A sea of red ink: When there are Too Many Words

Some people write too tightly, their texts are too small, too cramped. Their problem is to get enough words. I have advice for you already.

Other people have the opposite problem. They write too much. It’s baggy, saggy and heavy. It overruns all the available parchment. Their problem is to get it back down to the word count. This post is for you.

Of course, the ideal is to be like the baby bear’s porridge… just right. I’m there now. I know what I’m doing when I set out to write, and I pomodoro my way to my specific goal. But it took me years.

Here’s what I did before I got to the promised land.


I had a request:

Best blog posts w advice for targeted but ruthless editing of incomplete thesis draft that is too long?
PhD draft sitting on 71k words, 2 chapters to add, but old, incomplete/unfinished drafts of those chapters = extra 32k words
A combination of generative writing, stitching together & over-explaining too much text on some sections
— Bronwyn Hinz (@BronwynHinz) February 13, 2014

So here is my advice:

First, have a check that these other pieces of advice aren’t what you really need.
Are you finished?

71K and two chapters to go is often a sign that you are actually finished with your shitty first draft of the whole thesis.

Those two extra chapters might really be your next book.The prose looks baggy because it hasn’t been edited and polished, and still needs to go through the full writing cycle.

Have you edited structurally yet?

If you do need to write those next chapters, but your writing is still overweight somewhere, a structural edit will often solve your problem.

You can sometimes excise a whole chapter or section because it no longer belongs in your thesis, or because you’ve already made the point extensively three times.

For such a big number of words, you need to be looking at whole sections, not at a sentence here and a few words there.


Okay, so you really do have to get in there with the hatchet. Here’s what to do.

Make sure you’ve got as much critical distance as you can manage.

Take an intentional critical distance break. Do all the other things that help you get distance from your text.

For me, that means taking two days off. I then print out all the pages (put them in a lever arch folder so you can manage them!).This stage of the thesis is not kind to trees. I’m sorry. I take myself to a place I wouldn’t normally go to work, the sofa, the garden, or a different café. I take a felt-tip marker pen.

Unlike when I write, I don’t listen to music. If I’m really tense about it, I might have a glass of wine–something to make me feel relaxed and ‘non-work’ about it.The point is to move from being a writer to being a reader. 

1. I start reading from the beginning. I read fast, loosely. I make big picture changes. This is a hack, not plastic surgery.

2. The main aim here is to be strict about keeping your eye on the big stuff. It will keep you fast, and prevent you from falling into an editing version of the perfect sentence vortex of doom. 

I draw a line through whole paragraphs. If I’m not cutting a whole sentence, I don’t even lift my pen.

I move whole sections. Usually I draw a square bracket in the margin and an arrow where it goes. Sometimes I use a series of asterisks or numbers. If I’m not drawing an arrow for more than one paragraph, I don’t even lift my pen.

3. You want to use your body more than your mind.

Transform the text from something you read silently with your eye-mind into anything you experience with other senses.

Some people put their pages into piles: ‘here are all the pages about policy’, ‘here are all the pages about the future’. If it doesn’t fit into a file, it goes to one side.

They might then walk between the piles: ‘so if this is the background that leads directly into an explanation about the first reforms in 1987’… Like walking, academic writing can only go one step at a time in a single direction.

Some people get the computer to read their work back to them, or they read the text aloud. If it’s hard to hear, or tiring to speak… it’s not working as a text.

4. I walk away from my edits. I take another critical distance break. 

It is almost impossible to get enough critical distance at the end of your doctoral journey. But do try.

After another couple of days, I enter in my edits to the document.

Because I’ve had another break, I am more detached, I have to read and decode my edits. It often means I discard edits I made for the sake of editing.

And yet, I also feel less concerned about pulling out that paragraph I vaccillated about. Out it goes, into a file called ‘PhD Cull’. I still have that file, and sometimes I pull a good footnote out of its ragtag collection of discarded sections.

5. If I can’t cut enough out myself, I hire an aborist

You may have to pay, barter or beg. Make sure the person will not hesitate to cut out any flab.

You don’t need kindness, you need a radical pruning. Like a haircut when your tresses are damaged, or like a diseased rose bush, cutting a lot of stuff off can give the rest of your work a space to breath, and promote healthy growth for that last little bit.


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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