If you are like me, you will find that you often struggle to stay within the word count in your essays.
In this article, I will show you exactly how to reduce your word count in your essay.
If you go over the word count in an essay, there are some strategies to make your essay shorter that make sure you keep your marks high and, sometimes, make them even higher.
The trick to going over the word count is seeing this as a positive: you now have the chance to only present your absolute best arguments.
This is a luxury other students in your class just don’t have. Reducing your word count is actually your chance to get even further ahead!
The best essays have no dull, irrelevant or sub-par content. Every paragraph is on-point and designed to win you more and more marks. When editing your work, keep this in mind.
Below, I introduce five important strategies that will help you to reduce your word count in a way that will actually increase your mark!
5 Best ways to Make an Essay Shorter
- Delete your three Worst Paragraphs. …
- Listen for Weaknesses using Google Translate or Microsoft Excel Read-out-Loud.
- Re-Read the Marking Criteria.
- Shorten Paragraphs over 7 Sentences Long.
- Delete Irrelevant Words.
1. Delete your three Worst Paragraphs
I usually aim to go over my word count intentionally so I can creatively make the essay shorter in a way that increases my marks.
If I go over the word count, I can look back over my piece and find my worst performing paragraphs and remove them.
This not only helps me to ensure I present my best work to the teacher, it also forces me to admit that some of my writing is better than others. It keeps me critical of myself and always aiming for improvement.
Removing the worst paragraphs of an essay also ensures there are less boring, pointless or unanalytical sections of an essay. It means that the paragraphs I submit are the best sections – and that the teacher will be impressed throughout the piece.
To assess which paragraphs are best and worst, I do the following things:
- Find the paragraphs with the least or worst references in them. Teachers will scan over a paragraph to assess the quality of the references in them. Paragraphs with minimal referencing, too much referencing of just one source, or only references to non-academic sources, instantly get marked down by the teacher before they’re even read. These are also often the paragraphs that provide the least depth of information. That is because finding sources to reference in a paragraph often leads to adding detail that the source has provided.
- Find the paragraphs that are least convincing. When I re-read my paragraphs, sometimes I just think ‘the argument here is my weakest’. These are the ones I want to cut: they’re ones that won’t get me top marks. Teachers will lower your marks for any paragraph that doesn’t shine – so you’re best removing it.
- Rate your paragraphs out of 10. I often tell my students to delete their three worst paragraphs and they say ‘I like all of them!’ In this case, you will have to get brutal with yourself: rate every paragraph out of 10. This will help you make the hard decisions about which to lose.
- Combine two paragraphs into one. Sometimes I really like one sentence from a paragraph but don’t like the rest. If this is the case for you, have a go at extracting those good sentences from one paragraph and placing them in another one. Then, you can delete the not-so-good sentences from the original paragraph. If you do this, make sure all paragraphs still cohere around one key point.
2. Listen for Weaknesses using Google Translate or Microsoft Excel Read-out-Loud
Google Translate and Microsoft Excel both have read-out-loud options. Google Translate’s option is the easiest.
For Google Translate, simply search for ‘Google Translate’ on your internet search engine (or just click here) to access it. Then, copy and paste the text into the translate box and press the ‘listen’ button:
For Microsoft Excel, you will need paste the whole essay into any cell and then activate the read out loud option.
This procedure is somewhat more complicated than Google Translate, but if you want to give it a go, you can get instructions from the Microsoft help website and go from there
Hearing your paper read out loud back to you can help you to identify which paragraphs or sentences are worth removing.
Here are some things to keep in mind while listening to the computer read your paper out loud to you:
- If a sentence feels like it’s too long and exhausting to listen to, you can bet your teacher will be exhausted, too;
- If a phrase seems awkward to hear, it will be awkward to read;
- If the paper seems to have lost its focus on the topic area, you’ll need to remove that section or edit it to ensure it links to the essay question.
Pause the read-out-loud each time you find a sentence long or awkward and work on shortening it.
Too often, students think long, complicated sentences with fancy-sounding words will get them marks. In reality, it’s the opposite.
Being able to describe complex concepts in a very easy, understandable way is a skill all top students learn to master.
The read-out-loud option can help you to see your paper from your marker’s perspective. Use it to your advantage and listen out for anything that sounds complicated, confusing, awkward or exhausting. Delete it or shorten it immediately.
Remember, the goal is to have your paper sounding short and clear.
3. Re-Read the Marking Criteria
When editing your work, it is best to have the marking criteria by your side at all times.
The marking criteria is the list of things the teacher is looking for when marking your essay. Sometimes it’s also called:
- Marking Criteria;
- Indicative Content;
- Marking Rubric;
- Learning Outcomes
These should be easy to find. Go to your course webpage (usually on Blackboard, Canvas, or Moodle depending on your university) and find where your teacher has provided details about your assessment. If there are marking criteria, this is where it would be.
Sometimes, teachers don’t provide marking criteria.
If the teacher has simply provided an essay topic or question, that means the chances are they don’t have a list of outcomes they are marking your piece against. In these instances, you will have to simply rely on the essay question.
When you have your marking criteria or essay question by your side, read each paragraph then look back to your marking criteria.
You need to ask yourself:
- Does this paragraph directly answer the essay question or marking criteria?
- Does this paragraph add new information that helps me answer the essay question?
If your paragraph is not linked directly to the essay question or marking criteria, you’ve just identified the paragraph you need to remove to reduce your word count.
4. Shorten Paragraphs over 7 Sentences Long
Teachers hate long paragraphs. Teachers are just like you and me. They get bored very fast.
Chances are, any paragraph over 7 sentences isn’t being fully read. The teacher might have only read the first three sentences and made their judgement about your work based on those three sentences!
That’s why the ideal paragraph should be between 4 and 7 sentences long. This length helps to ensure:
- You haven’t gone off on a tangent;
- You have provided some explanatory or example sentences, but not too many;
- You have focused only on one key idea in the paragraph.
Your paragraphs that are more than 7 sentences long will be your low-hanging fruit for reducing your word count. Read through each of these paragraphs and try to find a way to reduce it to only 6 sentences. Find those sentences that seem to drag on or add nothing useful to your discussion and delete them.
By reducing all paragraphs over 7 sentences long, you won’t only bring your word count down. You will also make your essay much clearer and easy to read.
In this way, you’re both reducing your word count and increasing your mark.
5. Delete Irrelevant Words
Going through your paper and deleting irrelevant words can often save you several hundred words and could shorten your essay enough to get you back within the required word count.
Irrelevant words are words that are overly descriptive, redundant, too emotive, or in first-person. These words tend to get the same point across in far more words than necessary.
Furthermore, you will find that in removing overly descriptive, redundant, emotive and first-person words, your work will be much improved.
This is because academic writing is supposed to be formal and direct. Writing too many words can make your marker think you have poor communication skills and do not understand academic writing requirements.
Check below for examples of how to reduce your word count by removing overly descriptive, redundant, overly emotive and first-person language.
- Overly Descriptive: The amazing thing about the industrial revolution was that it brought about enormous changes to the ways people transported themselves and communicated across the globe in such a short amount of time.
- Alternative: The industrial revolution brought about rapid changes in transportation and communication globally.
- Redundant: The sum of five hundred dollars.
- Alternative: $500
- Redundant: It was quite unique.
- Alternative: It was unique.
- Redundant: It was triangular in shape.
- Alternative: It was triangular.
- Too Emotive: The disgusting thing about communism is that it refuses to allow poor everyday people to improve their lives by creating their own businesses that might flourish and really help our their communities, too!
- Alternative: Communism prevents citizens from starting businesses that can help bring people and their communities out of poverty.
- In first Person: In summary, I believe that the Industrial Revolution was good for the whole world.
- Alternative: In summary, the Industrial Revolution was good for the world.
- In first Person:This author argues that Thomas Edison was the greatest mind of his time.
- Alternative:Thomas Edison was the greatest mind of his time.
Making your essay shorter can sometimes be an absolute nightmare.
By following the above five steps, you can find easy ways to reduce your word count while also improving your work.
If you are an advanced or ambitious student, you might find that you always go over the word count. This isn’t necessarily a problem.
Try to look at going over the word count as a positive thing. Going over the word count means you have the freedom to only present your best work. You have the chance to delete anything that isn’t absolutely focused on gaining you marks.
In the end, your final submission will be cleaner, easier to read and easier to mark. Hopefully, this will see your marks growing even more!
Let’s review one more time the five top ways the best students reduce their word count in an essay:
Five Top Ways to Make an Essay Shorter
- Delete your three Worst Paragraphs
- Use Google Translate or Microsoft Excel to Read your Paper out Loud
- Re-Read the Marking Criteria
- Shorten Paragraphs over 6 Sentences Long
- Delete Irrelevant Words
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.