Word limits on essays

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1. You should make every effort to stay within any word limits that have been set for an essay assignment. One important part of the exercise is that you should produce an answer to the question within set limits.

2. You will not normally be penalised if your essay is a little too short – so long as your argument is written in a concise style and you have covered all the topics which a full answer requires.

3. Similarly, an essay that is just slightly too long will not normally be penalised – so long as all your arguments are relevant to the point of the question.

4. However, you should avoid producing essays which greatly exceed the word limit. The longer you go on writing, the more likely you are to stray away from the point of the question. You will not normally be rewarded just for the quantity you produce.

5. An essay which seriously exceeds the word limit (say, by more than twenty or thirty percent) could be returned to you by your tutor as unacceptable. The argument could be made that you are not staying within the set limits, and you are possibly taking an unfair advantage over other students who have stayed within them.

6. Quotations should not normally be counted as part of the word limit – but the total amount of material from secondary sources should be so small that the proportion is insignificant.

7. You do not need to make a detailed count of every word (or pencil totals in the margin as ‘proof’). Use the word-count feature of
your word-processor to get an idea of the total. If it doesn’t have a counter, just make the following calculation for a rough estimate of your total word count:

words per line × lines per page × pages

Too long

8. If an essay is too long before you produce your final draft, its length may be reduced by rigorous editing. Consider some of the following possibilities.

9. Eliminate any repetitions in your basic argument. If you cover the same point from more than one perspective, retain only the most important parts of the discussion, and delete the others.

10. You might consider shortening your introduction, certainly if goes on for much more than 200 words. In some extreme cases it might even be better to go straight to your argument.

11. Check your prose style and try to make the expression of your argument as concise as possible. If necessary, shorten the length of your sentences by removing any words which are not essential to the argument. Cut out anything which introduces a conversational tone.

12. Reduce the number of illustrative examples. Each major point of your argument should normally be illustrated by one or [at the most] two examples of evidence which are then analysed or discussed. If you have more, you should just retain the most convincing and relevant. Eliminate the others.

13. Shorten any illustrative quotations to the absolute minimum. Most essays should not need long quotations from secondary sources – if only because it is your own argument which is more important. Select just those few words which make your point.

Too short

14. If on the other hand your final efforts have produced an essay which is shorter than the required length, you obviously need to do some extra work on it. Consider the following steps.

15. Go back to the start of the essay planning process and generate more ideas and topics on the subject in question. Try to think of new approaches or aspects of the subject which you might have ignored or forgotten.

15. Look closely at the question again. Ask yourself if you have followed all its instructions and covered all that it has asked for.

16. Make sure that you have provided an explanatory introduction and conclusion to the essay. Don’t waffle just for the sake of filling up the space. Introduce your argument succinctly and make sure that you have explained its relevance to the original question.

17. It might be that you have produced an argument which is not well enough illustrated by examples which are analysed and discussed. Make sure that you have sufficient evidence and explanatory examples to prove your point. Do not let an argument stand alone without proof.

18. Make sure that you have explained the relevance of your argument to the question which was originally posed. In other words, you must demonstrate the connection between your examples and the subject in question.

© Roy Johnson 2003


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