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.


  1. Awesome post, Dr. Firth. Love it. Thank you for sharing your wisdom in such a palatable form. So . . . this is “all down my street.” LOL! I’m thus heeding your advice at this post and elsewhere at this blog. I’ll share my strategies in case it helps anyone (smile):

    Once I have restructured my outline, I STILL treat it like a very knowledgeable guide and not a prison guard or dictator, and then just take to my draft. I open up an MS Word file that I call “overflow writing that seems keepable to me” (I kid you not!). I’ve done so yes, for psychological reasons. However, as I paste “overflow” writing (read: didn’t-make-the-cut writing) into that Word file, I give it its own heading just in case I might need to use it elsewhere. This way the file becomes useful.

    I revise in a program that allows me to do versioning of sections, subsections, paragraphs, so that is another psychological “move” that allows me to go ruthless (smile). I’ve learned that every now and then I must print to really “see” things (poor trees!). I try to get the most out of it when I do: For structural revision sometimes I reverse outline by hand ON THE DRAFT, sequencing pages on the floor in columns. Then I create a refined version in my writing software program.

    If revising the outline does not happen easily, then I import it into a mind mapping program that allows me to toggle back-and-forth between a concept map view of the outline and a hierarchical structured view. The concept map view allows me to see categories and topics and problems there, and the outline view allows me to see sequence and a story and problems there. Drag and drop and edit and toggle until the outline reads “right” and then export! I have two other outlining strategies that involve attaching talk-alouds to outlines, but that’s a “whole ‘nother story.”

    Resuming: In my drafting program, my outline sits to the left of my draft, in view at all times. The program permits me to drag and drop outline elements without changing the structure of the actual writing, yet it also allows me to drag and drop paragraphs, sections, and subsections when I like.Toggling back and forth between a view of a paragraph or two and the whole draft is as easy as clicking on a tab. The program also allows me to hover over my draft a (sub)section’ focus statement or an image (or several) as I write.

    In this way (took me awhile to determine the personal collection of strategies that I need), I am finally able to cut writing down so as to improve it. I was quite inspired by several chapters in “The Handbook of Scholarly Writing and Publishing” by Rocco et al. to stop making the tell-tale novice academic writing moves that prevent succinct, clear writing that keeps the reader in mind. I’m wordy, but I’m a reviser!

    Well, Dr. Firth, thank you for affirming developing academic writers with your transparency. Your blog helps. Take care!

    1. Thanks so much for this incredible comment! I’m so glad the blog helps!

      I COMPLETELY agree with the overflow document, ‘PhD Cull’ is still one of the most referred to documents from my doctoral research on my desktop–lots of great stuff in there, but it didn’t belong in the thesis.

      Thank you for sharing your own process. It’s wonderful to make these things public, other people who read my blog post but who don’t find my exact process helpful may find aspects of yours the technique they need to move their editing forward.

      What is the mind-mapping program you use? I think that could be a really useful tool!

      Again, thanks for such a thoughtful response, it makes this blogging worthwhile!

  2. Hi!

    The mind-mapping program that I use is called Freeplane. However, I use Freeplane as it resides within a program called Docear. I don’t know if there is any significant difference between the stand-alone Freeplane and the version of Freeplane as residing within Docear.

    WARNING: Freeplane and Docear are not particularly “pretty” environments, especially Docear. But I’m ignoring that because it is utterly surprising just how beneficial it is be toggle between a mind map view and an outline view of the same material, augmenting as you toggle. Here’s a link to a blog post I just found that discusses this: http://drandus.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/developing-a-final-outline/.

    Here is a link to Freeplane: http://freeplane.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page
    Here is a link to Docear: https://www.docear.org/

    To make my mind maps in Docear a little prettier, I format the anchor (initial) node how I like, in the editor, with color and such. I also choose the option in the Formatting menu of “Automatic Format” and then “All Nodes Except Leaves.” That makes things prettier. Also, I frequently do a “Control-A” to select all the nodes, and then resize them to a maximum width that’s pleasing, typically between 250 and 350.

    One last thing: Once my Docear map gets large, it is especially important that I remember that the CANVAS can be dragged. If you hold down the left-click button, this permits you to grab the canvas and move it such that your view is centered upon the part of your mind map that you’d like to focus upon. Zoom in and zoom out features are also useful.

    Supposedly the XMind mind-mapping program has added the feature of having an outline view. XMind is VERY pretty and allows you to attach audio recordings to nodes and has a host of other useful, neat features as well. Last I knew, such advanced features as the audio recording annotating were for the paid version of XMind only.

    Many blessings!

  3. You’re more than welcome. Thank you for your original post. It was very encouraging.

    And I did want to mention: Of course there are many other mind-mapping programs out there besides the ones mentioned, for those who like neither Freeplane, Docear, or XMind. A Google search will turn up many. There are all sorts of free ones, including online ones such as Google’s MindMup.

    I don’t think MindMup permits the toggle back-and-forth feature just yet, but you can export your Google MindMup as an outline in all sorts of file formats I believe (including HTML, I believe). If you use the anchor node as a sort of title node and then build all other nodes off of it, then MindMup is pretty nice (and accessible from any internet-connected device if you don’t mind having your thoughts in the “cloud.”). As with most mind-mapping programs, you can hide or display child nodes, drag the canvas, etc.

    And for those using a Mac, there are some really neat options I wish I could have tried.

    Oh, yes: I agree with you on the value of sometimes getting recommendations from others. To avoid wasting time trialing all sorts of programs, one strategy I’ve (finally) discovered is to visit a forum for academics and ask, “What’s your favorite mind-mapping program and why?” Of course another is to Google “mindmapping for academics” or “mindmapping for researchers” or something like that. Sometimes blog posts will come up and the comments help.

    Take care!

Leave a Reply