20 Aug

Manuscript trimming tips

Word and page limits exist for a reason, but they present a challenge. These are my top tips for trimming manuscripts down.

  1. Cut references

I know that this can be really difficult but these take up a lot of space. Hopefully you’re using a reference manager already, so cutting is a bit easier.

What I do is go to my references and search for the surname in the text.

I then will make a comment if it used only once. I usually add something like “But it is a meta-analysis” or “But it is in the journal that we’re submitting to” or sometimes I’ll delete it immediately. These one-offs can be really difficult. I will also ask myself if it is at all possible that some other reference that I used says the same thing or if I absolutely need to cite that paper only once.

I’ll also consider if I’m citing the same person/team multiple times in the same citation and ask myself if I have to do so. Perhaps one of the citations is the key theoretical piece, so I can’t avoid it. But if it is a smaller finding that they had in both a 2012 and a 2016 paper and perhaps the 2016 paper is in a better venue or is more widely cited, I’ll cut the 2012 reference.

Similarly with the same person, I’ll do a scan for them throughout the paper. For example, if in the entire paper I cited B, T, and R 2012 and T and B 2009 and R, T, and B 2016 each 4 times, but I only cited R, B, and T 2015 once. I’ll re-skim the 2015 paper and ask myself if I absolutely need to include it or if the finding was in one of the other papers as well.

Thinking about the venue is important too. For example, let’s say I’m working on a paper about walruses playing board games with an outcome of better walrus solidarity. And I’m submitting this paper to a journal that is really focused on board game playing and less on solidarity or walruses. While I cannot remove all of the citations that tie back to walrus or solidarity literature, I should prioritize the board game playing literature as that is the journal’s audience and reviewers will come from that field. But I do always have older versions of the paper that have all of the references in it just in case the reviewers ask why there isn’t more theorizing and literature from Walrus Studies.

Finally, the most heartbreaking reference cuts are studies with too many authors and/or really long titles. This is presuming that references count towards the word count.

2. Cut words

Do searches for common adverbs. Delete transitional words (this is painful for me).

3. Merge words

Sometimes hyphens are appropriate and can save space.

4. Wordiness

You’re probably being too wordy. Try to read the paragraph out loud to yourself or have your computer read it to you. It can be easier to hear the problems. I also sometimes do better when I’m editing a printed version of the paper versus on a screen. I think that taking a break from the manuscript also helps.

5. Text -> Table

Sometimes you can turn text into tables. This will reduce words and if the journal doesn’t count tables toward the word count, save you a ton of words. However, if page count is the issue, tables sometimes can be longer than text.

6. If qualitative/interview based, look for redundant participant quotes

It is easy to fall in love with a great direct quote or example from a participant. Sometimes they’re just so delicious and represent the theme so well. But I find that a lot of people will have 3 or even more examples for a particular theme. And that is okay, but one must also remember that some of them have to be cut eventually.

Ask yourself if the quote is absolutely necessary to illustrate the theme or is so perfect that it really sells the theme in a sincere way. Look at each quote in comparison with every other quote within the theme and ask yourself if they both need to be there.

Also keep a table of quote/example counts by participant. Sometimes some participants are chattier or articulate themselves better and we lean more heavily on their quotes. It is important to have a count at the end so you don’t accidentally have many more quotes from a few participants. This is not to say to purposefully manipulate your quote choices or include some participants artificially. Rather, seeing that you’re already quite heavy with quotes from “Alice” can help you make decisions between two quotes more easily.

7. Redundancy in the findings section

Sometimes we have a fairly complicated framework and we need to remind our reader what the conceptual definition of a particular theme was. However, this does take up a lot of space. This is another one that is painful for me.

8. Could this be two papers?

Sometimes there is so much going on that you can split the manuscript into two papers. Honestly, this happens to me about 75% of the time. This does require work to ensure that the theoretical scaffolding is different and that you’re not reusing findings. However, in some cases it might make sense to divide.

9. Have an editing partner

Certainly if there are multiple authors in a study, someone else can look at the manuscript. But you may also be able to have a friend with whom you trade editing/trimming tasks.

10. Check your conclusion/discussion

Sometimes we get a little bit freewheeling at the end of the manuscript. This can be a place where entire sections could be removed.