a checklist to reduce your word count and polish your writing

The following is a guest post by Emma Frankham.

“There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting” – Attributed to Poet Robert Graves

Academics spend significant time learning research skills. However, little time is devoted to learning writing and editing skills. Through providing academic editing services I’ve developed a checklist for writing improvement. I arm myself with this checklist, the ASA Style Guide, and The Chicago Manual of Style. Following this checklist will reduce your word count, tighten your argument, and improve the flow of your writing. I hope you find this checklist helpful when you wrangle with your next manuscript.

1) Remove anything that distracts the reader from your argument/point. If you read a section and think, “Wait, what is the point I’m trying to make here?” it should be removed.

2) Place supplementary information in a footnote or remove altogether.

3) Avoid repetition of words, phrases, and summaries.

4) Avoid “throat-clearing” – eliminate unnecessary introductory phrases.

5) Remove topics you write are “not a concern of the article/chapter” but then examine anyway.

6) Particularly with qualitative work, trim or remove quotes that aren’t as strong or as relevant as others.

7) It is likely your sentences need to be shorter – check for redundancies, qualifiers, passive voice, and jargon.

8) Choose the best adjective/adverb for concise writing. For example, “interviewees were dismayed, disappointed, and saddened.”

9) Use “that” for specificity and remove otherwise. For example, “she picked the book that she wanted.”

10) When writing with co-author(s) it’s likely you’ll each have a distinctive writing style and “voice.” Edit with this in mind and reduce writing “tells” so the manuscript reads as one voice.

Emma Frankham is a recent UW-Madison PhD graduate. She is a self-employed academic editor with experience editing journal articles, policy reports, dissertations, and book manuscripts. She tweets @emmafrankham1.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

One thought on “a checklist to reduce your word count and polish your writing”

  1. Graduate students and junior faculty have a tic I call the Wind-Up. Consider the sentence,

    “Over the last decade, a substantial body of research has emerged that supports the idea that water is wet (Able 2010, Baker 2015, Cain 2019).”

    This sentence could be shortened:

    “Water is wet (Able 2010, Baker 2015, Cain 2019).”

    Everything before that is the Wind-Up: the writer’s way of saying “I am about to assert a fact that could be contradicted but don’t worry, I’m not sticking my own neck out here. Rather, I’m just referring to an existing scholarly finding.” Another way to say that is, “There will be citations at the end of this sentence.” Because there ARE citations at the end of the sentence, the Wind-Up is almost always redundant.


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