micro-writing (word count, not font size)

Cackle of Rad said something I’ve heard (and felt, and felt) many times:

CackleofRadThis 200 word limit on an abstract is killing me.

My reply on the tweets was:

Πότνια Θηρῶν@pottytheronuse word limits as your friend. your guide. Don’t do big and try sculpt. Build from the start.

But that deserves a little more explanation. I’ve ranted and raved about abstracts before in a couple of places. This is a bit more.

There are lots of ways to write. You can do the hologram. The whole thing is complete, but fuzzy, 10dpi, and each pass adds more detail at each level. This can be done by starting with an outline. Alternatively, you can do the 18th century classical writer – sit down with pen and paper (or computer, if you insist), and start at the beginning and write till you drop or are done.  You can do the sculptor – take something that is almost what you want and take away until you have chiseled out what you want (this is one abstract writing strategy). Or you can do the tailor, and start with a model form and drape pieces of cloth on it till you have a garment.

Any of these can work. But as I have said about grant limits in general: word limits are your friends. They tell you what the readers/reviewers/organizers want. And you want to give them what they want to read. I think for very short (relatively speaking) things like abstracts, if you are having trouble dealing with the length of things, don’t sculpt. Down that path lies madness. It may have been the problems Cackle was having. It certainly has generated problems for me when I am looking at 100-200 word length limits.

Tailor or hologram work well for short things like abstracts. Figure out what is supposed to there – either by category or by what you have done. That is, write down either intro/mat-meth/results/disc (this is the form) or a set of brief words/phrases that are going to be necessary (this is hologram). Then start adding. It helps if you try to make every word count for some content.

For grants, also limited in length, but longer, I find a build from the ground up strategy to be best. This can work with an outline or a form, especially within the research design section.There is a temptation to steal para from papers or worse, theses, for methods. This is a bad idea because you end up including things you don’t need/want, or things that aren’t necessary for this venue. In the olden dayes, when there was a background section, the worst grants to review were those that included a whole fracking literature summary to prove they knew it, rather than using the literature to point out the holes they intended to fill. Some grants still do this. The hardest time I have now reviewing grants is when I can’t see the organization and get confused by the 2nd page.

As our 8th grade teachers used to say: a good outline is like a skeleton  – it’s there and supporting the material. You know its there, but you can’t see it.


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