Saving words – check your citations


It’s amazing how much citations can add to your word count. Before you know it, you’ve amassed a few hundred words just filling in brackets.

Of course you need citations. You can’t just leave them out. You can’t just assert. Citing your sources acknowledges the work you’re building in, the work you’re using, the work that other people have done in the field that your work speaks with.

As you’re revising there’s a load of citation work to do. Of course you need to check to make sure you’re using a range of sources – there’s a politics of citations after all. Citing the same old people can be a problem.

And it’s important you don’t lump really disparate sources together in the same brackets which actually don’t say the same thing at all.

As well, using the same citations over and over tends to make it look as if you haven’t actually read enough.

But once you’ve deal with those issues it’s worth looking to see if you really do need all of the citations you’ve put in your draft.

For starters, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Have I over cited? A text that bristles with brackets is often hard to read. The reader struggles to get to what you have to say, the important stuff you contribute.
  1. Have I used six citations when one or two would do? A load of citations in a bracket can be read as someone uncertain about what they are saying. And a page of prose overburdened with references can read as if the writer is just summarising rather than interpreting. Or they are throwing in sources to try to impress.
  1. Why am I citing? Am I for example citing to show the type of work that people have done that is similar but not the same as mine? Or work that’s been done over a period of time? So I’ve written …

Blah blah blah blah (A,B,C,D, E,F,G,H)

Perhaps you don’t need ten citations to do this, you just need a couple and an e.g.

Blah blah blah blah (e.g. A, F, H)

Do remember that readers may actually take issue with your citations if you have a lot. Some peer reviewers rather like questioning citation groupings.

Are the citations helping me make an argument or getting in the way? It’s not uncommon a to read an argument-making paragraph that goes like this…

Blah blah blah blah (A,B,C,D,E). Blah blah blah blah (A,B,C,D,E). Blah blah blah blah (A,B,C,D,E).

But you could go

Researchers (A,B,C,D,E ) suggest that blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah.

Or you might be able to say

Blah blah blah blah (A,B,C,D,E). Blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah.

Or perhaps

Blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah (A,B,C,D,E).

Or even

Blah blah blah blah (A,B). Blah blah blah blah (C). Blah blah blah blah (D,E).

All cut a few words out and make the readers job easier.

After asking yourself these four questions you may decide to cut a few citations out. But do remember your disciplinary conventions. Different disciplines do have different expectations of number and kind of citations.

Now these little trims may not look like you’ll save a lot of words. But expand these minor tweaks over several pages or even a hundred and those citation savings really start to add up and your text reads more easily, while still being well grounded.