Word counts. Ah, yes. We’ve all been through it before. You either get stuck after writing about 800 words of a 1,500 word essay, or you fly past the required number of words in the hope that triple the length is acceptable.
Below are 20 ways to help you achieve the word count you need. Ten for when you’re struggling to write, ten for when you’ve rocketed past the limit.
When you can’t find the words
- Write the way you feel. Make it scholarly later. In other words, ignore your internal editor!
- Read more. There is always more to add and other avenues to explore. Further reading should help uncover new areas that you haven’t discussed yet.
- Return to your notes. Has something been covered that could be included as part of your argument? Did your tutor provide any broad topic areas that are relevant to your writing?
- Ignore the essay so far. Just list all the points/opinions/arguments you want to make. Anything currently missing from the essay can now be written up.
- Step away from the essay. Leave it for a while and return when your mind’s fresh. Sometimes it’s the only way to wake your mind back up.
- Think prodding, not padding! Just adding text for the sake of making up numbers is pointless and it won’t get you any extra marks. Question everything you read. Does a text agree with your argument? If so, how has the author moved the topic on? If not, can you criticise that argument in order to back up yours?
- Ignore the word count. It starts you off with the wrong mindset altogether. If you consider the number of words before you’ve written anything, you will automatically stop writing at points in fear that you’re writing too much. In fact, you need to write more. So return to any writing that you’ve already done and try expanding on what you’ve got without it turning to padding.
- Ask your tutor how the essay is shaping up. Discuss what you can examine next, where to explore, and so on.
- Return to the question. What else could it mean or imply? Rarely is an undergraduate essay a simple question with an unambiguous answer.
- Stop restricting yourself. If you do all the above and still can’t get near to the right number of words, you’re somehow blocking yourself. Remember that there’s no right or wrong answer. Critical engagement is so much more than that. If it’s proving that difficult to engage, look to staging a completely different argument. Maybe you’re trying to give an opinion that isn’t really your opinion.
When you’re over the limit
- Cut, cut, cut!
- List points in order of importance. Cut the rest to brief points and references.
- Check for repetition.
- Check verbosity. Are you unnecessarily labouring a point? Be brutal.
- Consider depth. Have you given more detail than is expected of you?
- If a particular discussion or argument uses many more words than your other set pieces, cut from here.
- Take a reality check. “There’s no way I can cut this without cutting something crucial. I need to include everything.” Seriously, you don’t. Count yourself lucky that you’ve got the ideas. If it’s still tough, talk it through with your tutor. They will almost certainly suggest areas to chop.
- Don’t retell a story or explain from scratch. Introduce the point briefly and reference.
- Don’t panic if you’re slightly over. 0-5% is no big deal. 5-10% is worth being vigilant over. Anything above 10% needs serious reduction.
- If you’re going to write so much, why not make it your dissertation subject? 😉