How to Reduce Your Word Count!

If you are like many other students, your first thought upon receiving a new essay title is something along the lines of ‘How on earth am I going to write 2,500 words about that!?’ But once you get going, it turns out you have the very opposite problem – you just can’t fit in everything you need to say!

Many of the students who come and see us for 1:1 appointments have this problem. They have finished a draft, and need to lose words – sometimes as many as over 1,000!

Very often the problem can be solved without changing the main thread of the argument or losing any important points. Most writers, whether they are professional novelists, professors submitting a paper or a student writing a dissertation, will always overwrite in a first draft. A thorough proofread, checking for redundancy and repetition can help take the word count down a significant amount.

(This, by the way, is why it’s always a good idea to finish your essays at least a day before the deadline)

Redundancy

This means using words that you just don’t need to. Some students do this because they feel it sounds more academic, but there’s nothing academic about wasting words. A few common examples would be:

The paper was a total of seventeen sides in length.

Improved: The paper was seventeen sides.

Another argument that is also made in Smith’s essay…

Improved: Another argument in Smith’s essay…

The scientists conducted a review of…

The scientists reviewed

We can see from the above examples that very often we use many more words that we need to make a point. Just totalling up the difference between the original and improved versions above we have lost 12 words. Going through your essays in this manner and asking yourself whether each word is essential to the meaning of a sentence can yield surprising results. Try it next time you’re over the word limit!

Repetition

If you record and transcribe a spoken conversation, one of the things you will notice is how many times we repeat the same point, sometimes in different words, sometimes using the very same words. This is natural in speech, as we are keen that our points are understood, and most people need to hear something more than once to process the information. Not so in academic writing. While you will need to remind the reader of the main argument of your essay, and how it relates to the title more than once, you should avoid repeating the same point over and over again. Have a look at the following paragraph and see how many examples of unnecessary repetition you can find.

There are many reasons why the economic policies of Japan led to the crash of the mid-nineties, including overspending by government agencies, excessive lending by banks and an attitude that ‘the bubble was too big to burst’ (Smith 2003). Of the multitude of causes for the eventual burst and the crash of the Japanese economy, however, one is often overlooked, namely; the outsourcing of much of the country’s industry to other Asian countries. So why did Japan choose to begin manufacturing in other countries within Asia, and why do people often not consider the outsourcing of labour when not looking at the reasons behind the crash of the mid-nineties?

110 words

While everything in the above paragraph makes sense, we can definitely find ways to tighten it up. The idea of the crash or the bubble bursting is repeated 3 times, as is the idea that it outsourced its manufacturing . The fact that this is often overlooked in analysis is mentioned twice. A second draft would see the writer replace repeated phrases with referral worlds like ‘this’ or simply eliminate unnecessary repetition, and might look something like this:

There are many reasons why Japan’s economic policies led to the crash of the mid-nineties including overspending by government agencies, excessive lending by banks and an attitude that ‘the bubble was too big to burst’ (Smith 2003). One cause, however, is often overlooked: the outsourcing of labour to other Asian countries. So why did Japan choose to do this, and what is the reason that studies continue to overlook it as a cause of the crash?

76 words

The reduction in words gained by eliminating the repetition is about 30%!

If you struggle to fit everything into the word count, going through your essays looking for repetition and redundancy could well be the answer!

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