It’s time for a look at the problem of too many words. Is this really a widespread problem I hear you ask? In a word, yes. You see, despite the worries about whether we will write enough, the reality is that a lot of us write too much, rather than write too little. Often far too much.
Despite our best laid plans, Tiny Texts and word budgets, when we finally put a first draft together, there are just TOO MANY WORDS. Too many for the journal limit. Too many for the thesis according to the university regulations. Many more than were stipulated in the book contract we happily signed months ago.
Writing to required length is one of the academic competencies that are often assumed, but not so often explained. Why is the over-extended manuscript an issue?
Well, there are many possible answers to the word count question and I’m going to deal with just one to start with. It’s straightforward and who knew – it’s about moneyl Cold hard cash. Words are literally currency.
The other and more complex answers to the word count question are about convention and readers. I’m going to deal with both of these in future posts. As well as how to cut back on words. But it’s the money question first.
Book word counts are very much about money. The more words, the more pages. And the more pages, the more the book is going to cost.
Publishers set the price point of books based on their estimate of potential sales, but they also consider pages. (Yes yes and profits.) Smaller books tend to be priced more cheaply than longer ones. The book series that Helen Kara and I edit for example has a limit of 50k words. Any more than this number and the books can’t physically be printed. A longer book would actually have to move to a more expensive production process. Our word limit and the expected – and generally actual – sales are such that the publisher has set the price at the low end of their list. So authors to our series just have to stick to the allocated 40-50k words.
Scholarly monographs vary in length. Publishers have different policies about length, with academic presses often being more prepared to entertain longer books. The big commercial publishers often contract monographs and edited books at around the 70-80K word limits. Perhaps 90k. And this limit is specified in contracts. Marketing, budgeting and publication scheduling processes are then set around these parameters.
So if you hand in a text that is massively over length, the publisher will always ask you to reduce your words, rather than change their estimates of publication and printing costs. But they do also always have a little bit of slack. However, they are pretty immune to you telling them that you needed all of the additional words to do justice to the topic. They will be kind but only up to a point. Their bottom line is money not a commitment to scholarly communication at all costs.
Journal word counts are in part about money. Publishers generally set journal word limits, usually so many words per year. This limit used to be based on how many print copies they thought they could sell and how much profit they would make. Or perhaps whether they would cover costs in the case of small independent journals. Once the publisher set the word count, this could be averaged out to the number of words per issue. Journal editors and editorial boards then made a decision about how many papers this would allow per issue and thus how many words each paper could have.
Of course, as journals move more and more online, hard copy costs have reduced. For example, we authors now do the type setting. Of course, there are still some publishing costs in transferring word copy into the journal format, doing some rudimentary copy editing for journal style, and the costs of publication itself. ( Yes. Yes we do this journal work largely for free. I know, it’s infuriating. )
But academic publishers do work to maintain their profit margins in the digital environment, even if they are a little more flexible about words. Their bottom line and our word count is about money. Money money money.
Doctoral dissertations now generally vary from 60 to 100k words in length. And surprise! Word counts for theses are also about money.
Longer texts can take longer to write and certainly take more time to supervise and to examine. So the question of paid staff time is a factor in the word lengths set for dissertations. But staff time is not the only consideration. Ultra-long theses were thought to be a significant factor in non-completions. And completions are important for a range of reasons, but in part because judgments about university quality – and thus university funding – rest on completion rates.
Concern about thesis word counts has been an international phenomena, as has the more general concern about completions. And reductions in words counts seem to go hand in hand with these considerations.
As I remember it, Australian universities decided to reduce word length just a few years after the government decided to fund universities only for doctoral completions. If doctoral researchers started their course and didn’t finish within a reasonable time (the Australian federal government decided what timeliness was), the entire PhD cost was down to the universities to bear. There is little doubt this policy focused the attention of Australian graduate schools and supervisors on the completion question. Their word count decisions may have been unrelated – but I doubt it. However I am sure that international benchmarking, again connected to quality and thus to enrolments and money, were also involved.
Of course the economics of thesis completions and staff time are not the only reason that word counts were set for dissertations. Just as the economic is not the only reason that there are word limits for books and journals.
Next post I’ll talk more about length, and why short and long texts are also about readers.