeA was found to be present in the nucleus.

AjeA localised to the nucleus.

Summarise

Table 1 presents a summary of the patient data.

Table 1 summarises the patient data.

  • Choose single words over phrases

When possible, use a single word over phrases in general. We use a lot of phrases out of habit. Here are some examples of single word substitutes.

Wordy phrase

Single word substitute

a majority of

most

based on the fact that

because

in close proximity to

near

during the course of

during

in the absence of

without

Phrases

  • Trim wordy phrases

There are lots of longer common phrases in academic writing that we often use without thinking. Look for lengthy phrases you can shorten. Here are some suggestions.

all of the

all the

as to whether

whether

because of/due to the fact that

because

brought up

raised

due to the face that

because

find out

determine, investigate

give consideration to

consider

grow in size

grow

has the ability to

use “can”

hor the purpose of

use “to” + verb

in order to

to

in reference to

about, regarding

in spite of the fact that

despite/though

in terms of

delete and restructure or use “about” or “regarding,” depending on the context.

in the event of/that

if

in the process of

use “while” or “when,” depending on the context.

made a decision

decided

make a contribution

contribute

make contact with

contact

on a daily basis

daily

on a regular basis

regularly

one of the

a

our results indicate

therefore

take into account

consider

the majority of

most

with regards to

regarding, concerning

  • Dispensable words and phrases

And some commonly used academic words and phrases are, in fact, entirely unnecessary. Scrutinise your prose for additional words that add nothing and can be deleted. Here are a few common ones that may be altogether dispensable.

as well as

due to the fact that

basically

by using

certainly

completely

definitely

absolutely

indeed

for a short (or long) period of time

fundamentally

however, moreover, furthermore

in order to

in relation to

in the event that

the fact that

on the other hand

needless to say

just

really

very

for all intents and purposes

Grammar

  • Avoid possessive constructions using “of.”

Change chunks of text that use a lot of prepositions (thus adding spaces and increasing your word count) into rephrased, shorter versions without prepositions. “Of” is frequently a good candidate for deletion. You can often avoid using “of” just by changing the word order, e.g. “Administrators’ complex roles mean…”

  • Use elliptical constructions

English grammar allows for repeated verbs in a sentence to be eliminated by using something called “elliptical constructions,” e.g. “Group A was given 10 mg; Group B, 5 mg; and Group C, 1 mg.”

  • Rewrite running starts

Sometimes writers like to get a head start on a sentence by using phrases such as “it has been said that” and “the fact that.” These phrases can be rewritten to shorten your text and make your writing more direct and concise. Relatedly, look out for sentences beginning with “there is a previous study on,” “it has been reported that,” or similar phrases. Such sentences should be accompanied by reference citations, which make the above phrases redundant. These phrases can be deleted, leaving only the citation.

  • Avoid “there is/are”

In another common example of this, rewrite sentences to avoid starting them with “there are” or “there is.” These phrases are typically unnecessary and can be eliminated. “There is a correlation between the data” can be rewritten as “The data are correlated.”

  • Active vs. passive voice

The most common sentence structure in English is probably subject-verb-object, a structure called the “active voice”, e.g. “The researcher collected the samples.” In contrast, the “passive voice” – which is also grammatically correct – is structured verb-subject, e.g. “The samples were collected by the researcher.” That is, the object of the first sentence, samples, is now the grammatical subject of the second sentence. The passive voice also always uses a form of the verb “to be:” is, was, were or has, have, or had been. In the context of being concise, active voice uses fewer words than passive voice, and active voice can make your writing clearer and more compelling.

However, where the doer of the action is unknown or is less important than the object and what happened to it, the passive voice is actually more appropriate. In, say, the methods section of a scientific article, the active-voice sentence, “We washed the specimens” includes “we,” which is unnecessary; the researchers obviously washed the specimens. The important point is that they were washed. Here, the passive voice emphasises the real subject; the specimens: “The specimens were washed.” The passive voice also avoids assigning responsibility for the action and can thus be used disingenuously, e.g. “mistakes were made” rather than “we made mistakes.” For the same reason, it can also be used thoughtfully, e.g. “the prognosis of patients with this disease...” Be aware of active and passive voice and use active voice unless there is good reason to do otherwise.

  • Be wary of nominalisations

A “nominalised” verb is one that has been changed into a noun or an adjective. For example, to regulate is the verb, a regulation is the noun, and regulated (e.g., a “regulated process”) is the adjective. As with the passive voice, nominalisations are not always a problem. However, they can force sentences to accommodate them by requiring certain grammatical changes, additions, and deletions that interfere with comprehension. Removing these nominalisations can allow the sentence to be written more economically and clearly. Removing passive voice and nominalisations appropriately is an effective way to shorten and improve the clarity of a text.

Original: An analysis of learning outcomes was made on the basis of the findings. (13 words)

Revised: Learning outcomes were analysed on the basis of the findings. (10 words)

  • Identifying nominalisations

1. Nominalisations often follow the phrases “it is or was” and “there is, was, or are.” Given that these constructions are subject and verb, they are complete sentences. They impart no information, however, and should not be used for that reason alone.

Original: There was considerable waste after production.

Revised: The production created considerable waste.

2. Look for weak, generic verbs. The stronger verb in the revision also makes the meaning more specific:

Original: They made the decision to adjust.

Revised: They decided to adjust.

3. Look for several prepositional phrases.

Original: The reduction [in the census] was caused [by the lack] [of a favourable response] [by officials].

Revised: The lack of a favourable official response reduced the census.

4. Look for common word endings or suffixes. When verbs are nominalised, the new word often has a distinctive ending. Looking for these endings can help you find the nominalisations in your writing.

-act, -age, -al, -ance, -ee-, -ence, -ing, -ion, -ment, -ure

Numbers

  • Write out numbers judiciously

Write out all numbers less than 10 (i. e. “n-i-n-e” not “9”).

Write out any number at the start of a sentence.

Therefore, for sentences starting with long numbers, it is usually best to rewrite them: “Four hundred and sixty one subjects were analysed” can be changed to “We analysed 461 subjects” thus cutting the number of words by half.

  • Remove spaces around mathematical operators

A very easy way to reduce the word count, particularly in the abstract, is to remove the spaces between numbers and mathematical operators such as =, <, >, etc. Writing “n = 3” will count as three words; however, simply removing the spaces (“n=3”) eliminates two words.

  • Don’t rewrite data that is already presented in your tables and/or figures

Often, authors will reiterate data in the text that is also presented in either a table or figure associated with the manuscript. While you may wish to emphasise or highlight specific results that you obtained, you should typically not rewrite this data, particularly if you find you have rewritten large portions of data. It is acceptable, and typically preferred, to simply refer to your table or figure in the text.

Punctuation and formatting

  • Use parentheses

When you report values of different data series, errors, or methodological details – use parentheses. You will save space and make it easier for your reader to process the information. In the results section, avoid stating individual values for groups, followed by the values for statistical significance. Instead, place the values within parentheses.

  • Put product names in parentheses

Sentences with product names can be shortened by giving this name in parentheses.

  • Identify paragraphs with widows and orphans

When dealing with page limits, sometimes you can gain entire line by scanning for paragraphs with “dangling words,” also known as widows or orphans. A widow is a lone word or short group of words that appears at the bottom of a paragraph, column, or page. An orphan is a similar unwanted word or short group of words that appears at the top of a page. Look for paragraphs with just a few words at the end and focus on how you can shorten them to gain an extra line of space.

Structure

  • Ask questions of your text

Is every paragraph in your manuscript tied to your one main message?

Does each sentence give the reader new information, or have you just used different words to say the same thing?

  • Avoid redundancy

After afer you have finished writing your manuscript, go through the entire text again to see if you have repeated any information in more than one section. If you find this type of redundant text, it is fine to simply refer back to the original section in which the information or data is discussed.

  • Count the right words

Make the following quick checks to make sure you are including the right things in your word count.

Do references count?

Do footnotes count?

Does the abstract count?

  • Options if your text is still too long

Write a different paper.

Drop significant chunks of the paper.

Shift elements into supplementary material.

  • Abstract template

Provide one or two sentences that give context to your study topic. Every reader should understand this first part of the abstract (present tense).

Describe the specific background information that your reader needs to understand the context of your study in one or two sentences (present tense).

State the specific problem in the state-of-the-art that your study addresses in one sentence using phrases such as “however,” “yet,” “but” etc. (present tense).

Describe the central message of your paper in one sentence using the phrase “Here, we show/demonstrate” (present tense).

Take two or three sentences to describe your main findings. Here, it is important to focus on the most important findings and only to provide details on the methods used if they are crucial for your main message (past tense).

In the last one or two sentences, put your results in a broader perspective. Explain why your findings are significant and what specific impact your findings are likely or possibly going to make in your field of research or for an application (present and/or future tense).

Questions? Contact information for Eva Medin.