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Does anyone know a good online source for guidelines for shortening journal articles? I've just finished a paper that I'm going to submit soon, but I think it is far too long. Its current length is 30 journal pages. (I know that because I've obsessively figured out what formatting would get me to have 1 word processed page for each journal page of a specific journal.) This is in the humanities.

So I just want some good guidelines for things like "get rid of 'the fact that'." The only such things that I found online were directed at people writing their college-admissions essay, which has to be very short, like 500 words.

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    Unless you have any evidence that your paper is too long by some objective criterion that will cause it to be desk-rejected, you should submit it as-is. If you feel the writing is a little verbose then, sure, copy-edit it and knock a couple of pages off. But you shouldn't remove actual material without a reason. – David Richerby Aug 10 '15 at 8:45
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Just to add to the many answers already here, I'll put what I usually do. I'm often quite verborragic while writing, so this is a common problem for me, as we can all see :)

1) Revise every single sentence, not only to remove stuff that is not needed, ("To this end", "such as", ..., I usually use that stuff to "link" ideas while writing, but they are not needed and usually can be cut out without significant change), but also, as said previously here, to better express your points. Be concise.

2) Remove trailing sentences in the end of paragraphs that do not use the full width of the column. Some times you have one or two words dangling on the end of a paragraph that waste a whole line. At one time, I managed to get a little less than half a page of space on a eight page article just by doing that.

3) Check the references. If the journal is not against journal names abbreviations, do it. The same trailing thing applies here as well...

However, those tips only work if you are close to the mark... For instance, one of my articles was reduced from 10 to 8 pages after the first review... We had no choice but to cut content and move it to supplementary material.

Always keep in mind what information you want to convey...

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In my experience, I have found there are four main strategies for reducing the length of a paper. In order of most to least radical, they are:

  1. Write a different paper. For example, one of my recently accepted papers really wanted to be about four times as long as the page limit, and also would have required at least another month of work beyond the deadline in order to properly complete. When this became clear, it was time for radical surgery: most of the original manuscript was pushed off into future work and only the first key result was expanded into the full presentation it deserved. We added the word "Toward" to the front of the title and started working on the follow-up paper that contains the rest of the work.
  2. Drop significant chunks of the paper. A slightly less radical version of the first, it may be that you can keep the narrative and main results, but drop some of the secondary explorations entirely. This is the course I dislike most, because it can significantly weaken the work and "less important" dropped sections are unlikely to be able to form a separate publication on their own. This can work, however, for a conference publication that will be followed by an extended journal version (e.g., the conference version sketches an analysis of less important properties of the system being studied, while the journal version contains full exhaustive proofs).
  3. Shove things into supplementary material. If you're submitting to a journal, it's typically possible to put unlimited amounts of information into the supplementary material. This can be a win-win situation, in which you drop significant chunks of the paper without actually omitting them, just tucking them off where only those who really care will read them.
  4. Squeeze blood from a stone. Careful and thorough editing can often remove a remarkable amount of length from a paper, but it's a very time consuming and painful process. I can typically halve the length of a manuscript without omitting anything simply by dint of streamlining the presentation down to the level of individual words and phrases. Cutting 10% is not too hard for a native speaker with enough time to invest; getting all the way to 50% is an exhaustive exercise in scientific haiku. Usually, it's better to use one of the more radical but less painful strategies instead, but I have had special occasions where squeezing blood from a stone was the right approach.

I actually recommend that your consideration move from most to least radical, the reason being that the more radical actions are often actually easier, because they require less precision.

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    You can shorten a paper by 50% just by rewriting? You are either insanely good at shortening or very verbose in your writing. – xLeitix Aug 10 '15 at 6:33
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    Something has gone bady, badly wrong with academia when we have to remove actual research from papers. Journals should exist to disseminate what we do, not to control what we do. The work-around of splitting a paper in two and pretending that work already done is "future work" hurts everyone and wastes everyone's time. I'm not criticizing you, Jake, because we all have to work within the system we find ourselves in. But, frankly, the system you describe is f***ed up. – David Richerby Aug 10 '15 at 8:49
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    @xLeitix I am an evil ninja of shortening. But also, there is a lot more redundancy in "normal presentation" than one might expect. For example, your comment can be readily shortened from 23 words to 13 words: "Halve length by rewriting? You are either great at shortening or quite verbose." A lot of the texture and character of the writing goes away, but the substance remains. – jakebeal Aug 10 '15 at 12:14
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    @DavidRicherby I disagree. I see no problem at all with having to think about / improve the presentation of our research. Part of this is figuring out how to not ramble on for 30 pages when (according to Jake) 15 would be enough. Splitting up a very long paper into a number of manageable pieces would also be part of that. So is cutting the chaff (even if it is "research"). – xLeitix Aug 10 '15 at 12:16
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    @DavidRicherby In my discipline, a few journals have no page limit while most do. Those without page limit seem to get insanely long-winding and rambling manuscripts at times. So, anecdotically, the arbitrary page limit is definitely a quality-enhancing measure, and I personally have stopped reviewing for journals that don't have this. – xLeitix Aug 10 '15 at 12:55
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In general articles in the humanities are significantly longer than those in the sciences, as I'm sure you know. Does the length of your paper far exceed those typically published in your journal of choice? Then maybe some cutting is in order.

I know what you're looking for, a handy-dandy list of things to look for when revising, but I don't know of one. I think you need another pair of eyes. Do you have a colleague whose writing you admire that could have a look at it for you?

For nearly my entire academic career, I was in a writer's group with three of my colleagues. We would meet once a month or so, when someone had a conference paper to give or was finishing up on an article. It's invaluable to have a few colleagues you trust to give each other feedback. It might be a little late for this paper, but if you could even barter with someone (you'll be a reader for them in the future), it would help you greatly, I'm sure.

Good luck with it --

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    +1 mainly for another pair of eyes. Have you got a student or two of a suitable level who could be trusted to comment honestly? They do exist and may not yet have built up a tolerance for rambling. – Chris H Aug 10 '15 at 9:13
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+100

After some serious googling, I found a site with just the sort of recommendations I was looking for. Shortens without removing content at all. I just wish it were longer, because the suggestions are really good: Need to shorten your paper? Hopefully this might help other people.

An example of the recommendations:

(1) Proteins have various functions that are precisely controlled.

You can shorten this in two ways. First, revise to emphasize the important point, which in the context of the paper was not the variety of protein functions but the precise control of those functions. Second, eliminate unnecessary prepositional phrase: use “protein function” not “functions of proteins.”

Protein function is precisely controlled.

  • That's a good article! I'm glad you found it. I've bookmarked it for the future. – ewormuth Aug 10 '15 at 14:07
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    This is a nice exposition of the sort of "blood from a stone" shortening that I talk about in my answer. Good find! – jakebeal Sep 15 '15 at 11:45
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    This answer could be made more useful if the key points at the link were summarized here; this is essentially a link-only answer. – Mad Jack Sep 15 '15 at 13:07
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    @MadJack I've added one of the examples in – jakebeal Sep 15 '15 at 18:18
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    I love the irony of "I just wish it were longer" :) – ff524 Sep 16 '15 at 5:36
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A couple things to consider:

  • You think it is too long, but does the journal you intend to submit it to think it's too long? If nothing else, knowing this knows your target.
  • Is there things you can offload into an online or supplemental appendix? Good examples include proofs and the like in papers where the actual results are of interest, or technical details, supplemental or supporting analysis, etc.
  • When it comes down to it and you just need to start killing words - start marching through, getting rid of long phrases, parenthetical asides that don't need to be there, superfluous adjectives, etc.
  • The journal won't think it's too long, but I don't want my referees to think it's too long! Journal referees in my field are very lax about deadlines for referee reports. The shorter the paper, the less time it will take them to read it and submit their reports. Plus, I don't want potential readers to get put off by length. The shorter the paper, the larger the readership. – Ruby Aug 9 '15 at 23:28
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    @DeliaRuby Keep in mind referees will be more than happy to wing you for missing things, and as a referee, how long it takes me to review a paper is more a function of my life rather than your writing - unless it's truly egregious. As for "The shorter the paper, the larger the readership." [Citation Needed] – Fomite Aug 9 '15 at 23:30
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    @DeliaRuby: Omitting "The fact that" and similar things will not make the paper appreciably easier for the referees to read! – Jim Conant Aug 9 '15 at 23:47
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At the risk of creating a "just a link" answer, there's an online Stanford course about writing for the sciences.

The first few lectures are about "cutting the clutter" and give quite a few examples showing lengthy academic-style text being shortened and made more readable, with specific techniques being discussed. For example, academic writers often turn verbs into nouns, like so:

"We performed the configuration on the gewgaws."

Which could be shortened (and improved) to:

"We configured the gewgaws."

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I don't think that an automatic tool will do that for you, and I don't think that you should use one.

If you don't want to shorten, you may consider finding a journal that allows more pages.

If you want to stick to this journal, then it is better that you shorten manually. Then you can decide what is important and what should be left out. There are many way to shorten a paper, for example by shrinking or removing unecessary details in some figures, removing a few references, removing some figures, removing or rewritting text differently, etc. There is no tool that will do that intelligently for you. You really need to do that by hand.

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    Sorry, guess I was unclear. I don't want it to be done automatically! Argh! I just meant, is there a site that gives good guidelines? I'll edit the question! – Ruby Aug 9 '15 at 23:23
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I'm not sure what the structure of your article is, but I would make sure you are matching the writing to the target audience. I've found that it's possible to cut a large amount of background material from a paper on the grounds that the audience is most likely already experts, or has access to that information and can readily understand it without me having to spell it out for them.

I've been able to reduce paragraphs and sometimes whole sections down to one sentence with a reference to a book chapter.

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If all you care about are small stylistic changes, I'd suggest looking into The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. It's a very short and concise (and therefore cheap) book that largely focuses on similar issues. That the book is so short proves that the authors know very well what they are talking about.

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