Word count is a crucial factor in writing projects which affects how much time you are going to need to complete it in time. It is a grading criterion which is entirely within the student’s control and failure to stay within the usual allowance range of 10% can result in penalties to the final grade. To put it another way, word count guidelines are there to help students with their assignments, so it important to always pay attention to this!
Understanding the main purpose for assigning a specific limit on the number of words in an assignment should help you write a better paper that stays on track and help you avoid unnecessary filler content. Given the importance of this factor, we will be covering this in more depth first, before moving on to tips on how to manage the word count and make the paper longer or shorter, as per your requirement.
What is the purpose of word counts for an assignment?
1. Word count guidelines clarify the level of detail which is being expected
Word counts are one of the most important clues that teachers give to students to inform them what is expected of them in the assignment. We have covered in our guide on assignment structure that combining the word count with the grading criteria can easily give you a rough outline and draft for your paper, which will then make the actual writing work much easier. You can also use our assignment time calculator to estimate roughly how long you will need.
If you end up writing a fair bit more or less than the stated guideline, it should be an indication for you that you have either:
- not collected your thoughts properly
- not phrased your points in the right way
- not put everything together into a concise and coherent paper
.. or a combination of these factors.
If you ever face a situation in which you are really struggling to meet the word count, then it is time for some introspection and reflection on what you have written compared to what you have learnt in your coursework. This is because word count guideline and limits are anything but random – you can be sure that they’ve been chosen after careful consideration so try not to make unfounded assumptions that ‘there must be a mistake with the word given’!
To summarize, the main issue that teachers have with shorter papers isn’t actually that they didn’t meet the word count – it’s the fact that a paper with a lower word count is likely to be lower in quality with weaker points which have not been fully substantiated to the extent required.
2. Word count limits emphasize the need to be precise and concise
Limits on the number of words allowed in a paper also pushes students towards being precise in the points that they choose to include in their assignment and present it in a concise manner. Without word counts, students will have a hard time by determining themselves how much content needs to go into each section or subsection.
So, without word counts, some students may potentially struggle to write a good paper and up with content which is too thin (as they do not know what is being expected of them). Other students may wander all over the place and end up writing too much unnecessarily. Hence, they are important guidelines that help stress the importance of quantity over quality – writing a lot doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve written good content!
3. Word count requirements fairness in grading of all students
Another point worth considering is that word counts help make the grading scale uniform and standardized for all students – it levels the playing field by ensuring that all students make the points which they need to within the same number of words. Going one step further, word count guidelines can also be standardized across different courses, modules, universities and even countries, making the odds even for all students everywhere (well, at least in theory).
What is the purpose of word count allowance?
When a teacher specifies the word count for an assignment, they are not going to scrutinize whether you have stopped a few words short or went a few words over. What they’re trying to convey to you is that to answer the assignment requirement properly, you will roughly need the number of words that they have specified to cover all necessary points concisely.
Hence, you will almost always have a word count allowance for your assignments since the actual number specified is only intended to be a ballpark figure to guide you on the level of detail required. The standard allowance is usually 10% plus or minus so if your assignment length has been specified as 2,000 words, it would fine to turn in a paper that ranges from 1,800 words to 2,200 words. If the word count allowance was specified as 5% instead, then would mean that your paper needs to between 1,900 words to 2,100 words in length.
On the other hand, if there is no specific note about such an allowance range in the assignment requirements file, try to check the module outline file since it may be given there instead. Should that not give you any result, then check the university guidelines and see if you can find it mentioned there. If you don’t have any luck with that either, then you should probably just ask your teacher directly. In any case, try not to make an assumption on the word count allowance.
How to boost word count and make an essay paper longer
For some students, word counts are things to be dreaded and they may often find themselves falling short of the minimum word count which has been specified. It doesn’t have to be all that hard! You can follow these tips to make your essay paper longer easily in an organic way that doesn’t make your teacher suspect that you’ve resorted to some cheap tricks to achieve this.
1. Add critical analysis to paraphrased points
A crucial part of academic assignment writing is to draw on points mentioned in other credible sources like peer-reviewed journal articles or trustworthy news outlets. When doing this, paraphrasing is an extremely important skills that you need to develop to avoid plagiarism. Even if you are providing the source from where you have taken an idea, we generally advise not to quote directly unless unavoidable. We have dedicated guide for how to effectively paraphrase ideas from other sources in your words and this guide includes some helpful tips on how to get better at this skill.
When paraphrasing content from other sources, you should always add a critical analysis of the point which you are referencing. Apart from increasing the word count of you paper, this helps you tick another checkbox. Teachers expect to see you engage with the material taken from a credible source and this approach would be proof of that.
To show you an example of how you could do this, you can see the table below. We follow a few steps to end up with more than twice the number of words that we started out with.
- We start with a source text from Porter’s well-known paper on competitive forces. We have chosen a section of the paper which has 54 words in total.
Every industry has an underlying structure, or a set of fundamental economic and technical characteristics, that gives rise to these competitive forces. The strategist, wanting to position his or her company to cope best with its industry environment or to influence that environment in the company’s favor, must learn what makes the environment tick.
- Building on this, we can paraphrase this part in our own words, while giving the reference for the source text as per APA format and we end up writing 39 words for this.
Every industry is characterized by certain specific factors like structure, economics, or technical aspects which influence the competitive landscape of that industry; hence, companies must ensure to take their respective industry environments into consideration during strategic planning (Porter, 1979).
- Lastly, we could just add a couple of lines after our paraphrased sentence to explain what we understood from the source material. This would help the teacher realize that we are not just regurgitating information from other places. It signals to them that we have actually understood the points and concepts being discussed. This adds another 73 words to our total count.
It is clear from this view that companies cannot take decisions in a vacuum. They need to pay attention to the competitive environment around them and try to understand it well so that they can take steps to capitalize on these specific factors. Additionally, as these factors are likely to be keep changing, companies will probably need to adapt their strategies on a regular basis to try and stay ahead of the competition.
So, by paraphrasing a source text of 54 words, we ended up doubling that (39+73 = 112 words) with relatively little effort. For more information on this, check out our dedicated guide on how to critically analyze and engage with existing literature.
2. Add relevant examples to support your points
You can also make use of examples to add more credibility to the points that you are trying to make. This also comes with the benefit of informing your teacher that you were able to grasp the idea or concept better as you were able to match it to a suitable example. So, taking the same scenario as above regarding competitive forces, we can then add another sentence at the end like this:
Building on this point, when monitoring the industry factors, if a company happens to identify changes to certain industry factors, it can take some countermeasures to solidify its position. For example, a fall in the price of diamonds indicates an increase in bargaining power of buyers and to counteract this, a prominent player in this industry, De Beers, cut down its supply (Reuters, 2019). The intend outcome of this strategy is to increase the demand for diamonds in the market, which then reduces the bargaining power of buyers and brings prices back up again.
In this way, we’ve added another 94 words on top of the 112 from earlier, so we have now added around 206 words to the paper. To put this in context, if this were part of a 2,000-word paper, we have effectively written around 10% of the required word count fairly easily. To identify how and where you can add examples organically, you may need to skim over your essay a couple of times and try to get a feel for which parts could use an example or two.
3. Include a secondary supporting reference for your point
If you feel it is appropriate, you can also include an additional point from a different source which supports the previous statement and adds further weight to the message which you are trying to convey. Having too many references is better than having too few references. However, you should try to find a middle ground and make sure to follow up referenced points with critical analysis so that your entire paper isn’t just a mix of views of others with no originality to the points you are making.
4. Include facts, figures, or other statistical data
This would be done in a similar way to the previous suggestion in which you can provide some facts and figures from reliable sources to support the information you have just presented. You could potentially also do it the other way around by starting with a stat or figure and explaining it in your own words.
5. Try to balance your points with alternate viewpoints (and address them)
This is the opposite of the above suggestion. You can also try to increase the words in your assignment in an organic way by presenting some opposing arguments and then trying to take a stance on which seems more appropriate or suitable to the topic of your essay. For nearly every single point that you make, there are likely to be differing viewpoints from others – you have to pick your battles though as inserting conflicting viewpoints for every single statement would make your paper dry and monotonous.
If you do use this option, then you have to make sure that you address the opposing viewpoints with suitable counterarguments and why one view is superior to the other.
6. Always add labels for figures and tables
Labels for figures and tables are typically included in the word count of assignments unless otherwise specified. There’s no good reason NOT to use labels for each and every figure and table which you include in paper. Apart from being a standard requirement in many academic formats/styles, it is a fairly easy way to increase the word count of your paper, so it’s a win-win to always do this.
7. Make proper use of transition (connecting) words
You can also make use of transition and connecting words like the following to increase your word count while also creating a coherent flow between your points.
- Words that help build on ideas: ‘Additionally’, ‘Moreover’, ‘Furthermore’, ‘In fact’
- Words that imply sequence or chronology: ‘Thereafter’, ‘Subsequently’
- Words indicating inference: ‘Therefore’, ‘Hence’, ‘Thus’, ‘As a result’ ‘Consequently’
- Words indicating similarity: ‘Similarly’, ‘Likewise’
- Words indicating contrast in ideas: ‘Although’, ‘Even though’, ‘However’, ‘Nevertheless’, ‘In contrast’, ‘On one hand’ (which is paired with ‘while on the other hand’), ‘From another perspective’, ‘Regardless’,
- Words for giving examples: ‘For instance’, ‘For example’, ‘As an example’
- Words for summarizing ideas: ‘In other words’, ‘In conclusion’, ‘Ultimately’
- Words that can help when paraphrasing: ‘According to’, ‘As mentioned/stated/claimed by’, ‘In their paper’
8. Check the assignment requirements one more time
If you have done all the suggestions above and still find that you are short of the word count and are lacking ideas on how to expand further, then you should take a look at the assignment requirements again. Perhaps there could be some keywords in there for ideas, concepts or information that are expected, which you may have potentially forgotten or overlooked in the heat of writing the assignment.
9. Avoid tricks like adjusting font and margins
Most students have a natural tendency to ‘under-write’ thinking they have a covered a topic or point adequately in a smaller number of words than are needed. However, if you find yourself trying to increase the word count of your paper using unnecessary phrases then you should realize with your intuition that you have not articulated your thoughts adequately. This means that the quality of your essay isn’t likely to be all that good and so you’re going to end up with a lower grade.
Another reason why you should avoid desperate tricks like using some large typeface fonts or adjusting the margins is because they’re fairly obvious to spot to a trained eye. You might not notice it, given your relative inexperience, but you can bet that your teachers would have seen almost all the plays in the book and spot weird formats in an instant.
As an example, a common trick that some students do is to add in some unnecessary words between some paragraphs and set the font color to white. The algorithm of some plagiarism detection software have been beefed up in recent times to detect this trick and automatically places a markup on such things that are out of the ordinary for teachers to review manually. In other instances, teachers who can spot that the content seems to be lacking compared to the word count specified can download the Word version of your submitted file, change the formatting details to standard style (which includes the font color) and detect this trick easily enough.
10. Avoid unnecessary filler and fluff
You should be careful not to add in fluff material which would make it very difficult for teachers to get the gist of the points that you are trying to make. Remember, most of your teachers have probably been ‘in the game’ for a long time now and are sure to have come across a wide variety of students and the tactics that they use to pad their paper and reach the word count. As a result, it is usually very easy for them to tell that you have just filled your paper low quality content to meet the required word count.
How to shorten an essay paper?
There are going to be other times when you will want to cut down the length of your paper as you may have already exceeded the word count, which is typically the case for those writing long thesis or dissertations. If you are in a position where you have gone significantly over the word count and beyond the allowance range, then it means that you probably haven’t narrowed down or focused on just the most important and relevant points.
You can reduce your word count by avoiding things like repeating long form of words which are often represented by commonly used abbreviations and acronyms. This includes topics like like Human Resources Management (HRM) or concepts like Resource Based View (RBV). The first time that you use these kinds of words in your paper, you should mention the full form and include the abbreviation or acronym in brackets. Thereafter, you can continue using the shortened form for the rest of your paper.
How many words to write if word count is not specified?
If the necessary word count has not been mentioned for an assignment, then you should try to consider some other cues in the assignment requirements files. We have a guide on the standard word count weights (percentages) – this can help plan how many words to allocate to each section and then add them all up.
What is included in the assignment word count?
1. In-text references
In-text references are included in the word count, which is typically why some referencing formats specify the use of the phrase ‘et al.’ (which is derived from the Latin word for ‘and others’) when the source you are citing has multiple authors. In some formats like APA, you should use this phrase if there are more than 2 authors, while in another format like Harvard, you only need to use this when citing works with more than 3 authors.
2. Labels for tables and figures
What is not included in the assignment word count?
1. Abstract / Executive Summary
2. Table of contents
4. References / Bibliography
Suggested word counts
1. Abstract / Executive Summary
Around 200-300 words should be sufficient for Abstract / Executive Summary.
2. Introduction and conclusions
Typically, you do not want to exceed 10% of the overall word count for introduction and conclusions. If the paper that you are writing is a thesis or a dissertation of 10,000 words or more, then you can even go as low as 5% of the overall word count but use your own judgement for the optimal length of these section. Most importantly, try to check the weights assigned to these sections in the scoring rubric and make sure to match that.
3. Personal Statement
Other misconceptions about word count
The counter for words in an MS Word document as well as most plagiarism detection software like Turnitin to which you submit your assignment does not include the spacing between words in the overall word count. These are counted under the separate counter for ‘Characters (with spaces)’.
The impact of different referencing styles on word count
This was much more important in the past, when assignment papers were almost always submitted as hard copies and, in these cases, the referencing format and style had a big impact on whether you had met the word count of your essay or not.
This is because each of the standard styles had their specific guidelines for page margins, the spacing between text, the specific font to be used and its size and other similar factors. If you had followed these correctly, teachers would be able to roughly gauge the total number of words that you have written just by looking at the number of pages.
Now, you’re probably thinking that counting the exact number of words on a hard copy assignment, especially if it is long, is impractical as it would take a long time. We can set you straight on that – teachers have an easy trick to get a rough estimation of the number of words in your paper.
- They would start by picking a few random lines in your page and counting the number of words in each of them to get an average estimation of the words per line
- They would then count the number of lines on a single page
- Finally, they can just multiply that by the total number of pages excluding the standard parts which are not included such as table of contents, references section etc.
So, do not try to be a wise ass – your teachers have been doing this for so long that it is almost second nature for them to tell if a student has met the word count, and whether they have used any obvious tricks to make it seem like their paper is long than it is.
The key differences in different formatting styles are summarized below to help you get a better understanding of this point.
|Formatting Style||Margin||Spacing||Font & Size||Special points||Approximate Words per page||Approximate Page Length (2,000 words)|
|APA||1-inch on all sides||Not so strict (1.5)||Not so strict||Running head||275 words||7.25 pages|
|MLA||1-inch on all sides||Double-space||250 words||8 pages|
Hu B,. Hu, M., Yang. Y. (2016). Open or closed? Technology sharing, supplier investment, and competition. Manufacturing Service Operations Management.
Porter, M. E. (1979). How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy. Harvard Business Review [Online]. Available from: https://hbr.org/1979/03/how-competitive-forces-shape-strategy [Accessed 14 November 2021]
Reuters (2019). De Beers curbs diamond supply as earnings drop. Reuters [Online]. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-anglo-results-debeers/de-beers-curbs-diamond-supply-as-earnings-drop-idUSKCN1UK1WB [Accessed 13 November 2021]