It’s happened! You’ve written an assignment that you are very proud of and think it is going to get you that 95% only to realize you’re over the wordcount. As frustrating as that is, there are certain skills you can use as well as a few tricks to lower your wordcount. Here, we’ll go over a few of the more common ones (and a couple you might not know about).
- Is it a page limit, or a wordcount? First and foremost, if you have a page limit, you might have a bit more wiggle room. Here you can:
- Play with the margins. Do this sparingly because it becomes very obvious the more you do it. A few millimeters here and there is not likely to be noticed, but it can put you in the right page count.
- Play with the size of font. You cannot easily distinguish between 11.5 and 12 font. This is especially true if you are handing in the assignment on paper, but again do not go overboard.
- Read over your work critically and see if you repeat yourself. This is one of the easier things you can do to lower your wordcount. If you think you are repeating phrases or words (or entire sections), remove them. No one wants to read a work that is repetitive and overemphasises the point (notice how much repetition there was in this paragraph and how much more difficult it was to read because of it).
- Ask someone else to read your work and see what they think you can remove or trim. Sometimes, when writing, we go into too much background because we think it is important. Having someone else read through the work can help you figure out what is actually important and what you can remove. Check out our blog post on who to ask for help here.
- Do not make the reader search for your meaning. When writing, it is important to be clear in what you are trying to say. Do not be vague in what you are writing. If the person marking your work needs to search for the meaning, they will not be happy (Some people will not even search. They will go with their first impression).
- Does every sentence/paragraph support your thesis statement? No matter how great a quotation is, or how much you like something and want to discuss it, if it does not support your thesis, remove it.
- Ask your professor/teacher/TA how strict the wordcount limit is. Some are very flexible when it comes to being a little over/under, while others will stop reading after you exceed the wordcount. We should mention that you should not be too much over the limit. If the assignment calls for 5 pages, and you hand in 10, the person marking will likely not read the entire thing and will lower your grade because of it.
- Did I complete what the assignment asked me to do? This might seem very obvious, but it’s surprising how often students do not answer the question that was asked. You can have a beautiful essay (within the correct wordcount), but if it doesn’t answer the question that was asked, it will not receive a good mark.
Reading your work out loud or to an audience can help you remove unnecessary sections or words.
- See if there is something that could be said more succinctly. Sometimes, without even noticing, we use more words to say something than we need. It is important to recognize this and to use less words to say the same thing.
- Do the Work Cited pages count? Every instructor is different. Some will say it does (if given a page limit), while others ignore the Work Cited pages. It will depend on the person marking. If it is not written in the assignment, it might be a good idea to ask.
- Can you remove some parts of quotations? This can be a good way to get rid of some excess words. If the quotation makes sense with unimportant parts removed, it might be better to remove them. For example, if you are citing a paragraph, but you really only want to discuss the first and last sentences, you can remove the unnecessary parts (making sure the paragraph still makes sense).
- Is there something that you are not completely proud of? It might be hard to decide on this one, but if there is a section that you are not sure if it is your best work, you can opt to remove it. For example, if you have a section that only sort-of supports your hypothesis, it might be better to take it out than to have it leave a poor impression on the person marking.
- Are you retelling or analyzing? Rereading your work can help you understand whether you are only retelling what happened, or if you are analyzing the information. Most often, the person marking wants to hear what you have to say on a topic. They are not interested in a retelling (unless that was the assignment), as they already know what has happened. They want you to tell them something interesting. For example, if you had an essay on Little Red Riding Hood. Instead of going into more detail on strangers, not straying from a path, the differences between the original version and the modern retelling, etc. all you write about is what happened, you will likely not get a good mark (unless the assignment was to summarize the story).
- Who is your audience? Generally, the person marking your work will tell you the audience that you are writing for, though sometimes you might have to ask. If you are writing for an audience that is very familiar with the topic, you do not have to go into a lot of background and retelling. It is enough to briefly mention what you are discussing. For example, if you are in high school and your audience consists of your peers who have also just read the novel you are discussing, you do not need to provide a long-winded explanation of events. A quick sentence or two to orient them is enough.
- Do not be afraid to be under the word limit, or a bit over. Do not think you have to add more to be at the word count (a 900 word well-constructed assignment is better than a 1000 word repetitive one). If you really need the extra few words to conclude, add them, just do not go overboard.
While it might seem like you will never be able to lower your wordcount, it is an important skill. The further you go in your education, the more it will be important (everyone knows that in your Post-Secondary studies, you can write a 20 page essay, but does your professor want to read 20 or more 20 page essays?). Using the tips above, you should be able to lower your word count to the level that your professor is expecting.
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