5 tips to stick to your word count in any written assignment
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
If you've been asked to stick to a word count on an assignment, there's usually a good reason for it.
In academic assignments, sticking to a word count shows that you not only know your stuff, but that you also know how to clearly and succinctly explain it to others. Too many words is likely waffle and may imply a lack of confidence in knowing which information or research is key and which isn't. Too few suggests that you haven't put enough time or effort in, or that your research isn't thorough enough. Either way, it could lose you marks.
In print, as well as keeping you on the point, a word count is often to do with the amount of space the publication has available for each article. If an editor asks for 2,000 words on the demise of the honey bee and you give them 2,700, or even 2,200, that's a lot of your work that they're going to need to scrap (they might even just scrap the whole article). Aside from creating work for the editor, you are also doing yourself an injustice. By putting an editor in a position where they need to cut your work, they are going to cut the bits that they don't think are important or interesting enough... it doesn't matter if you think that line was your best work, or your most important finding - it's gone, baby!
Similarly, in marketing materials, a word count is probably given to fill a set workspace. Pages in products such as brochures and pamphlets are printed in multiples of four (4, 8, 12, 16, and so on) so if you send the designer five pages of text, they're either going to have to cut a whole page of your work, or find three more pages.
Here are some ways to help you stick to your word count and make your work more palatable.
Start as you mean to go on. You have a word count that you need to stick to, the best way to do that is to plan ahead, rather than writing until you have a tome and then trying to cut it back into an essay.
Before you start, think about the key things you want to cover and any sections that you need to include such as an introduction, methodology, etc. Prioritise these sections, and give each one a word count according to how important it is.
"Bottom up - I write a sentence for each paragraph (or section) and decide the relative weight of each, then work upwards. Obviously, editing is still required, but you have developed a sense as to how much depth or detail you're going to be able to reach."
~Beverley Gibbs, Director of Learning and Teaching (Strategy) at The University of Sheffield
Don't use five words where you could use one. Similarly, avoid using jargon that can often be overly verbose and put many readers off. By using plain English, you will not only avoid exceeding your word count, but you will also open your text up to a wider audience which is what most publishers (and writers) will want.
"Lose the jargon, cut to get to your core messages and keep what your audience needs at the heart of what you are saying."
~ Peta Sweet, Communications and Coaching for Change
3) Understand your brief
Understanding what's being asked of you is key to staying within your word count as it means you can easily get to the point and stay on it. Using a highlighter to go through the brief before you start can help pick out the key questions or points to keep you focused.
4) Stay on topic
It's really easy to get sidetracked when you're talking. How many times have you found yourself telling a long story, getting half way through and realising that you've got so far off topic you can't remember what your point was? The same thing happens in writing, but if you can avoid it (or spot it in your edit) then it will help to keep you within your word count.
This is not the same as proofreading (you'll still need to do that). Once you've finished writing, give your work some time to breathe before going back to try and cut things out.
You should usually aim to cut your word count by 10% during your edit. Look out for repetition, superfluous words, unnecessary adjectives and anything that isn't relevant or supportive of your point. Cut anything that strays away from your core messages. You can sometimes cut out whole paragraphs in this way.
Also keep an eye out for intensifiers like 'really' and 'very' as these are probably not needed. You can do a simple search for these words and cut them out to easily reduce your word count.
"Be brutal! Write what you want to say but then go back later and look at what you're saying that doesn't add value, words that aren't needed or shorter ways of saying the same thing."
~ Krysia Wooffinden, Assistant Director of Skills, Employment and Education at Sheffield City Region
"Write and then come back later to edit. Cut the adverbs and adjectives, and keep to the point."
~ Lorraine Dixon, Writer and Publisher at Open Narrative
What are your tips for keeping within your word count? Leave a comment below.