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Top 10 Tips for Reducing Word Count in Scientific Documents

Release Date: August 25, 2014
Category: Scientific Writing
Author: Sonia M., Ph.D., E.L.S.

Journals often have strict word limits for overall manuscript lengths and abstract word counts, and grant funding agencies also impose strict page and/or word limits for proposals. Because you want to include as much information as possible in your grant proposals and manuscripts, reducing the number of words can be difficult without removing precious ideas. Here we discuss some helpful tips to reduce the number of words in your scientific documents.

  1. 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.

  2. Write using active voice instead of passive voice. In general, active voice is preferred over passive voice because it is easier to read and avoids potential dangling modifiers, which can make writing unclear. Active voice also typically requires fewer words to convey your ideas.
    • Passive voice: It was found that protein X activated transcription of gene Y. (11 words)
    • Active voice: Protein X activated transcription of gene Y. (7 words)
  3. 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, using more than one hedging word in a sentence is typically not necessary and increases your overall word count.

  4. Eliminate unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. These modifiers can enhance and clarify your writing when used appropriately; however, they can often be replaced by more descriptive nouns or verbs in a sentence.
    • For example: Expression of protein X was greatly reduced when cells were grown in a high-salt environment. The word “greatly” is not quantitative and therefore does not clarify your writing, particularly since some readers may or may not agree that your data support the use of the description “greatly.” Because the reader can see your data, they will be able to determine the magnitude of the reduction in your manuscript. This sentence can be rewritten by eliminating the adverb as: Expression of protein X was reduced when cells were grown in a high-salt environment.
  5. Remove “that.” The word “that” is frequently overused in writing and can be eliminated from many sentences.
    • For example: We found that cells that overexpress protein X grew slower than wild-type cells. In this example, the sentence can be rewritten eliminating both instances of “that.” We found cells overexpressing protein X grew slower than wild-type cells.
  6. Eliminate conjunctions. Conjunctions (e.g., and, or, but, however) are frequently used to connect two independent statements; however, these statements can often be rewritten as two separate sentences or as two statements separated by a semicolon.
    • For example: Patients treated with drug X had an overall survival of 6 months, and patients treated with drug Y had an overall survival of 12 months. In this example, “and” connects two independent statements and can therefore be eliminated. Patients treated with drug X had an overall survival of 6 months. Patients treated with drug Y had an overall survival of 12 months.
  7. Use shorter phrases that mean the same as longer phrases. The following are some examples of commonly used phrases in scientific writing that can be replaced by a shorter phrase, while maintaining the same meaning.
    • “In order to” can be replaced by “to.”
    • “Our results indicate” can be replaced by “therefore.”
    • “One of the” can be replaced by “a.”
    • “The majority of” can be replaced by “most.”
  8. Rewrite sentences to avoid starting with “there are” or “there is.” The phrases “there are” or “there is” are typically unnecessary and can be eliminated entirely.
    • For example: There are no previous studies investigating the relationship between protein X and protein Y. This can be rewritten eliminating “there are” as following. No studies have investigated the relationship between protein X and protein Y.
  9. 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 emphasize 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. For example, you can simply state “Patient demographics are described in Table 1.”

  10. Review your sections closely to eliminate information or data that is described in previous sections. After 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. For example, you may have included information in the Introduction and then summarized it again in the Discussion, or you may describe your data in the Results section and again in the Discussion. 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. Eliminating this type of redundancy can help reduce your word count, while not eliminating any important points from your manuscript.

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