How not to go over your word limit

Recently, I wrote about beating writer’s block and taking control of your Internal Editor.

But some of us don’t have that problem.  At times, writing takes place effortlessly.  Before you know it, you’re hundreds – if not thousands - of words over your word limit.

photo by Schockwellenreiter

Word limits are there for a reason.  If 1,500 words are required for an essay, it will be marked down if you submit double that.

Inability to edit an essay is just as dangerous as a writer’s block.  It’s when your Internal Editor has gone on holiday, or when you’ve told him to sod off completely.  Bad move.  Get the Editor back, sharpish.  If the essay has gone way over the word limit and you don’t think you can cut anything out of the essay, you’re wrong.  Plain and simple.

Here are a few ways you can claw things back:

  • Cut out unnecessary words.  By all means keep the context, but make sure every word counts.
  • Have you used too many examples to make an argument?  You don’t need to labour the point.  If you’ve got six good examples, use no more than two of them to explain.  Unless you’re asked to highlight as many examples as possible, you won’t be stopped for using ‘the wrong examples’ if you’ve backed it up properly.
  • Make sure your writing is relevant to the specific question(s) being asked.  You may be passionate about your subject, or have an in-depth knowledge of a module because you studied something similar at school.  But don’t let enthusiasm overtake the real point of writing an essay.  Make sure each paragraph, each sentence, each comment, each footnote, relates to the question that’s been posed.
  • Use strong ideas and clear motifs.  Certain arguments may focus on minor points of reference.  These are usually the arguments that can be taken out, in favour of more important areas of debate.  If you insist on mentioning them, do just that; mention it in passing and then move on.
  • Check for repetition.  Make sure you haven’t made a point more than once.  And if you find two similar, but not identical points, try to bring them together in your argument, which could save a few words.
  • Be direct.  It’s okay for me to ramble on this blog (unless you start complaining about it!  ;-) ), but it’s not worth using 30 words when 10 will do.  Flowery expression is wasteful and doesn’t hammer down the point.
  • Ask how flexible the word limit is.  If you find it too difficult to cut down by enough, you may be allowed a bit of flexibility.  This can depend on institution and individual marker.  But you may be given 10% either way, or have an allowance of 100 words, which is close enough.  But don’t take that as an easy option.
  • Be brutal.  Still too long?  Work out what you think is the least important point in the essay and don’t bother with it.  Or at least reduce it to a minor mention.
  • Ask a fellow (enthusiastic) classmate to check for possible cutting.  Why not find someone who’s willing to exchange essays so you can help each other?  A fresh pair of eyes on a piece is always helpful.  You don’t have to take their advice, but it’s good to find an opinion other than your own.

Finally, if after all this, you still find difficulty in keeping to the word limit, ask the marking tutor to give the essay a brief look to suggest where you could cut down.  The tutor is not going to tell you what to write, neither will they edit the piece for you…but if you explain that you’re uncertain what can be cut and what needs to stay (plus the number of words you’ve gone over by), a good tutor should at least guide you a little further.  It’s worth asking.

Do take in the advice they give you and use it for future essays too.  They won’t want you returning every time with the same problem.