The last couple of days I didn’t manage to write a June Blog at all. The reason being that I was close to submitting a grant and perfecting the argument for that took up all my mental space for writing.
I was reflecting on whether there was anything useful I could exratct from the process for a blog and suddenly it hit me – a crucial part of grant writing that we barely ever talk about – getting under the permitted word count.
Why does word count matter?
Nearly all grant proposals require applications to meet a specific word count – some times the dastardly beasts use “character count”. The same applies to papers – though this is less strictly applied – and especially abstracts for both journal articles and conferences. Getting your argument across within the specific allowance is an absolutely crucial academic skill.
Step One: don’t panic
First things first – don’t worry if you have a lot to cut. Your writing will end up leaner and more convincing as a result of this process. Your colleagues can help you – it is MUCH easier to cut someone else’s writing – and you will refine your ideas as a result of paring down your articulation of them.
Step Two: making the big cuts
On the grant I just submitted, our first draft of the methods section was 2600 words, and the limit for the application was 1500 words. I think it’s possible to cut this proportion – up to say 50% of the text – without actually losing detail. Think of the exercise as a minimisation process. Paragraphs become sentences, sentences become phrases, phrases become a single word.
Take this example from the first draft of our recently-submitted proposal:
The current global pandemic and responsive lockdown measures have highlighted the importance of the digital sphere to deliver services in the 21st century. For example, teachers have reported that the lockdown period provided an unprecedented opportunity for professional development, via resources accessed online, from home. However, “going digital” is not merely a short-term reaction to an exceptional circumstance. Years of austerity policies and ever-increasing ubiquity of internet-enabled devices mean that digital innovation is an essential part of any sustainable service improvement framework. [79 words]
Here’s the single sentence that made it into the final application:
Austerity policies and increasing ubiquity of internet-enabled devices mean that digital innovation is an essential part of any sustainable service improvement framework – something made especially clear for the education sector during the Covid-19 pandemic. [34 words]
But sometimes the reduction task is more extreme. On a previous occasion I had to take a 3000 word proposal written for one funder (and rejected) and re-work it into a 750 proposal for a new funder. In this case I suggest a cloes read of the original text, a deep breath, and then a re-write from scratch to fit the new scale.
Step Three: what are we counting?
The more common application of word count management happens though at a finer scale. Your text is 557 words and you need to get it back to 500. Your abstract for journal A was 300 words but for journal B it needs to be 250 words. The first step in this process is to check what exactly we are counting. Often it will be words, but sometimes they are asking for a specific character count or page count.
For character count, a key technique is to replace longer words with shorter ones – “very” rather than “extremely”, “thing” instead of “phenomenon”. This will often have the effect of making your prose much more readable too. While I dislike use of acronyms and try to avoid all but the most well-known (e.g. NHS) this is a situation where a well chosen acronym used consistently throughout could save you a lot of time and trouble. Remember to check whether the character count they’re using includes spaces or not. If the former, make sure you aren’t double-spacing at the end of sentences. And in both cases, pay attention to your punctuation as well as your words. Clearly making your text puncutation free would be unwise to say the least, but you might also be over-egging the pudding if, for example, you start a list like this:-
If it is page count that matters, you will want to start with a close look at your font and margins. There may be rules on the minimum sizes of these, so check them first, but do then experiment – within the rules – to find out what gets you the best results. Tinker with your document’s settings for things like “orphan control” and look closely at the size of paragraphs at the transition between pages as these can ‘jump’ to the top of the next page leaving wasted white space. Check as well how your are demarcating your paragraphs – do you make a better saving with a first-line indent or a 6pt line break? These things can make a surprisingly big difference over a half dozen pages. Remember though that crowding the page with a tiny font and teensy margins will have the opposite of the desired effect – your readers will not enjoy or process your proposal so well. So use this technique judiciously.
Another page count technique is to screen for paragraphs that have just 2 or 3 words in the final line. Cut just 2 or 3 words in that paragraph and you save an entire line – focus you attention on cutting here to have maximum effect for minimum effort.
Step Four: cutting words
OK. So now we’re definitely cutting words. We’ve made the big cuts and the target word count is in sight, but not in reach. How do we get from here to there? Here are three major ways I manage word count cuts.
1. Screening for duplication
It’s great to have a degree of repetition in a proposal – things like using the same key terms repeatedly to link your background with your aims and your planned analyses. But if repetition comes down to “making the same point twice” then something’s gotta go. In the grant I’ve been working on this week, consider these two sentences, separated by only a few lines:
We will ask about what technologies families and educators use already in their daily lives, and build on this in the work that follows.
This project will involve identifying technologies that are already used by families and educators and systematically exploring their potential to improve home-school communication.
This is basically the same point twice – I can halve the word count and have a punchier effect by writing:
We will ask what technologies families and educators use already in their daily lives, and systematically explore their potential to improve home-school communication.
2. Screening for embellishment
A big inefficiency in writing comes when the writer is concerned that the point they are making isn’t strong enough and bolsters it with examples. But if the point really is important, you should be able to make that clear, without extra embellishment. Very often in my writing I will make a conceptual argument and immediately follow it with an example – either a finding from the literature or a hypothetical case – to try to illustrate the point. These nearly all get trimmed out in version 2. The example above, about teachers reporting access to digital professional development during lockdown, is a case in point. Everyone knows how important the digital sphere has become during the past few months – I don’t need an example to make that point. If I chose the right words in my argument, the reader’s imagination will fill in the blanks for me.
3. Screening for decoration
This is all about looking for ‘and’. Anywhere I have used ‘and’ in my writing, I have potential words to cut. I am an absolute sucker for this. “...the aim is to improve mental health and wellbeing…”, “…we will deploy flexible and accessible data collection methods…”, “…understanding and knowledge of neurodiversity is lacking…”. I know that understanding and knowledge are not synonyms exactly, but I don’t need both of them.
Another place to focus your attention is at the start of paragraphs and sentences. This is a key place for unncessary buffering. Why say: “Therefore, it is clear that the diagnostic process causes a great deal of stress…” when you can say “The diagnostic process causes substantial stress…”
4. screening for detail
This is the last resort. On the whole I try to cut words without losing important details but sometimes there’s just nothing else that can go. A good starting place is to look for lists – here’s an example from this week’s grant proposal:
“…seeking a range of ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic, family context, disability, chronic illness and mental health identities and experiences.”
“…seeking diversity, including marginalised identities and experiences.”
Another possibility is that you will simply not be able to describe all the details of your methodology. This is terribly painful – and you have to give some serious thought to what your reviewers will want to know and what they might be prepared to assume. e.g. do you need to state your screening process for partciipants? if it is standard for your field can you hope the reviewers will give you the benefit of the doubt?
One trick that might save some agony is to make a global statement that saves words later on – e.g. “all studies described below will involve children aged 5-12 years with bilingual and monolingual groups matched for IQ and socio-economic status” so you don’t have to repeat virtually the same information a few times.
Beware the online form!
Countless times I have cut and pasted text into an grant application form to find that my carefully crafted 500 words have become 504. I guess sometimes these forms treat things like hyphenated words differently – but whatever the reason is, the safest bet is to get your text half a dozen words under the limit if you possibly can. You don’t want to find yourself making hasty cuts in the browser half an hour before the submission deadline!