Shortening papers to fit page limits

Devi Parikh
Nov 6 · 3 min read

Saying the same thing in fewer words

Close to conference deadlines, papers are often longer than the page limit.

Over the years I have been surprised by how often folks start by thinking about what content to remove (or move to supplementary material), instead of trying to say the same thing in fewer words.

It is frequently the case that I’ll take a pass on a paper to shorten it (typically takes 30–90 minutes), and my students will react with a “Wait, how did you do that? I can’t tell what you removed!”. To which I say “Exactly :)”.

Following is what I had shared with my lab (addressed to them) a while ago about how I take shortening passes. I hope you find it useful.

It assumes you have at least a few hours before the deadline and nothing more pressing to do than shortening the paper.


I’ve noticed that in most cases when you first finish your paper and are over the page limit, you immediately start thinking about what to move to supplementary material or where to add negative \vspace{}s in LaTeX.

That is not what you should be doing.

You should:

  1. Scroll through and spot lines that have just a few words on them (taking up less than ~30% of the line width). Reword the paragraph to “adopt” these stragglers. This will save you ~8–10 lines on an ~8–9 page draft.
    Tip: Aside from space considerations, stragglers also look a bit shabby.
  2. Scroll to spot extra white space because of LaTeX oddities. Fix those.
  3. Spot any figures that are redundant or are taking up disproportionate landscape for the point they are making. Rearrange them.
  4. The main thing that most of you don’t seem to do and I believe is the right way to deal with space crunch: “Tighten” the writing. In most cases there is significant scope to use fewer words to say the same thing. John Carlis (University of Minnesota) tightened one of my abstracts. See photo. It saves a third of the space! A 9-page paper would be down to 6.
    Tip 1: You can locally tighten by scrolling through the draft and spotting paragraphs or subsections that seem long for the point they are making.
    Tip 2: Concise does not mean cryptic. Don’t over-tighten.
    Tip 3: This might take a good amount of time at first. But as you do this more often, you’ll quickly become much faster at it than you’d guess.
  5. Take multiple passes on the paper as needed to further tighten the writing. There will be diminishing returns.
  6. And then, if you must, consider moving things to supplementary material. This is the last option assuming you were mindful in deciding what to put in the main paper in the first place.
  7. Not-really-an-option-option: If you absolutely have to, try reasonable negative \vspace{}s or other LaTeX tricks.
    Important: Conferences vary in their tolerance for these, so be careful!
An exercise in tightening writing (by John Carlis, University of Minnesota)

Devi Parikh

Written by

Associate Professor at Georgia Tech, Research Scientist at Facebook AI Research. Artificial Intelligence, Computer Vision.

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