Word Counts: A Necessary Evil?
Ever since college, word count has been something to be concerned with; it was softly introduced during my A-Levels and hit me hard when I entered university. Ranging anywhere from 1300 to 5000 words, these word counts were a real shock to the system. I know what you are all thinking: why is a word count such a big deal? Hear me out.
See, for most humanities students (possibly other subjects too) hitting the word count is not so much an issue as is limiting themselves to it. I am probably part of the weird group that has the exact opposite issue; I struggle with getting to the word limit without feeling like I’m padding. This could mean two things: either I’m not doing enough research before/during; or I’m writing far too efficiently (which I guess is not efficient at all). A lot of students have a shotgun approach to the way they write essays: they will throw everything they know and have researched into their essay and do their editing at the end. Many of us also don’t include our footnotes until the very end. This can often lead to exceeding the word limit by well over the usual 10% allowed. (If you would like to see this in action check out absolutely any of Simon’s pieces, who is the polar opposite to me in regards to writing length).
Let’s run through a typical essay project for me to see why this is. Firstly, an appropriate title and question (this did not apply as much during my undergraduate) forms while I’m in class and/or learning about a specific topic. This question is liable to change and be tightened as I write. I’ll use Google to search for articles, books, websites, and any current news that is relevant. I’ll read only a couple of these, just to get a feel for the essay and get started. Following this I’ll head to libraries such as my university’s, the British Library, and Senate House Library to procure books. Here is where I’m sure I differ from others because I won’t make notes or read much before I start typing. I’ll write a brief, incomplete, introduction followed by a very barebones plan. Next comes about 30% to 40% of my essay which I’m writing while I’m reading (often taking a break to go for a walk or netflix). At this point I’ve pretty much made up mind about the essay and how it should end so I’ll write my conclusion. During the entire writing process I’m doing my footnotes and bibliography as I go along, giving me no illusion to how many words I’ve currently used. The essay will then be printed out, any word that is unnecessary will be taken out and sentences will be written to be more succinct. This is repeated twice.
A few years ago I read ‘Writing for Social Scientists’ by Howard S. Becker. In the opening chapter he describes how, with the help of his class, he was able to shrink a three page extract into less than a page. Along with other editing techniques, he used one that involved reading each sentence, word for word, and crossing out any word that did not cause the sentence’s meaning to suffer if removed. Once I incorporated this it was surprising to see how many unnecessary words I was actually using.
We all have our own styles, our own quirks, and our own setups that help us write. It is important to note here that no one system is perfect; the way I work has only recently meant that I’m able to hit the word count effectively. Word count is important not only because journals and other publications are often extremely strict, but also because it teaches discipline. But I think a few key instructions can help students, and academics, keep their work succinct:
- Writing clearly and tightly is a lot better than using ‘big’ words; there is nothing wrong with explaining something with a more commonly used vernacular term if it can be done so in the exact same way.
- Also getting somebody who knows nothing about your chosen topic to read your work is often better than someone who does. While they would be unable to check for accuracy, they will likely tell you if your work is unclear.
- Research appropriately – figure out how you research best and work on honing it!
- If the sentence does not clearly answer your title, delete it, reword it, recycle it.
- And finally my favourite, as I’ve said above, is printing out your work and pointing at each word as you read a sentence and deciding if it can be removed or not.