How to lower your word count with reduced relative clauses

In this blog post, we’ll be looking at one method of decreasing the total word count of your academic essay or assignments: the use of reduced relative clauses.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I – a blogger, after all – love to write. In all types of texts, I’m effusive: I send text messages that take up the whole screen of my iPhone, I always run out of room on my tweets, and ‘quick emails’ run to many paragraphs. In academic writing (where I’m expected to outline, explain, and argue a line of thought) I’m frankly verbose, and my first drafts usually end up between 10 and 20% over the word limit. Personally, reducing the overall word count is a skill I’ve had to master when editing my own work.

Even students who do not necessarily enjoy the essay writing process are often surprised by the quantity of their output once they start expounding on a topic they know well, and which interests them. Of course, some assignments don’t have a maximum word limit, but even then, concision is a necessary academic writing skill, and the technique below will help you vary your sentence structure and write with greater brevity.

When reducing your word count, removing a few words here and there can make a surprising difference to your total, and I often start by isolating my relative clauses.

Remember, clauses in their simplest form consist of a subject noun, plus a main verb. They are the smallest grammatical structures which can ‘survive’ as a sentence in their own right, e.g.

The students returned.

Adding an object noun will make the sentence more complex:

The students returned their questionnaires.

This sentence is still a little too simplistic for an academic essay, and we can add relative clauses to give the reader necessary information in a complex but – crucially – clear way. A relative clause is connected to a main clause by one of the following words:

  • who
  • which
  • that
  • where
  • when, or
  • whose

In our example, we might therefore write,

The students who had been selected for participation returned their questionnaires, which were then processed by researchers.

This is a perfectly acceptable sentence, but could be made more succinct if necessary or desirable. To achieve this, I recommend reducing your defining relative clauses, as this is generally more straightforward. In this case, the first relative clause is defining, so we’ll focus our attention here (if you need to review your understanding of defining and non-defining relative clauses, take a look at this explanation).

When the defining relative clause uses the verb to be, we can usually reduce it by removing the relative pronoun and verb, as follows:

The students who had been selected for participation returned their questionnaires, which were then processed by researchers.


The students selected for participation returned their questionnaires, which were then processed by researchers.

The sentence is as clear and informative as the original wording, but we’ve reduced the word count slightly and made it more snappy.

If, after a first edit, we still need to reduce the word count, we can go back to some of our reduced relative clauses and see if we can strip them back to adjective form. For instance, if I was really struggling meeting a word limit, I might write:

The selected students returned their questionnaires, which were then processed by researchers.

Of course, if you’re considerably exceeding your word limit, you may need to consider jettisoning some of your arguments. In the initial re-drafts, however, I suggest chipping away at unnecessary language, rather than abandoning relevant arguments.

A word of caution: don’t go overboard! Removing too many relative pronouns will likely lead to confusion for your reader. If in doubt, ask a critical friend to read your sentence tell you if the meaning is still clear. Varying your sentence construction will produce engaging, natural-sounding text, but in academic writing, clarity and accuracy are imperative.

If you have any questions or queries, you can ask them in the comments. You can also read about reduced relative clauses in more detail and try related grammar activities here.

Do you struggle to meet word limits? Have you studied relative clauses before? Let me know!