If you're already a seasoned expert on the misery of having to implement the 5 Basics of Decreasing Word Count, you may be ready for a new approach. But what it there was a better way to decrease word count that's nothing like those 5 basics, and this way would actually significantly improve the quality of your writing? And, you'd only have to do once? (There is!)
Professional organizer, and author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo, is a huge international celebrity because of her revolutionary approach to helping people clear their clutter permanently, the KonMari method. The goal of the KonMari method is to reducing the distracting clutter from our closets, homes, lives (academic papers...), so we're left with only what we love, and can focus on what matters.
How do you use the KonMari method?
The KonMari method has you keep only what "sparks joy," and discard (donate, recycle, give away, sell) whatever doesn't. It's pretty straightforward, but it sort of goes against everything we've ever been taught about reducing clutter and paring down your belongings. While most approaches to decluttering recommend going little-by-little, the KonMari method forces you to take everything from a particular category, dump it on the floor, and rather than getting rid of what you don't like, you only keep what you do like.
The KonMari method is a much happier approach to "editing" your clothes and your things, because it forces you to think about what you love rather than what you hate. With this approach, you arrive with a positive mindset. Which makes sense; it's kind of like how picking your favorite songs for an iTunes playlist is infinitely better than if being told to delete 500 songs from your iTunes library. And this concept can apply to "decluttering" academic papers, too.
What does KonMari have to do with decreasing word count or improving quality in an academic paper?
Marie Kondo recommends decluttering by examining everything, and choosing only the best of the best to keep. We can apply this same principle to academic writing. If you imagine that your current draft of your latest article/paper/manuscript is like your currently over-stuffed closet (before KonMari, or BKM), and is therefore full of clutter (excess word count) that you don't want/need, we can apply the KonMari method to declutter it (remove the unnecessary content, thus bringing your word count down, and significantly improving the quality if your writing).
By the way, Marie Kondo claims her approach is a permanent approach to decluttering, and that none of her organization clients have ever lapse. This is because if done correctly, one time is enough for getting rid of everything you don't love (leaving you with only things you do love -- in which case, why would you ever need to repeat it?). What if this approach to decreasing word count is the last approach you ever need?
How to KonMari your Writing to Decrease Word Count and Improve Writing Quality
If you want to apply the revolutionary principles of the KonMari method to "declutter" your writing, and remove everything that's not excellent, then read on. But remember: for the rest of this post, Your paper is a "closet."
Step 1 - Put all your writing into a "floor" document
We're going to call this space your floor, since that's where I dumped all my stuff when I did the KonMari method to my closet. This is where everything you've already written will go while it waits to find out if it made the cut.
Step 2 - Open a fresh document to be your "closet"
Think of this space as your closet, since this is where the best of the best -- the stuff from the floor that makes the cut -- will end up.
Step 3 - Begin choosing your absolute favorites
Go through your floor and start choosing individual sections, one at a time, that are excellent (well-written, good content, citations) and drop them into your closet.
Tip: When you "pick them up off the floor" and move them to your closet, be sure to delete them from the floor document so you don't get confused later.
Step 4 - Organize as you go
Just like if you were really doing this with clothes, be sure to organize the closet as you go -- or keep skirts separate from shirts.
If the first thing you put in the closet is a beautiful sentence about why Problem X is important, and the second thing you put in the closet is a beautiful sentence about a Potential Solution to Problem X, don't put them right next to each other! If you were really putting skirts and shirts in your closet, you wouldn't put them side by side would you?
As you add things to the closet document, add in headers to separate different 'categories' for your work. That way, you'll be developing a frame for your new-and-improved paper as you go. This might look like this:
[INSERT 1st NEW HEADER HERE]
Beautiful sentence about why Problem X is important "with an incredibly supportive quotation right here" [Researcher & Researcher, 2015].
[INSERT 2nd NEW HEADER HERE]
Beautiful sentence about a Potential Solution to Problem X "with an incredibly supportive quotation right here" [Writer & Writer, 2015].
Step 5 - Figure out what's "missing" in your "closet"
At this point, your closet document has the best of the best from your floor document, and you've made it clear to yourself what you still need.
If we were really talking about your closet, this might mean you now have a closet stocked with a few great shirts, pants, and jeans. And it's all stuff you love! And none of the stuff you don't love is in your closet / final draft. It's still on the floor. Well, this is already great because you've successfully decreased word count by a lot! Ta-da!
You may even feel like you're pretty much done. And then you realize maybe you're missing a good pair of shoes (conclusion?) or you're in dire need of some scarves (details?) or jewelry (quotes/citations?). Your closet/final draft now has great stuff, but it's looking very sparse.
At this point, your closet needs a few extra things, and the few shoes/scarves/jewels on your floor just are not that great. You'll be tempted to continue shopping the floor for "good-enough" pieces to further flesh out your closet. Don't do this!
Instead, make a mental note of what's missing. Yes, you can scan the floor document one more time to see if you've already written something great, but chances are, you didn't, and that's why you didn't add it into your closet document already. You don't love it. Don't force yourself to look the floor document over and over and convince yourself the content there will do.
Instead, just go through your closet document figure out what you still have a need for. If you want, you can jot these things down or make a note to yourself in your closet document (in bright red so it doesn't get 'lost' in there by mistake!) to add it.
Step 6 - "Shop" for what you need in your "closet"
Now, you should have a list of things your closet document needs, or notes to yourself embedded through the closet document about what you need. It's time to go shopping! Not from your floor document, but from the mall (your brain).
And it won't be as hard this time, because you know exactly what you need, and you can include just that. Sort of like how if you know you just need a black t-shirt when you walk into H&M, you're less likely to walk out with bags full of stuff from their $10 rack. It's a lot easier to get just what you need. You know what it looks like, you've bought it (thought of it) before, and this time you're just going to get a better quality one than you had before.
Step 7 - Check the floor one more time, and then let everything on it go
I KNOW that's scary. Don't worry, you don't have to trash anything. But presumably, if it's still on your floor, you don't really love it, because you know you can do better! You can save all this not-good-enough-for-the-closet writing in a running document with ideas and segments that you might later decide to use in another piece of writing if you want. Or just write brand new ideas in your closet documents using the content from the floor, and once you've written the new and improved version of those sentences, delete the old/bad ones.
I personally have a document in my Google Drive called "For Later" -- and every time I pull out a substantial or significant sounding chunk of my writing (I did this for 3 paragraphs of my Literature Review, and almost an entire page of my Needs Assessment Report), I just drop it into my "For Later" document. That way, if I really miss it, I can come back to it later. And if I don't... then I'm glad I didn't use it.
If you KonMari your writing to decrease word count, you don't have to go back and keep using the 5 basics of decreasing word count over and over. Using the basic approaches of paring down your writing is miserable, and never really ends.
You use it to cut down a few words, and then you still have a ton left to cut. In the long run, using basic approaches to decreasing word count can be more time consuming than just using this approach once. So do it. KonMari your writing.
By the way, Marie Kondo has a three-month waiting list for her services, but her book is only about $7 on Kindle (I read it and loved it, and decluttered my entire closet).
Got any more tips for applying the KonMari method to a doctoral program, or to academic writing? Please share them in the comments below!