Academic writing typically requires you to stick to a word limit. It is important to do this for a number of reasons.
The most important factor is that you are likely to be penalised if you exceed the word limit on your essay. Equally, a finished piece of writing which comes in well under the word limit implies that you have not put enough work into the essay, or that you need to do further research.
Typically, you should aim for the finished essay to be within 10% of the word limit either way. However, some universities are very strict about staying within word limits, so you should check this with your school/department before submitting your work.
Another important consideration is not padding your work to meet a word limit. Markers can easily see when someone has used long or repetitive sentences to artificially inflate the word count of an essay, and you will often be penalised for this.
Planning for the Word Limit
Since word limits are important, whether you are working on a short report or an 80,000 word thesis, it is a good idea to work out how many sections you will need to cover the topic adequately. You will then be able to work out the rough length that each paragraph or section should be to meet the word limit.
Remember that the word limit sometimes only applies to the main body of your work. If this is the case, you won’t have to include things like appendices or the reference list in your total word count. This isn’t always the case though, so this is another thing you should check before submitting your work.
Keeping an eye on how much you have written, rather than continuing to write without regard to the word limit, also makes it less likely that you will have to go through your essay and cut words later!
Some Editing Tips to Help Reduce your Word Count
- Simplify your style. Look for long sentences and try to make them more succinct. This will make your work easier to read, as well as reducing your word count.
- Be ruthless! Cut any unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, as well as any repetition that isn’t essential to your argument.
- Replace phrases with words. For instance, there is no need to write ‘provides an opportunity to examine…’ when you could say ‘enables examination of…‘
Having worked hard to perfect your essay, it’s worth giving yourself the best chance of a good result by making sure you stick rigorously to the word limit.
Word limits and assignment length
Assignment length requirements are usually given in terms of numbers of words.
Unless the lecturer tells you that these limits are strict, it is normally acceptable to be 10% above or below this word limit (so, for example, a 2000 word assignment should be between 1800 and 2200 words). If the assignment uses the words “up to” (as in “up to 2500 words”) that usually means that you cannot go above the limit.
Use the tool below to calculate the acceptable range for an assignment (based on +/- 10%).
Unless the lecturer tells you otherwise, the word limit does not include ‘administrative’ sections of the assignment: the cover or title page, table of contents, table of figures, reference list, list of works cited, bibliography, or any appendices.
The word limit that you are given reflects the level of detail required. This means that if your assignment is too long, you're either taking too many words to explain your point or giving too many / too detailed examples. If your assignment is too short, either there is more to the answer than you have written or the assignment has not gone into enough detail about the answer.
- Don't try to remove single words from your assignment. It is unlikely to reduce the assignment's length significantly, but it may confuse your argument. Instead, aim to remove or condense whole sections of your assignment.
- You should not include something just because it is a fact, or just because it is included in your course materials. Include something only if it is relevant to your argument.
- Be direct. State your point rather than writing many paragraphs to ‘lead up’ to it.
- Go back to the question. Which sections relate to the point and which are secondary?
- Go back to the plan. Which paragraphs fit in the overall structure? Which paragraphs overlap and can be combined?
- Remove sections where you
- Over-explain your point
- Over-specify your point
- Repeat yourself
- Write off-topic or ramble
- Remove multiple examples where one or two are sufficient.
- Remove ‘hedging” language that adds little to the argument, e.g. “I think that” “it would seem that” “it is possible that”
If you are often over the word count you should look at your writing style. See writing concisely for more.
Explain your argument fully
- Make sure every argument in your head and in your plan is on the page.
- Would a general (i.e. non-specialist) reader understand your point? Have someone else read over your assignment and ask you questions about it. What do they think is missing?
- Are there gaps in your argument?
- Does each point logically follow the last one, or do you jump over important points?
Look for the ‘hidden’ answer
- What theories do you think the marker expects?
- How does this relate to the materials from lectures and study guides? Use the course information in your answer to the assignment question.
- Are there complications or contradictions in the argument or in your research? Explain them and explore them.
Flesh it out
- Define any special terminology you've used that a general reader would not be familiar with.
- Illustrate with more examples and/or quotations.
- Contextualise and explain the quotations you use. How do they relate to your argument?
Page authorised by Director, CTL
Last updated on 25 October, 2012