It is funny how what one person would consider to be little more than a minor inconvenience can become a major problem and even a significant worry for so many others. This seemingly ‘small thing’ can soon take on a life of its very own as something quite major until it is playing on a person’s mind and haunting their very existence until they have little or no real conception of how to proceed without guidance. Fortunately, however, help is at hand in the form of this article because whilst the problem of an essay word count may be something of a minor concern for many students it is something that should not be taken for granted as it is only not a problem if you know how to handle it effectively when it comes to the essay writing process.
Therefore, this article will look to provide you with a brief overview of some of the things that you should look to deal with when considering the problems you may have with your word count. With this in mind, one of the first things that I would do is consider what actually ‘counts’ towards your essay word count by looking in the guidance that you have received from your institution and your individual assessor to check what they expect of you.
Now many of you may think ‘Well, I don’t to do that because every word I write should count towards my essay word count so I need to structure my essay accordingly’ – WRONG!!
More often than not only the words you write in the main body of your work will count towards your essay word count. As a result, this means that your footnotes, title (i.e. main heading/question), subtitles/subheadings, and bibliography will NOT count towards your essay word count because they are not part of the main body of your work and, with regards to the footnotes and bibliography, are meant to give your work greater credibility and legitimacy by showing that you are able to utilise other people’s views in your work and critique them.
Sounds simple doesn’t it?
If it only it was that easy . . .
The unfortunate reality is that very often you will be told your footnotes WILL count towards your essay word count and so you will have to make allowances for them and look to abbreviate where necessary/possible to save words for the main body of your work according to an academically acceptable system and this can be made all the more complex where your computer does not know the difference between the main body of the essay and the references so make sure to BE AWARE!
What about when you are asked to use a form of ‘in-text’ referencing like Harvard Referencing?
Again, you must check to see whether these reference will be included in your essay word count because it is all too easy to assume that they will be just because they are included in the same area of your work as your discussion and analysis. Therefore, where they are not included it is usually a good idea to keep a tally of the words that you use for your Harvard References so that you can subtract them from your total at the end and get the right word count.
Why is it so important to get the right essay word count?
Getting the right essay word count is essential because whilst many of you may have heard the ‘mythical’ view that most institutions only check the word count for one out of every dozen essay papers that they receive, what with technology’s ongoing advancement, can you really afford to take the chance. This is because the unfortunate reality is that very often if you are even ONE SINGLE WORD over you could lose anything up to 20% of your overall mark that could be the difference between an ‘A’ and a ‘C’ grade or even a ‘PASS’ or a ‘FAIL’.
Of course you may be at one of those institutions where there is a 5% excess, but DO NOT take this for granted – make sure that you know what 5% of your word count is from the moment you starting writing (simply divide your word count by 20 on a calculator) and DO NOT go over it!
But how do I manage essay word count when it comes to actually writing the work in practice?
You should see some of the many panicked faces that I have seen when you tell a student that, after having written a number of 2,000 words (or less essays), they will now have to write 4,000 words and – dare I say it – even a 10,000 word dissertation!
The reason why most people start to worry is that they get fixated on the number for obvious reasons because ‘10,000’ is a lot bigger than ‘2,000’ – I know that this may be a bit ‘Noddy’ for some of you but bear with me as I am getting to my point.
However, what these same people fail to appreciate is that there is actually very little difference between the strategies that you should be adopting for writing 2,000 words when you are then asked to write 10,000 words. This is because whilst many of you may just be able to rattle off 2,000 words you may actually be costing yourselves marks if you do not take a moment to think (of course ignore what I am saying if you are already getting top grades for everything you write because you obviously know something that I do not and I would love to know your secret!). Therefore, when it comes to producing any piece of work according to an essay word count I would advise you to have the following word in mind – ‘PLANNING’.
Well, when thinking about the planning of any of your work I would look to consider your essay strutures as being an essential aspect of this aspect of your essay writing and so I would advise you to first ask yourself the following five questions –
(a) What am I being asked to do?
(b) What does this mean to me?
(c) How will this effect my writing style?
(d) What do I already know about what I have been asked to write about?
(e) Where can I find more information?
Then, depending on the nature of the subject that you have been asked to write about you may be required to undertake a great deal of research or the information may already be available to you (i.e. if you are writing about law then you are clearly going to need to refer to court decisions and legislation as well as other people’s views allied to your own, but if you are writing about a play then you may still refer to other people’s views but your own view is likely to become all the more significant for the reader so think about what the reader/assessor requires from you).
But how does this effect the essay word count?
The answer is it should get you thinking about the structure of your work which you can then detail in the first paragraph by way of an abstract (particularly for a dissertation or thesis) or you may refer to it in the way that I do for an essay as the ‘Introduction to the Introduction’ (see my book via my website at the bottom of this article for more information) because you are using this to tell the reader about your approach to the subject matter and in what order this will be undertaken. Then the next paragraph will be your ‘actual’ introduction that serves to present the main issue that is to be discussed and its importance to the particular aspect of the subject area you are studying.
From there the rest of your work should be looking to consider matters related to this issue so that, for example, if you are asked to consider the ‘Effectiveness of the Youth Justice System in the UK’ you may begin by saying why this issue is so important before then looking at what successes their have been and the efforts made to deal with any problems. This can be effectively achieved by looking at the effectiveness of practices including the use of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOS), cautions and exclusion order. Then, finally, you should be looking at concluding with a summary of the key points derived from your discussion relating to the overall subject matter that you have been analysing so as to draw the work to a close.
In terms of the word count itself I have found that it is generally a good idea to not write less than seven lines and/or three sentences and NOT much more than 250 words per paragraph so that you keep your arguments and analysis as part of your discussion clear and concise without proving too detriment to your essay word count.
With this in mind, I generally also like to look to work to the following four basic rules with regards to the content of each paragraph –
(a) First, make a point that you consider to be important.
(b) Second, explain why that point is important.
(c) Third, offer any supporting evidence from other people’s work and show why it supports what you are saying.
(d) Fourth, consider whether there is anything that conflicts with what you are saying and then use that to move into your next paragraph so that the flow of your work is enhanced.
Of course these rules may need to be adapted depending on the nature of the work that you have been set, but in principle these are just some of the thoughts that go through my head when thinking about the essay I am writing and the essay word count that is available for that work.