Against “Reductionism”

Sometimes a draft gets longer than we’d like. Sometimes we are asked for a text that is shorter than the one we’re working on. We’re writing a paper for a journal with an 8000-word limit and before we know it we’ve written ten-thousand words. Then we’re suddenly asked to submit an extended abstract on the same subject with a 1500-word limit. The problem, we tell ourselves, is to “reduce” what we’ve got to something shorter. I want to offer an argument against this way of thinking.

Remember that a text is a series of paragraphs of at least six sentences and at most 200 words that say one thing and support, elaborate or defend it. When planning or re-organizing a text, you should always use a key-sentence outline as your guide. That is, you should take the one sentence in each paragraph that states what the rest of the sentences merely support, elaborate or defend and copy it into a separate document. If you’ve got a 40-paragraph paper you’ll have 40 sentences in your key-sentence outline. These sentences should always make sense in sequence without the context of the paragraphs in which they will ultimately appear. A good paper will be a series of claims that indicate an argument independent of the basis you are providing for each claim.

Now, each paragraph will consist of between 100 and 200 words. A first draft of a paper with an 8000-word limit should consist of about 40 paragraphs, i.e., between 4000 and 8000 words altogether, which should leave you with plenty of space to add more paragraphs as needed in revision. Always think of the revision process as identifying (1) new paragraphs that need to be written, (2) existing paragraphs that need to be removed or (3) existing paragraphs that need to be rewritten. There’s nothing else that can be wrong with your paper.

When trying to imagine a shorter version of longer paper, don’t imagine that the task is to “reduce” the bigger text to a smaller one. Don’t think of the job as removing words and sentences from the paper you have already written. Think of it as imagining a new text that makes fewer claims. You may have a 60-paragraph paper that is 9000 words long. Okay, imagine a 40-paragraph version of the same argument. You need to find 20 sentences in your key-sentence outline that you can do away with, perhaps while modifying some of the others. If you’ve got reasonably uniform paragraph lengths, you’ve just imagined a 6000 word paper. But don’t think you’ll arrive at this paper simply by “boiling” or “pruning” the longer text. That’s not how it works. Instead, write the new text following the new outline. It will take you 20 hours.

Or imagine “reducing” the text to a 1500 word extended abstract. You’ll now have to make due with 10 paragraphs at best. (I actually recommend dividing the word limit by 200, which will force you to write even more economically than necessary at first pass. You will probably then have room for an extra paragraph or two at the end.) What are the ten (or eight) things you want to say? Imagine a paper that says them. Then write it. It will take 5 hours, 27 minutes (of writing) + 3 minutes (for a break) at a time.

That is, I’m urging you not to think of your longer draft as setting a material constraint on your shorter one. The challenge is not one of representing a existing longer text in an imagined shorter text that leaves something out. Rather, the longer text was an attempt to represent what you know about something in 8,000 words, or 10,000 words, or whatever. But there’s no ideal amount of words to represent a body of knowledge. If you had 20,000 words you could do it even more justice. But that doesn’t meant that the 10,000-word text is somehow a deficient or “reduced” version of the “ideal” longer one. (The truly ideal text would, I guess, have no word limit at all? It would be infinitely long?) Rather, the enormous surplus of knowledge that the longer text demonstrates you have is a material resource for producing a different, shorter text.

You just have to represent that knowledge within the space of fewer paragraphs. In the main, think of a “shorter” text not in terms of the amount words but the amount of paragraphs. Don’t try remove words and sentences (except for the usual reason of keeping each paragraph below 200 words). Remove whole claims, i.e., key sentences, i.e., entire paragraphs. That said, I understand, for some purposes, imagining a text with shorter paragraphs. Sometimes, especially in an abstract or a conference paper, it can be useful to define the paragraph as consisting of least 4 sentences and at most 150 words. This gives you at least 10 paragraphs for a 1500 word text, which may make it easier to decide what to say. It may also bring the style more into line with the kind of text you are trying to write–more a synopsis of an argument than the argument itself.

But my point still holds: don’t try to reduce a longer text to a shorter one. Outline a new text with fewer claims. Then write the best possible paragraphs to support each one. You’re not boiling anything down. You’re not pruning branches off a tree. You’re not weeding a garden. You’re not forcing anything into a form. You are doing what you always do when you write, namely, making series of claims, one paragraph at a time. Your word limit tells you only how many things you can say. Saying them well is the same old problem of writing, the familiar difficulty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *