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Know Your Limits!

One aspect of assessment writing that participants can find challenging is the issue of word counts. Some consistently find that they've written twice as much as they should, while others struggle to find enough quality content to write about. This article aims to explain the what, why and how of word counts and provides some useful tips to help you stick to the word counts in your work.

What's the point of word counts?

Most academic programmes have word limits for written work.  The purpose of a word limit is to give you a clear indication of the amount of work expected and the level of detail required in a piece of work and an idea of how much time you should spend on writing your work. Word limits counts aren't just found on academic courses though -journalists and writers often have strict word limits to adhere to (or their work doesn't get published) and some organisations set limits on the length of  business reports. I worked for an MD once who insisted that he wouldn't read anything longer than 1000 words so reports and proposals needed to be very concise. It is therefore an important skill to be able to write within set word limits, not just for the programme you're studying for, but also for your career.

What's included in the word count?

Unless otherwise stated, you normally have a range of +/- 10% to work with. So, if the word count states 1000 words, you can write between 900 and 1100. Generally, anything you include in the main body of the text forms part of the word count (including headings, tables, quotes, citations, lists etc.) with the exception of:

  • the title of your work
  • your list of references at the end of your work
  • appendices

Great - I can use appendices to get around the word count

No - you can't! Appendices should be kept to a minimum and only contain reference materials which support or illustrate the points you have made fully in the main body of your work. Content included in appendices is not considered by facilitators when marking your work so you should ensure that all essential content is included in the main body, and not in appendices.

How do I know how many words I've written?

In the old days, when we all had to write assignments with a pen and paper, counting words in an essay or report was time-consuming, tedious and prone to error. Nowadays, however, technology has provided a quick way to do this. Simply highlight what you've written then look in the bottom left- hand corner of your screen (if you're using Microsoft Word) and it will tell you how many words there are.

For example, the paragraph above contains 72 words (out of a total of 1548 so far).                      

What happens if I exceed the word count?

If your work is just a couple of words over or under, this will be fine, but if you have gone way over your facilitator will return your work to you, unmarked, and ask you to add more content or edit it down accordingly. This is likely to mean a delay in marking your work and - if it's at the end of the programme - could also mean a delay in you having your work internally verified and gaining your certification.

Planning

Before you start writing your assessment, it's worth spending some time planning what you're going to write about and how you're going to structure your work: 

  • Make sure you know what you need to include. How many different elements/points/lines of reasoning do you need to cover?
  • How will you structure your work? How many sections / paragraphs do you think you'll need?
  • What is the overall word count? Can you break this down by paragraph or section? Refer back to the assessment criteria - are any of the criteria weighted?

Too many words?

If you've exceeded the word count, this could mean that you're being too long-winded in explaining your points, or you've included too many, or too detailed examples.  Writing concisely is all about getting your point across effectively without overly describing or explaining it. It's an art form and one which takes practice. You're not alone if you find this challenging: even Mark Twain once said: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."

Try these tips:

  • Only include information which is directly relevant to the topic or question - don't include something just because you've read about it or simply because you find it interesting. Refer to the assessment brief / criteria  and focus on including only essential points that will add value to your work.
  • Be direct  and state your points without writing a lot of "pre-amble" before you get to them. Use the Plain English style of short sentences as much as possible - this will help to avoid overly long and complicated writing. Try to avoid "hedging" language, such as: "I think that..."; "it is possible that...", which doesn't add to your work and can even weaken your arguments.
  • If appropriate, summarise your ideas by using lists, bullet points or other word-saving devices to help you include as much information as possible without eating into your word count. But always keep in mind the importance of style and professionalism - lists are not always the most appropriate tool.
  • A picture says a thousand words. Well, not quite, but think about where you might be able to present information graphically, such as through diagrams, charts of tables.  This is particularly useful if you're writing about data or statistics. You can highlight key data and refer to the graphic in your work (remembering to give it a caption e.g. Table 1....xxxxx) without having to explain every aspect of the information.
  • Proof read your work thoroughly and check that you haven't repeated yourself, been too descriptive, rambled or gone off at a tangent.
  • Critically review all your quotes and citations. Do they add anything to your work or do they simply repeat information you've included elsewhere? If the latter, then paraphrase the quote or take it out altogether. If you've included lots of quotes on the same theme, be ruthless and take them all out except the best quote on that point. If you've included really long quotes paraphrasing not only saves words but it helps to show your understanding of the content.
  • The above applies to examples as well:  one directly relevant example is better than three or four poorly thought out / tenuous ones.

If all else fails....

  • Look for extraneous words that can be taken out without changing the context or the essence of your point. For example, " research shows..." instead of "previous research shows..."; "retrospectively" instead of "in retrospect".  Don't, however, sacrifice good English for your word count. It might be tempting to  use contractions e.g. it's instead of "it is" or they're instead of "they are" but this can make your writing too informal.

Not enough words?

If you've fallen short of the word count, it is likely that you won't have provided sufficient detail to have answered the question properly  and you'll need to add more content. Beware of simply padding out your work though - you still need to ensure that everything you include is relevant.

  • Refer to the assessment brief and ensure that you've covered all the required points. Is anything missing?
     
  • Does your work "flow" - does each point follow on logically from the last one or have you "jumped" from one topic to the next? If the latter, add content to show how your ideas and arguments are linked to one another.
     
  • Consider the expected style and format of your work and where appropriate, include an introduction, conclusions and recommendations section. Don't just write disjointed statements to  answer the questions in the brief. For example, in a business report or briefing, you would normally expect to read an introduction which explains the purpose and scope of the paper, a brief summary of what's covered and who the intended audience is. Don't make it too long - one or two paragraphs is plenty, but it gives context to your work. A brief conclusion will sum up the key arguments for the reader and - if you're asked for recommendations, make sure they are fully explored e.g. cost/benefit; who/when/where to implement; issues to consider etc.
     
  • Have you explained your ideas and arguments thoroughly. Would a non-specialist be able to understand your work? It can be helpful to get someone without experience in your field else to read through your work before you submit it; they can ask you questions about it and help you identify areas where clear definitions / more detail / explanation / examples would help. I was once told by a University professor to assume that the person reading my work was ignorant (of the subject) but intelligent (enough to be able understand it if it was explained well). When you're writing a report or briefing paper etc, consider whether you've explained things in sufficient detail to enable someone outside your profession to follow your thread.
     
  • Have you made sufficient reference to research or other literature? A key part of academic and business writing is to be able to show that you're able to critically evaluate other sources of information and build on your research to put forward your own arguments. Explain what you've read (with proper referencing, of course); and explore the implications of the literature.
  • Use relevant examples and quotes to illustrate and reinforce your points; contextualise and explain them to show how they relate to your argument.

I hope these pointers are helpful - what other tips do you have for sticking to the word count?

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Comments

  • Love that Mark Twain quote! It's exhausting having to be concise - I think it is a zen goal for me!

  • This is the reason I love twitter 140 characters forces you to be concise :-)

  • When I did my Certificate in Learning and Development practice being succinct was the element I found the hardest! However, fast forward two years and now when I am sitting in a meeting listening to someone dilute their point, I consider it to be one of the most valuable things I ever learnt!

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