When the Length of an Academic or Scientific Paper Is a Key Issue
The length of an academic or scientific article is usually restricted by publisher guidelines. Journals, for instance, often indicate length requirements via word count. The limits may vary considerably depending on the journal and the type of paper, but they tend to be rather rigid, so it is always necessary to observe them with precision. Monograph collections of essays generally set length limits for individual chapters. These can be a little more flexible than journal requirements, but if every contributor to a volume exceeds the limits, the book will turn out far too long, so it is essential to follow the recommendations. Online writing, on the other hand, often needs to fall within character limits, and in such cases whatever goes over the specified limit simply will not be published, so there is little or no flexibility.
It is therefore extremely important to plan and compose a scholarly paper, whether it is intended for a top-tier periodical or an informal blog, with one eye firmly focussed on length requirements. If you find as you work that your paper will be far shorter than the maximum limit of the relevant publisher, this will usually not prove a problem, but do watch for any notes on minimum length, rare though they might be. More problematic is the discovery that the paper you are drafting is going to exceed the length limits despite your careful planning. This will likely necessitate some selective cutting of material, but there are other options to consider before you start chopping.
For example, a carefully designed structure with appropriate headings and divisions can highlight the key points in an argument and use fewer words than they save by reducing lengthy explanations. Tables can be immensely helpful in eliminating long paragraphs that report data, and the visual impact of an effective table can communicate general trends and exceptions with the immediacy and clarity a long paragraph cannot. Similarly, figures can render redundant lengthy descriptions of methods and tools by presenting an accurate image that informs the reader far more efficiently. Keep in mind, however, that tables and figures must be well designed to do their job properly. This means that they must include all the information necessary for readers to understand their contents, so it is imperative to make effective use of headings, captions, notes and labels. Fortunately, tables and figures are sometimes not included in word counts, especially if they are not embedded in the paper but submitted separately, so they can be an excellent means of meeting length requirements while communicating the details of advanced research.
Much can therefore be accomplished by presenting material in the most effective and concise formats possible, but there remain situations in which some cutting will prove absolutely necessary. If this is the case with a paper you are preparing for publication, be sure to give the matter serious thought before you begin. An excess of a few hundred words can be resolved through editing your prose to achieve the most concise wording possible, but an excess of a few thousand words will require more serious measures. If extensive cuts are required, do save the material you delete for future use.
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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.