writing a journal article is managing a word budget – or not

We’ve all heard about the importance of balancing the household budget and the horrors of what happens when you get into debt. No, I’m not going off on a political rant here, just trying to connect academic writing with the commonsense domestic idea of the balanced budget being a Good Thing.

You see, we don’t always think of needing to budget words. We don’t usually hear that when we write we have word budgets which work a bit like the monetary budgets we have for our household expenses. Spend unwisely and you’re in trouble.

Nowhere is this clearer than when writing a journal article.

The vast majority of journals do have word limits which they make clear in their instructions to authors. So all of us start writing a paper knowing that there is a maximum number or words that we ought not to exceed. However it’s never just a question of spending our total word budget, any more than it is with our own domestic allowance. It’s also about how the budget gets divided up, so that all the major expenses are covered.

Now with a journal article, the temptation is to just start writing, perhaps even following a rough outline, and then just stop at about the required length. The trouble with doing this is that while we might have reached the right number of words, the paper may not be balanced.

But does this really matter? Well yes, it does. Let me explain.

If you spend too many words writing about the literatures, you may well not have enough for the methods, or the results, or the conclusion. In reality its usually the conclusion that gets shortchanged, and that means that while you’ve outlined in great and luxurious detail what literatures your work draws on and those it speaks to, you don’t actually have the word budget left at the end of the article to show how. So you can’t really say what your contribution to the conversation actually is, or why it matters, because you don’t have enough words left in your budget to do so.

Of course the reverse can also be true. If you don’t spend enough of your word budget on the key literatures, then you do have lots to spend on the discussion and conclusion – but you can’t really connect them to anything, because you haven’t spent words wisely in the beginning.

You can also scrimp on words when it comes to methods, and that means that the reader doesn’t know what you’ve done, with whom, when and why. You might have saved yourself lots of words to use for the results, but the reader doesn’t have enough methods information to trust what you have to say.

But it’s not just a question of balancing the word budget between sections. There’s also a question of balance within some sections too. You need to think carefully about how you spend your word budget in the results and discussion section of a paper. How much description does the reader need in order to make sense of the analysis? How many words can you realistically spend displaying your data and justifying your selection? How much is too much, leaving analytic sophistication sacrificed to empirical detail?

Because it is important to make sure that the sections of an article are balanced, as well keeping within the overall word limit, I often suggest to people that they try to allocate word limits to the various chunks of their paper. This not only means that they can think and make decisions beforehand about what needs to be said where, and how economically or expansively, but they can also think about budgeting the time needed to write each block of words.

A good consequence of thinking about word budgets is that it does focus thinking on the reader – what do they need to know and how many words have I got to do this. It also helps us consider the work that each section of the paper has to do, rather than take the sections for granted.

I know that thinking about word budgets sounds really super-organised, and perhaps even a little anally retentive, but working with a word budget is a good exercise to do every now and then, even if it doesn’t become a habit. Because every article and every chapter has slightly different requirements, one word budget is never exactly the same as the next – just like our household expenses ….

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, balance, journal, word budget and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to writing a journal article is managing a word budget – or not

  1. Andrew R says:

    I only realised yesterday the the very helpful writing programme Scrivener (now available for Windows and Mac) has an automated system for doing this – a small ‘percent completed’ graphic sits at the bottom of each section – well worth checking out.

  2. Nick g says:

    I used a word budget approach to get my phd thesis written under a tight deadline. It helped to focus my writing and let me know early in the process of writing a chapter whether I was going to go over and whether I needed to take stock. I saved a lot of editing and rewriting time.

  3. Elaine says:

    I have adopted this practice recently for an article I am preparing, but I still can’t keep to it as Nick suggests! I can see the benefit but once I get going I just type and type. I usually have no problem revising and cutting down to meet the original budget, but I guess it takes time to get the knack of keeping to budget. To extend the analogy, I always spend too much only to frantically return items the next time :)

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