You’ve finally completed your dissertation, only to find out that its 1000s over the word count. Since the last thing you want to do is remove any substance, it might seem impossible to cut an essay down by the amount you need. Well fear not! Getting your essay under the word limit is much easier than it seems. This post will look at my top five tips for reducing words without having to slash content.
Pulverise the Passive Voice
Academics and students love the passive voice, especially law students. However, passive voice sentences tend to be much wordier (and often less clear!) than the active voice.
What is the Passive Voice? In a passive sentence, the sentence’s subject matter is acted upon by the performer. For example: ‘there was an infringement by the defendant’s conduct…’ (8 words)
What is the Active Voice? In an active sentence, the subject matter is the performer. For example: ‘The defendant’s conduct infringed…’ (4 words)
If your essay is riddled with passive sentences, you can cut huge amount of words by changing them to the active voice.
You might even find that you are using the same sentence formulations in all your essays. For example, in your contract law essays, are you saying that ‘there was an agreement between the parties’ (7 words) or are you saying that ‘the parties agreed’ (3 words)? You can shorten all your essays by making systematic changes.
Cut Your Subordinate Clauses
Markers dread sentences with subordinate clauses, but law students love them.
A clause is a unit of grammar usually containing a subject word and a verb. A main clause can be understood on its own. For example: ‘The defendant breached his duty of care.’ A subordinate clause cannot be understood on its own unless it is linked to a main clause. For example: ‘The defendant, who was driving too fast, breached his duty of care.’
The more subordinate clauses your sentence has, the more difficult it is to read and the longer it tends to be. That just there was a subordinate clause with 21 words. I could have instead said: Sentences with many subordinate clauses tend to be longer and more difficult to read. That’s just 14 words. Cut the subordinate clauses. Stick to main clauses as much as you can.
Tighten your Ticks
Every law student has their own style. This comes with linguistic ticks. For example, maybe you start every concluding sentence with ‘this means that’ when you could have just said ‘therefore’. Work out what your most common multi-word ticks are, and see if you can replace them with a shorter word or phrase. Here’s some examples.
|What You Wrote…||Replace it With…|
|With regards to…||Regarding…Considering…|
|Most of it is…||The majority is….|
|This means that…||Therefore… Accordingly…|
|The second is that…||Secondly,…|
|He was in breach of his duty…||He breached his duty…|
|In the course of the trial…||During the trial…|
|In the judgement of the court…||The court judged that…|
Delete Those Determiners
Determiners are words like ‘the’ and ‘that’. It clarifies to what the sentence’s noun refers: ‘this cat’, ‘her cat’, rather than just any old cat. They are interesting because it is often possible to delete some or all of them from a sentence without changing the sentence’s meaning. For example:
Considering the defendant’s speed, his alcohol consumption and the malfunctioning breaks, there is a breach.
Considering the defendant’s speed, alcohol consumption and malfunctioning breaks, there is breach.
Identify the determiners in your essays. You’ll probably find you can delete many of them. That’s a few easy words gone!
Cultivate your Confidence
Law students have a habit of couching their sentences with phrases like ‘it is submitted that’, or ‘it could be the case that’. Here’s a real sentence I once wrote in one of my old student essays:
'It is probably the case, given that it is likely that the defendant was driving over the speed limit, that the claimant might be successful in arguing that the defendant was in breach of his duty of care.'
Ouch. This kind of language has two disadvantages. Firstly, it makes you sound like you don’t know what you are talking about. Maybe you don’t, but you shouldn’t tell your examiner that! Secondly, it tacks four-to-five words onto every other sentence. What would that sentence have looked like if I’d had confidence in what I was saying?
The defendant breached his duty to the claimant by driving over the speed limit.
That cut down 38 words to 14. If you find this kind of ‘couching’ language in your essay, you just need to bite the bullet and delete it. Here are some phrases you want to avoid:
- It appears that…
- It may be the case that…
- Some might argue that…
- It is submitted that…
- The claimant may be able to argue…
- A possible outcome is that…
At the End of the Day
The bottom line when editing academic essays is ensuring each word is necessary. If you can convey the same information without a word or phrase, it needs to go. And if you need help, IPSA LOQUITUR offers its own proofreading service where you can request a word count reduction. Check out the link below!