How to Hit the Word Count without Padding

Have you ever said all you had to say in an essay and wrapped everything up, only to find that you were still hundreds of words short of the required word count for the assignment?

What are you supposed to do? The natural reaction is just to start looking for ways to make your sentences longer. Unfortunately, turning every “is” into a “seems to be,” rephrasing every active verb as an awkward passive construction, and spelling out the full title and publication information of every book only yields a few extra words and makes the essay a huge pain to read.

But what else can you do? If you’ve really said all you had to say, then what options do you have besides repeating yourself and turning every sentence into a wordy, unreadable mess?

The first step is to take your focus off the number. Stop thinking about “how to get more words” and start thinking about how to make your essay more informative, readable, and interesting. In other words, take the point of view of the reader.

When you step outside yourself to look at your writing, as though someone else had written it, you’ll start to see what’s missing: opportunities to make the ideas clearer, more vivid, and more complete.

To find these opportunities, try probing your own writing with the following skeptical challenges:

So what?

You don’t need to be convinced that your own ideas and insights matter. They’re automatically amazing, just because they’re yours! But someone else looking at them might not be so sure.

Look at the primary claim in your essay (or even the main idea of a single paragraph) and ask yourself why it matters. Who really cares whether Hester Prynne’s suffering and self-conquest redeem her community? Why should I be interested in your argument that Juliet’s nurse is the real hero of Romeo and Juliet? To be honest, I would be very interested in reading that argument, but you get the idea.

The answer to this question gives you the universal context that you need to lay out before declaring your thesis, and remind the reader of at key moments in your essay, especially in the introduction and conclusion.

Make sure you’ve drawn attention to the broader questions that your thesis helps to answer.

Says who?

Just because you’re right doesn’t mean anyone will believe you. Any point you make can be made stronger if someone authoritative said something that supports it.

Maybe Freud’s theory of the conflicting forces within the human mind will give weight to your observations about a character’s internal struggle. Or Aristotle’s breakdown the structure of a plot gives shape to your own analysis of the plot of 1984. Or maybe a literary critic has drawn similar conclusions about a related subject.

Think about the ideas that make your ideas possible. Where did those ideas come from? Show your reader where you fit on the map of the history of thought about this topic!

As opposed to what?

You might think that you’ve been crystal-clear about your ideas. But if there’s one thing that 12 years of education experience has taught me, it’s that people never understand your words in the same way you do. You can always be clearer!

One way to make any idea clearer is to contrast it with similar or related ideas. If you’re writing about Simon as a Christ-figure in the Lord of the Flies, you can clarify what you mean by comparing him to other kinds of heroes. How is being a Christ-figure different from being an epic warrior or a classical tragic hero?

Don’t miss an opportunity to sharpen the edges of your idea by honing it against similar concepts.

Prove it!

Even if you’re already being absolutely clear about every one of your ideas, you may still have work to do to convince the reader that your articulately expressed and elegant idea is also actually true. Maybe you feel that you’ve adequately argued for your thesis that Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo because he mistimed the attack. But look at your evidence. Have you proved that? How do you know each of those details is true?

Other skeptical challenges to try:

  • Since when?

  • Always? Are there no exceptions?

  • What does that actually mean?

  • Where is that in the primary source?

If all else fails, hand the paper to a friend and ask them to tell you where they’re left with questions or can’t follow the argument. Then fill in those gaps.

Remember, the purpose of all these exercises is to make your text more informative and accessible. But while you’re at it, every one of these improvements will increase your word count, and much more than just splitting every “it’s” into “it is.”

If you follow through on all these skeptical challenges, you may well find yourself struggling to respect a maximum word count rather than a minimum! But that’s a problem for another day.

Matthew Brumit