06 April 2009

An exercise in concise writing

In December of last year I submitted a short manuscript, a "communication" that was merely 4 double-spaced pages long, to the Journal of Conchology. It went thru the usual peer review and got accepted, but on the condition that I would shorten it even further. The editor noted in his e-mail that communications usually had 1000 words, while mine had 1287 words.

So I revised the manuscript and, with a little help from Deniz, was able to bring it down to 1045 words, which subsequently satisfied the editor. I got rid of 242 words without taking any of the essential data out. Some of the methodological details did get the axe, but anyone familiar with the subject matter should be able to deduce how I may have done certain things. It’s amazing how economical one can get with words when one needs to!

Here are some sentences from the original and the revised manuscripts.

Before:
During periods when rains are infrequent, fog interception and dew formation may become the main sources of water in the environment.

After:
When rains are infrequent, fog interception and dew formation may become the only sources of water. (5 words shorter.)

Before:
The substrata with which a terrestrial gastropod is in contact must be sufficiently wet, the air humidity adequately high, and perhaps its food of a high enough water content so that the animal’s daily activity does not result in a negative water balance.

After:
The surface a gastropod is on must be sufficiently wet, the air humidity adequately high, and its food of a high enough water content so that daily activity doesn’t result in a negative water balance. (8 words shorter.)

Before:
The microscopic examinations of the feces of both species indicated that they consisted mainly of brownish plant fragments and smaller fractions of microscopic fungal hyphae.

After:
The feces of both species consisted mainly of brownish plant fragments and some microscopic fungal hyphae. (9 words shorter.)

The interesting thing is that the original version looked fine to me before I submitted it the first time. But now the revised version looks even better and I am wondering why I had so many extra words to begin with.

So now, I have a new rule for the present and future manuscripts: the last thing I do before I send a manuscript out is to try to delete at least 4 words from each full page.

Note added 6 April 2010: This manuscript has come out recently. See this post for details.

3 comments:

vanessa cardui said...

Hmm. Good reminder to a wordy blogger. I went through a recent post, eliminating words:

Before: 300 some odd words of self-aggrandizing tomfoolery

After: Snails poo; poo is funny; April Fool's!

xoggoth said...

Something familiar to those of us who have spent years writing technical reports although mine were mainly boring stuff about maths models of distillation columns etc.

I think a concise style of writing actually makes for good fiction too. One needs "unecessary" detail and description to set mood but it needs to be only what is needed for the desired effect.

Fred Schueler said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style