Word Limits, Page Limits, and my secret super power

May 18 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

My secret super power is making things short. It is enhanced by my second-in-line-power which is to write short in the first place. When I finished my thesis, it held the record for the shortest approved thesis in my department. It may still be, but I don't have lots of data to support that statement.

I have often said, here, in the tweets, to all my trainees till their eyes roll back in their heads and they fall out of their chairs in boredom:

Page limits are your friends. They tell how much the reviewer/grant-giver/journal/whatever wants to read. If you are having trouble "fitting it in", it is not the fault of the limits. You are saying too much. They don't want that much.

If you are a full page over, you don't need to go back and edit out single words. You need to go back and figure out which paragraphs can be reduced to a single sentence. If you are multiple pages too long, then you need to figure out what sections can be reduced to a single sentence, or even are totally necessary.

The ability to know what to put in a proposal, and not make type I errors (leaving out stuff that should be there) or type II errors (putting in stuff that isn't necessary), is a skill worth honing.


5 responses so far

  • girlparts says:

    I never used to have this problem (being too long) -throughout school, early years of grant writing - page limits were never an issue. But lately, with the rise of the multi-PI proposal, it has become a problem for me. The scope of the science is bigger with two-three labs involved. If they are also cross-disciplinary proposals, they seem to require more background information. You might have one reviewer in your field, who wants all the nitty gritty experimental details, and then someone in the other PI's field who has no idea what you are talking about, or its significance without an overview of your whole field.

    • potnia theron says:

      I appreciate these perceptions, have had them. Every new mechanism, with new limits and new demands felt this way. In particular, when R01's went from 25 to 12 pages, I was all "how the hell can I do this?".

      And yes, multi-PI, cross-disciplinary, etc have a particular challenge to meet the conflicting needs. I've been a reviewer for some of those, and they are hard to review. Interestingly, I noticed that my proposals have become more focused over time, and less broad, in part a response to having to do both the large-scale significance and the level of detail necessary to inform/convince/appease reviewers. But on the flip side of this, reviews are more directed so it is easier (usually) to tell where the problems lie.

      Do you have general thoughts on how to make this work?

      • girlparts says:

        I wish I knew how to make it work. I'm thinking that I should take a similar approach to that of cutting down from 25 to 12 pages - mostly less technical detail?I'll try to step back a few levels and state the general goal of the experiment, and not so much of the how, with references to our previous studies. It's a multi-submission approach: if the reviewers come back with specific technical questions, they are the easiest kind to answer. Fingers crossed.

  • […] Which brings us to a comment about writing length from girlparts was: […]

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