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07/14/2020

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Andy

One heuristic I have picked up is to consider how I would present the material as a 20-30 minute talk, especially as a talk to undergraduates (even better: actually give your paper as such a short talk). Which details would I gloss over or entirely skip in that setting? Those are the bits you should cut. After all, those are the least exciting/least significant bits.

Mike

I agree with Andy's talk heuristic. I often start by writing up a 3k word version of the idea (which I could submit to an APA meeting), then expand that into something I can write for a journal. If you already have the longer paper, write it up (from scratch!) as a 3k word conference submission, then expand it back out as the journal's word-limit allows. I think starting over with a blank page is important, or at least can be very helpful if you don't already obviously see what to cut. It allows you to reorganize the paper around the key ideas and argument.

A second, related heuristic is to write the paper by "unpacking" your thesis: start with your main claim, then write down the argument (w/ premises, whatever) for that claim, then write down whatever key terms or issues need to be clarified in the main claim and argument. That should take like a page or two, at most. Then fill out from there with signposting, examples, citations, and references to the literature.

In any case, a key to writing short, well-organized papers is a lot of drafting, including often starting over again from scratch. At least for me, it takes a lot of work just to organize my ideas and to develop them into something. I expect 6-12 months of work to go from initial idea to a draft I'm comfortable sending to a journal. If you just write up one (long) draft, mostly off the top of your head, and then try to haphazardly cut it down to a word limit, the end result won't be very good.

Michel

Learn to murder your darlings.

Learning to edit is a hugely important part of the paper-writing process (indeed, as far as I'm concerned, it *is* the process!), and it takes time to learn how to do it effectively. And cutting papers down is part of that.

In addition to the excellent advice already being offered, here are a couple of tips that can help you to cut or identify where to cut:

1.) Go through the paper line by line with the goal of cutting at least one word per sentence. This may well require you to rephrase things. But it's relatively painless, and once you've gone through it all you'll have cut hundreds of words.

2.) Look at your footnotes. Avoid discursive footnotes to the extent possible, and treat them as a good place to do some cutting.

3.) Compare the word count for each of your sections. If some sections are significantly longer than others, that's an indication that perhaps you need to do some cutting there. (You might also have to do some re-organizing.)

Tim

I recommend a similar strategy as Michael that I call the 10% cut. Suppose your papers is 10,000. And it needs to be 8,000. Try to cut 10% of the words by going sentence by sentence. Suppose you cut 900 words so you paper is now 9,100 words. Well, try to cut 10% again. Continue this process until either (i) you feel like you can't cut anymore or (ii) you have reached the word limit you want.

This process has been effective for me. It also sets a concrete goal for trimming a paper. I think it is worth a try or two.

Daniel Weltman

I'm far from an expert (only a few publications, only a couple years as a professor, etc.) but for me personally the most helpful thing has been getting a better understanding of the size of the idea, so to speak. That is, some ideas will fit into Xk words (or, easily fit into Xk words), and some ideas won't fit into Xk words (or, won't easily fit into Xk words), and you get a better sense of which ideas are which as time goes on. And so, now when I conceive papers, I have a better idea how long they are likely to be, and I just don't write the ones that are likely to be too long.

Overseas TT

There are many turns of phrase whose systematic replacement with shorter phrases will automatically cut down the word count.

- 'to be' is often superfluous. E.g. "seems right" is just as good as "seems to be right". Relatedly, passive voice invariably results in longer sentences (which are also more tiresome to read, by the way)
- adjectives, especially 'really', 'very', 'quite' and its kin, are often sperfluous
- nouns with Latin roots (-tion, -ity, etc.) are often unnecessary and can be replaced with verbs. They also tend to make the text feel boring and constipated
- 'There is' is often unnecessary. E.g. instead "there is one more reason:..." write "one more reason is..."
- quotations, especially long ones, are rarely necessary outside history of philosophy. You can get rid of most of them
- also, a personal one: philosophy jokes are basically always bad. Like, not bad in the good way, just plain corny. I strongly urge everyone who reads this to just cut them out. They aren't funny, sorry (and they take up extra space).


You can find some of these in Jonathan Bennett and Samuel Gorovitz's "Improving Academic Writing":

https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/jfb/bengor.pdf

I highly recommend it even independently of cutting down the word count. I started following their guide a few years ago (and over the years added a few rules of my own), and it improved my writing immensely. Philosophy is already hard enough, and we could all do more to not make it more painful than it needs to be.

Mike

I wanted to second Overseas TT's advice. It is amazing how often you can literally just delete words out of a sentence, without any other changes, and still retain precisely the same meaning. If you can't do this for 2/3rds of the sentences you write, you probably just aren't looking hard enough. As an example, here's my second sentence again: "It is amazing how often you can delete words, without other changes, and still retain the same meaning." That's 7 words gone from a 26 word sentence, for a 27% reduction in word count.

Marcus Arvan

Mike: Indeed. Here's another 3 words deleted that doesn't change the meaning of that sentence: "It is amazing how often you can simply delete words and retain the same meaning." ;)

Andrew

"Amazingly, you can often delete words and retain the same meaning."

But it's also important to do the harder task of realizing not every sentence, paragraph, or even section you wrote has an important function in the central argument of your paper.

Marcus Arvan

Andrew: :)

Incoming PhD

Question OP here: thank you all very much! These suggestions have been immensely helpful, and I will employ them promptly! (Though, I suppose, "These suggestions were helpful and I will employ them" might be better...)

NH

I will employ these helpful suggestions, surely.

sentence-shortening game player

"Amazingly, you can often delete words and retain the same meaning."

Amazingly, deleting words often retains sentence meaning.

Mike

Ha! I like the sentence-shortening game.

Prose that's been through this game usually sounds sharper and more impressive, too.

Anon

I recommend thinking of a paper as a skeleton: there is a thesis, and every vertebra is a paragraph developing an idea in support of that thesis. Go through, write one full declarative sentence summarizing each paragraph. Then look at your list of sentences, and see which don’t relate logically to the thesis, or barely relate to where they should be omitted, and what parts might/should be re-organized to shorten the paper. This is an aggressive way of editing that I think makes papers go from good to great. I do it before wordsmithing, which matters a lot too. It’s helpEd me publish a number of articles, though your mileage may vary.

Anon2

Unrelated: tread carefully when editing. For example, “deleting” doesn’t (Indeed, can’t) “retain.” Deleting is not the kind of thing deleting can do. So the proposed sentence shortening above fails semantically, well-intentioned though it quite rightly is. (More importantly IMO, see sentence “skeleton” edit idea immediately above.)

Mike

Anon2: There are obviously some key technical terms we often employ in philosophy which your average periodical editor might think are superfluous, but which really aren't. But if you wrote the paper, you're not apt to suddenly forget that (oh yeah!) you're using that modal to convey some special flavor of modality (or whatever). So, I think "tread carefully" is bad advice for early-career people when it comes to wordsmithing. I think it's the opposite: be as aggressive as possible! Those still learning to write are probably unaware of the hundreds of wordy locutions they use which could be trimmed. It takes time, practice, and experimentation to learn that stuff.

Anyway, it also just seems demonstratively false that deleting *can't* retain meaning. Overseas TT started this discussion with a great example: "seems right" says exactly the same thing (in colloquial English) as "seems to be right". I also think the meaning was retained in my example as well:

(a) It is amazing how often you can literally just delete words out of a sentence, without any other changes, and still retain precisely the same meaning.

(b) It is amazing how often you can delete words, without other changes, and still retain the same meaning.

(c) Amazingly, deleting words often retains sentence meaning.

I think you could quibble with whether there are any truth-conditional differences between (a) and (c), but I'm confident that (a) and (b) have none. The problem with (c), vs (a), is that (c) is more ambiguous. The "without other changes" clause makes the point it expresses explicit. That does seem to matter, as this exercise itself demonstrated (B demonstrates the point OverseasTT was making, while C doesn't).

Still, (a) vs (b) demonstrates that even words which, at first glance, seem to be doing work ("literally", "any") actually aren't.

You might think I'm proving your point, but often the difference between (say) (a) vs (c) either doesn't really matter (again, you'll know when it does), or will be clear from the broader context.

Anon2

Fair points, Mike. It's a matter of costs and benefits. The value of (a) vs. (c) will be hard to judge. Sometimes allowing additional ambiguity or unclarity is worth it if it lets one cut a bunch of words. And agreed also that words like "literally" and "any" in your example are worth cutting. So yes, early career folks should edit aggressively. Just not so much that they add too much ambiguity/unclarity. "Edit aggressively" is indeed a good phrase by which to guide one's practical reasoning.

Evan

I would be cautious about deleting certain adjectives like “very” and “extremely.” In some types of philosophical researches, these qualifiers may be irrelevant, superfluous, and hyperbolic.

However, if you’re doing qualitative research e.g. phenomenological research, then those qualifiers may be relevant as they presuppose the variation or degree of something e.g. feelings.

In other words, those types of qualifiers may be used to *precisely* depict the *level* of something. There is a difference between something being “painful” and “extremely painful.”

For example, having your finger pricked by a thorn may be painful while stepping on a landmine would be *extremely* painful.

Thus, getting rid of certain adjectives may not cost you accuracy, but it can cost you precision, which may be important if you’re doing phenomenological research.

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