Word Limits: Quality, not Quantity

Part of the skill of writing is to cover a topic within a given word limit. If you write substantially below or beyond the limit, you may be penalised. A good guide is to stick to a hundred words either side of the limit. Some lecturers allow greater latitude, setting 10 per cent above or below the essay word target as acceptable, but it is always advisable to check.

If you write significantly below the word limit, it is likely you haven’t covered the topic in the depth required. If your work is substantially over the word limit, the most common response of the marker is to stop reading the essay once the word target has been exceeded and give a mark on the essay to that point. It is unfair to other students if a substantially longer essay is accepted, especially since some topics have whole books written on them.

The hardest cut of all

Once you have a draft of the essay that you are happy with, it is fairly common to find you have exceeded the word limit. This isn’t a problem in itself. In fact, it is much better to have too many words than too few. The real problem is how to cut your own work. This is the hardest cut of all! The most straightforward way of determining what stays or goes, or what should be reduced in length, is to return to your plan. Often you’ll find repetition in your essay due to the overlap of information from the various sources you used.

Everyone finds it difficult to cut their own work. Think about it; you’ve worked long and hard to write all those words. Give yourself some time away from your essay, as this can help to make the task of trimming it a lot easier. Remember to be critical of your own work; imagine you are the marker. Go through your essay line by line, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and see what can be cut and improved.

Another common reason for an over-long essay is wordy expression. Short, concise sentences are always better than long ones. If you have a sentence that is three or four lines long, you are probably trying to say too much in that one sentence or have used wordy expression. Try to split a long sentence into two shorter ones which make sense on their own. Be direct in what you are trying to say. It is easy to fall into the trap of writing in generalities, when a direct approach would be clearer and require fewer words. It is difficult to write concise, but detailed, sentences. It takes time and practice. Part of the reason for having word limits for essays is to encourage you to be concise with your words.