24th September 2016
The Word Limit in Academic Writing (and How to Stick to It)
Even the phrase “word limit” can cause panic among students. For some it’s the challenge of writing enough, while others find it hard to stick within the limit given. In either case, it can lead to spending more time worrying about the length of your paper than the content!
But why do college papers come with set word limits? And what should you do to ensure you don’t write too much or too little?
Why Have a Word Limit?
There are two main reasons that academic papers usually come with a word limit:
It’s impossible to grade two papers of vastly different lengths (e.g., 20,000 compared to 2,000 words) on the same scale. The word limit makes sure that everyone taking the same class knows what is expected of them.
- Communication Skills
As well as testing your knowledge, college papers are about communicating clearly and concisely. Setting a word limit forces you to consider what you’re saying more carefully, helping you to develop your writing skills.
Sticking to the word limit is, therefore, part of being a good academic, since being a long way over or under could suggest you’ve misjudged the scope of the essay topic or that you’re having trouble communicating your ideas.
How to Stick to the Word Limit
Although many colleges give you roughly 10% leeway on the word limit, you should aim for your finished paper to be as close to the suggested word count as possible. If you find yourself writing too much, you can reduce the word count by:
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- Editing out repetition, redundant words and padding phrases
- Cutting down long or unnecessary quotations
- Reducing the number of examples or case studies used (if you’ve included several)
- Using the active voice instead of the passive voice
More generally, you should re-read your work and eliminate anything that isn’t directly related to the question you’re answering. As well as helping you stick to the word limit, this will make your work more focused, which could boost your grades.
How to Increase Your Word Count
If you’re struggling to write enough, the temptation might be to add padding phrases like “in my opinion” or long block quotations until you hit the minimum word count. But this will simply detract from the clarity of your writing.
Instead, the answer is usually to go back over your work and look for things that could be improved with a little additional attention. This might involve:
- Addressing anything from your essay question that you’ve overlooked
- Adding illustrative examples to support a point
- Considering different sources and views on the same issue
- Using short quotations as evidence for your arguments
Moreover, whether you’ve written too much or too little, getting someone else to read your work and offer feedback is a fantastic idea (especially if you ask a professional for help). This will help you to identify areas that could be expanded or cut in the next draft, so eventually you should be able to get your essay to the required length.
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