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This is a usual problem of mine, I have a page limited conference (usually 8) and my paper is 15 pages long, or in a less dramatic case 10.

How do you go about taking stuff off the paper. Do you have any rule of thumb? How do you know what is "irrelevant" enough for you to take it out of the paper?

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that's very topic dependent, isn't it ? –  Suresh Feb 13 '13 at 9:00
A 50% cut isn't an edit, it's a rewrite. –  EnergyNumbers Feb 13 '13 at 10:09
I found removing content hard and painful. Usually a shorter text needs different structure, so you cannot do it by just deleting auxiliary stuff. Or even if the structure can be the same - often a section requires rewriting to make it more concise. But when it comes to "what to remove" - it depends of you field, your initial content, your tastes... –  Piotr Migdal Feb 13 '13 at 10:13
Maybe put many figures next to eachother; this will save some space. –  Paxinum Feb 13 '13 at 10:44
excellent question –  Grijesh Chauhan Feb 13 '13 at 11:35

6 Answers 6

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Before you go about the longer process of deciding "what to delete," have you first tried to remove the "dead weight?" Academic writing is often quite leaden in style, and can be trimmed quite substantially. Following Strunk's commandment to "omit needless words" can often cut down a page or two out of your manuscript without sacrificing "actual" content.

If, having pruned your text, you find you still need to reduce things, ask yourself the following question:

What information do I want my readers to retain?

Then ask yourself:

What sections of the paper do not provide information necessary for the reader?

Those should be a fairly good guide about what to delete.

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+1 for omitting needless words. –  Nicholas Feb 13 '13 at 9:28
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." -- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry –  mindcorrosive Feb 13 '13 at 11:02
I'd suggest to follow the highlighted questions in the answer before minor edits such as removing needless words. –  silvado Feb 15 '13 at 20:04

First of all, a convenient approach is to "publish" the long version as a technical report or as a preprint (e.g., on arXiv). In this way, it is always possible to refer to missing parts in the shorter version.

If there are only a few pages too many, then it's probably possible to "tweak" the paper to fit within the page limit: scale the pictures, inline the equations, use only acronyms of the conference in the bibliography (e.g., in POPL, instead of "in Proceedings of the 40th Annual ACM SIGPLAN-SIGACT Symposium on Principles of Programming Languages), transform subsubsections into paragraphs, rephrase some paragraphs, move the proofs into the appendix, etc.

However, if you have too many pages, and you actually need to cut some content, then it might probably be better to directly cut an entire section rather than some bits and pieces in each section. For instance, I've rejected some papers because "due to the lack of space", the authors didn't provide any illustration of some quite complex notions, making the paper not understandable. Similarly, I've rejected a paper that was addressing many different points, but never in depth, due to the lack of space ... so it was quite hard to see the contribution (it was not a survey paper).

If you can't find a proper section to cut, i.e., you make a single contribution and you need 15 pages to explain it, then the venue is probably not suited, and you might rather look for a venue with a larger page limit.

Basically, if you have a 15 pages paper and a 8 pages limit, write two papers!

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+1 for write two papers! –  Ben Norris Feb 13 '13 at 12:07
-1 for "write two papers". If it's a single coherent idea, publish it as a single paper, in a venue that will accept the paper at its natural length. –  JeffE Feb 13 '13 at 22:50
@JeffE: Yep, that's my last but one paragraph. –  Charles Morisset Feb 13 '13 at 23:04

The first thing I do when trying to cut material is to make a backup of the paper (or a branch in your version control system). Cutting 20% is relatively easy while cutting 50% is much harder. For a 20% cut, the first place I look is the methods section. In my field we often include descriptions of methods that have previously been published. You can often save some space by simply referring to a previous published account of the method. In my field the methods section might be 10% of the paper and if you are lucky you can cut that in half, saving you 5%. The second place I look is my figures and tables. In my field figures and tables take up 25% of a paper. If you unneeded figures and tables, combine a couple, reformat and scale the rest, you can save another 10%. The third place is the efficiency of the writing. Obviously being succinct helps, but I find it helps to read your conclusions and then prune anything that is not directly relevant. These steps can help reduce a paper without changing the content.

If I still am not under the limit, I look at my conclusions and decide which one I want to cut. I then go back and remove the portions of the paper that lead to this conclusion. there is usually some setup in the introduction, a piece of results, and some discussion. This obviously changes the content of the paper.

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There are many technical ways to reduce paper length without affecting your content.

If you use LaTeX for your papers (I highly suggest it), there are many web pages that help you reduce the number of pages without changing one bit of text. Do a Google search for "squeeze space latex" and you'll find plenty of information. My favorite one-liner command is \linespread{<factor>}, where <factor> is a decimal number, such as 0.99 or 0.98. I've reduced a twelve page paper to ten pages without any noticeable difference in formatting using that single command.

Obviously, you must stay within the paper formatting guidelines, but I've never had a problem with conferences and judicious use of re-formatting.

Other tricks that don't require significant content changes:

  1. Find all paragraphs that have one or two words at the end and find a way to rephrase the sentence to make it fit on one line. This is relatively easy in many cases.

  2. Make sure any figures are tight (while still looking good). For instance, don't have a title on graphs with captions -- the caption takes care of the title.

  3. Make sure paragraph/section titles are a reasonable font size, and limit the space between the titles and sections. Make sure your titles fit on a single line. Sometimes you can get away with bold titles in the same font size instead of larger titles.

  4. Reduce the font size for references. I've used footnotesize references without anyone batting an eye.

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Be very careful before tinkering with font sizes, line spacings, and margins. For a conference paper, this is probably no big deal, but as the "stakes" become larger—for instance, grant applications, and so on—do not try to use gimmicks to get around page restrictions. If you're caught out, you could find yourself thrown out of the competition for that reason alone. Better to focus on honing your writing rather than trying to cram more than what is actually allowed. –  aeismail Feb 13 '13 at 16:45

I don't know a single academic who's been able to get close to deadline and not say, "Look we're right on the page budget!"

Here are some strategies.

1) Don't cut too early. Cutting too early is a good way of losing some important numbers or paragraphs that your co-authors will keep asking you about.

2) Cut stuff that doesn't fit the story. I'm in computer science, so conferences are archival, but in general, if something isn't important to the overall contribution, then it goes away.

3) Make really nice tables and figures. Much of the time, having these separated and somewhat self-explanatory may actually save you the space of having to explain what's in each figure. As above, if your figure/table isn't related to the story, then cut it.

4) Write more concisely. You could either write, "The participants we recruited for the study were students who came from a wide variety of majors including computer science, electrical engineering, chemistry, nuclear engineering, and physics." Or, you could write, "Our participants were science/engineering majors". Different details, but functionally equivalent.

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There are definitely some good tips already listed, in addition, here are some things that I've found really help:

  1. Go back through your sections and write a bullet point outline of what you want that section to say. Assign 1 bullet point per paragraph and put it right above that paragraph. Go back through and re-read that paragraph making sure that each sentence supports your paragraph's point. If it doesn't, remove it or put it someplace else.
  2. Go through your work keeping an eye out for terms that you use repetitively in each section or throughout the paper. If it's appearing more than a couple of times, consider creating an acronym or abbreviation for it (unless it's really going to make your paper difficult to read).
  3. Ask someone else to read your paper and tell them that it is too long. Ask them to cross out or to mark parts they thought were unnecessary. If possible, have several people do this. Sometimes as the writer it is difficult to decide where to cut because you're too close to it. Having others read the paper and cross things out gives you a fresh perspective on if you're being repetitive or if some parts don't need to be there.
  4. Take a break. If you have the time to do it, try not looking at your work for a few days or a week and then on your first time re-reading it make sure to mark any parts that stick out to you as unnecessary.
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