So you’ve finished the first draft of your legal essay. That’s the good news. The bad news? It’s 400 words over the word limit 😱
And sure, you could just delete a bunch of paragraphs to get yourself under the limit again…
But unless those paragraphs were full of irrelevant nonsense, deleting them also means deleting potential marks!
This post covers 8 editing techniques you can use to write concisely and reduce your word count without sacrificing your work’s content.
Paraphrase rather than quote
Direct quotes should be used sparingly; in fact, they should constitute no more than 10% of your essay’s total word count. If you quote more than that, you run the risk of plagiarism–not to mention giving your reader the impression that you have nothing original to say.
Paraphrasing, however, allows you to use the important parts of a source without needing to stick to its original wording. This flexibility means that paraphrasing can save you a lot of words. Consider the following passage from a Copyright Law exam response that uses a long, direct quote to make its point:
Now consider a version of the passage that uses paraphrasing instead. Although it also quotes directly from the same source, the quotes are short and strategic:
The paraphrased paragraph is 58 words shorter than the paragraph that uses the long direct quote.
Go through your essay and look for any direct quotes of a sentence or more. Is keeping the author’s original phrasing essential? Or could you convey the same meaning yourself with fewer words?
Please don’t explain
Remember that the imagined reader of your essay has legal training, but is not a specialist. You therefore need to tailor the degree of explanation in your essay to this audience. For example, you wouldn’t need to explain what a tort is (any first year JD student could tell you that…we hope), but you would need to explain what specific torts are (detinue, conversion, etc) so that your reader can understand your analysis.
Even if the explanation is audience-appropriate, however, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary. Often, students will devote several sentences–or even a paragraph–to an explanation that’s only helps the reader understand a minor point.
So ask yourself:
- Is the explanation necessary?
- Is it worth the number of words it’s taking up in my essay?
- Can I make it briefer?
Delete introductory ‘throat-clearing’ phrases
When we’re speaking, we often use superfluous words and phrases such as ‘well’, ‘all things considered’ and ‘needless to say’ (if it’s needless to say, why are you saying it!?). These expressions are fine when we’re speaking casually and no one’s expecting our speech to adhere to a strict word count. But what about when we’re writing? Without realising it, one of the following phrases in red has probably crept into your prose:
|It seems to me that||without a clearer statement of the law, the defendant should not be held liable.|
|It is my contention that||sports regulators should conduct a human rights audit of their anti-doping policies.|
|One could argue that||the Government has an ethical responsibility to legislate to protect consumers from preventable harms.|
|It should also be noted that||while the Guidelines are not a legally binding document, they are recognised as statements of internal policy.|
These introductory, ‘throat-clearing’ expressions use up your precious word count without adding anything to your writing: notice that the right half of each sentence has the same meaning with or without the inclusion of the red introductory phrase.
So read through your draft again and, wherever these meaningless throat-clearing phrases appear, delete them!
Delete Redundant Words
Just like throat-clearing expressions, your essay is probably littered with single words that aren’t adding anything to your essay. While deleting a word here and there might not seem like it’ll do much to reduce your total word count, you’ll be surprised by how many words you can save by deleting redundancies throughout your essay.
‘That’, ‘Which’ and ‘Whether or Not’
I never realised I was addicted to using ‘that’ in my academic writing until I searched my essays for every use of the word, and was faced with pages and pages that looked like this:
Note that (argh!) most of these sentences are still grammatical when you delete ‘that’ from them.
Removing ‘which’ from your writing may require some rewording, but this can force you to simplify your syntax and save even more words!
Original Sentence (28 words)
Revised Sentence (25 words)
|This immunity protects the Office from external review of its operations, which in turn means that prosecutors are not generally obliged to provide detailed reasons for their decisions.||This immunity protects the Office from external review of its operations, so that prosecutors are not generally obliged to provide detailed reasons for their decisions.|
You can also search your document for every instance of the phrase ‘whether or not’ and save two words instantly by deleting the ‘or not’.
A sentence or phrase is tautological when it expresses the same idea more than once. Classic examples include ‘PIN number’ (the ‘N’ in PIN already stands for ‘number’) and ‘the two twins’ (twins are by definition a set of two). When editing your work, look for any sentences doing double time and remove the redundant words.
Let’s practice! Read the following paragraphs and see if you can spot three tautologies. Then click on the ‘check solution’ button below to see how you went!
 The case note dissects at length the decision in Choi, beginning with the facts: Page Choi (the Applicant) was a chartered accountant employed by Deloitte Touche Tomatsu (the Respondent). She was considered an excellent employee whose work was nominated for an award.
 In July 2012, the Applicant contracted the illness tuberculosis and was away from work ‘sporadically’ until November. Despite the Applicant’s treating doctor declaring her non-contagious and fit to return to work with reduced duties, the Respondent ‘coerced’ her into taking unpaid leave. When she refused, the Respondent repeatedly presented her with a series of separation packages.
Adjectives and Adverbs
I love descriptive words, and in my ideal (desired, coveted, most wished-for) world every noun would be encumbered by at least three adjectives. So it pains me to say that adjectives and adverbs are, most of the time, excellent candidates for deletion.
The resulting sentences are less colourful, but their
core meaning remains intact. And if you’re prone to purple prose like me, pruning your adjectives and adverbs can be a simple way to enhance your writing’s readability.
Repetition isn’t always a bad thing! It can be an effective tool to emphasise points and persuade readers. But if you’re over your word limit, deleting any repeated information can be an easy way to reduce your word count without reducing your essay’s informative content.
Consider the following sentence:
|In the 2018 report Everyone’s Business: Fourth National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, it was found that
||30% of retail and hospitality workers who experienced sexual harassment said the perpetrator was a client or customer.
 Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘Everyone’s Business: Fourth National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces’ (2018) 62.
Even though the sentence has a footnote with details about the source, the student has wasted words by repeating those details in the body of their essay.
We may also repeat information because of our writing’s structure. Imagine you’re writing an essay that explores legal theory and tradition in the context of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, with the following structure:
Part I: Introduction – Provides brief background to the Statement and legal theorists H.L.A. Hart and Ronald Dworkin
Part II: The Uluru Statement from the Heart – Outlines the Statement’s contents
Part III: The Rule of Recognition – Explains legal theorist Hart’s rule of recognition
Part IV: The Chain Novel – Explains legal theorist Dworkin’s chain novel metaphor
Part V: Theoretical Analysis of the Statement – Restates key parts of the Statement, analysing them in light of the two theories above
Part VI: Conclusion
There is nothing ‘wrong’ with this essay structure. However, Part V is in danger of repeating information already presented in Part II. The repeated information in Part V should not be deleted, though, because it is important that the Statement is fresh in the reader’s mind as they read the essay’s analysis of it in light of the two theories presented in Parts III and IV.
Instead, the student could delete Part II, and distribute any essential information from it between the Introduction and Part V. Deleting Part II would also remove the need to repeat any general information from the Introduction about Hart and Dworkin’s theories in Parts III and IV, because those two sections would now come directly after the introduction.
The revised essay structure would look like this:
Part I: Introduction – Provides brief background to the Statement and legal theorists H.L.A. Hart and Ronald Dworkin
Part II: The Rule of Recognition – Explains legal theorist Hart’s rule of recognition
Part III: The Chain Novel – Explains legal theorist Dworkin’s chain novel metaphor
Part IV: Theoretical Analysis of the Statement – Discusses key parts of the Statement, analysing them in light of the two theories above
Part V: Conclusion
So have a look at your essay’s structure and, even if it’s not required, generate a table of contents! That way you’ll have an overview of your structure and can see whether you can reorder the sections to minimise repetition.
Convert phrases to single words
Academic texts are full of indirect, formal-sounding language and students often emulate this in their own writing. Unfortunately, many of these formal expressions don’t use words efficiently.
Consider the following examples in the left column and their one-word equivalents on the right:
|A number of||Some|
|With respect to||About|
|As a result of the fact that||Because|
These examples appear in Noah A. Messing’s book, The Art of Advocacy (p. 261).
Reread your essay and look for phrases that use
a lot of multiple prepositions. Is there a single word that gets your reader across expresses the same idea?
Convert passive voice to active voice
Writing in the passive voice is grammatical, but this construction tends to use more words than writing in the active voice. For many, active voice is also more readable.
Passive: A policy of secrecy has been pursued by ASIO’s Director-General in line with her professional obligations. (17 words)
Active: ASIO’s Director-General pursued a policy of secrecy in line with her professional obligations. (14 words)
But why stop there? Once you’ve converted the passive voice to active, see if you can rewrite the sentence even more succinctly:
Passive: Concerns were brought to the barrister’s attention by his client only 20 minutes before court was due to begin. (20 words)
Active: The client brought their concerns to the barrister’s attention only 20 minutes before court was due to begin. (19 words)
Active (succinct): The client expressed concerns to their barrister only 20 minutes before court began. (12 words)
Total saving: 8 words
Passive: In Traian v Ware, it was decided by the court that persons seeking to abate a nuisance originating on another party’s land must generally give notice of their intention to abate the nuisance. (34 words)
Active: The court in Traian v Ware decided that persons seeking to abate a nuisance originating on another party’s land must generally give notice of their intention to abate the nuisance. (31 words)
Active (succinct): Persons intending to abate a nuisance originating on another party’s land must generally give notice of this intention (Traian v Ware). (22 words)
Total saving: 12 words
Convert negative phrasing to positive phrasing
Messing argues in The Art of Advocacy that negative phrasing is harder for readers to absorb than positive phrasing. He gives the following example on p. 260 (modified slightly for our purposes):
|I did not fail to pay||I paid|
Although this won’t always be the case, converting negative phrasing to positive phrasing can also save you words. Consider this negatively phrased passage from a student essay:
The podcast suggests that prosecutors have misunderstood fundamental parts of the police brief of evidence. This would not be unheard of, the narrator contends, because he personally witnessed an ‘astonishing lapse by top prosecutors’ in an earlier investigation conducted by the same office.
When the sentence is converted to positive phrasing, it is 3 words shorter:
The podcast suggests that prosecutors have misunderstood fundamental parts of the police brief of evidence. This is possible, the narrator contends, because he personally witnessed an ‘astonishing lapse by top prosecutors’ in an earlier investigation conducted by the same office.
As usual, 3 words won’t seem like a lot when you’re hundreds of words over your limit. In fact, no single technique we’ve just covered is likely to substantially reduce your word count. However, if these editing techniques are used in tandem throughout your essay, you can succeed in achieving your word limit and keeping those awesome paragraphs you thought you’d have to delete.
Better still, your reader will thank you for expressing yourself so clearly and succinctly!