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How to Make an Essay Longer or Shorter

Updated on April 25, 2023Students

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How many times have you worked hard on a research paper or essay, felt confident in your argument, and decided you were ready to turn it in, only to notice that you’re still behind on the word count? Or perhaps you wrote too much, and now you’re struggling to find parts to cut.

How do you increase the word count without being redundant or reduce the word count without sacrificing your key arguments?

You take a deep breath and continue reading our suggestions on the best ways to increase or reduce word count without compromising the quality of your paper.

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What is word count?

Word count is the number of words in a writing sample or document. Word counts exist for many reasons—print publications, for example, have them to ensure stories can fit in a defined space in a newspaper, magazine, or book.

But when it comes to research papers and essays, word counts are used to level the playing field: Each student has the same number of words to get their point across. A strong writer can do this without using unnecessary words to reach the minimum word count, while also avoiding rambling and exceeding the maximum word count.

One of the biggest reasons some students run into problems with word count requirements is that they may be too focused on it. The writer can become more focused on the number of words than on getting their point across clearly and concisely.

Your main priority is making sure your argument and writing are strong, and you may find that reaching your word count is made easier by doing just that.

7 ways to reduce word count

When trying to reduce word count it’s important to use a scalpel and not an axe—meaning you don’t want to delete large portions of your paper to ensure you’re below the maximum word count. Instead, you want to find small but significant ways to bring down your word count.

1 Look for redundancies in your argument

Look to see if you’ve repeated any information in your paper, and delete any redundant points.

If your paper has to do with climate change and you mention the rate at which the polar ice caps are melting twice, delete the second mention (unless it’s related to a separate point you’re trying to make). If you find yourself reiterating the same point in slightly different language, choose the one that is written more clearly and eliminate the other.

2 Eliminate unnecessary or ancillary information

Find any details that don’t serve your argument and delete them. For example, if you’re writing a paper about George Washington’s policy positions, you don’t need to mention his personal life unless it directly impacted his political career.

3 Get to the point

The best arguments are clear and direct, and your paper should strive to be the same.

We could’ve built up that last sentence by talking about the different styles of communication or the pros and cons of being direct, but instead, we got to the point.

Trying to build up your argument not only adds more words but may also weaken it, especially if you’re using unnecessary words.

4 Delete the and that

We often use the while speaking, but in writing, there are times when the can be removed without changing your sentence’s meaning.

That is another common word we use, which may be unnecessary in some sentences. An example is in the sentence you just read—the writer instinctively put that before we and then realized it was unnecessary.

  • Original: We knew that he was active in the 1960s and the 1970s.
  • Edited: We knew he was active in the 1960s and 1970s.

5 Eliminate unnecessary prepositional phrases

This is yet another example of separating how we speak from how we should write. Too many prepositional phrases can be a sign of excessive wording.

  • Original: For many people, the reality of an entry into a new area of employment is cause for a host of anxieties.
  • Edited: Changing careers makes many people anxious.

Getting rid of the prepositional phrases forces you to tighten up the sentence. The result is shorter, more direct, and easier to understand.

6 Use an active voice

Writing that utilizes an active voice tends to use fewer words than writing that uses a passive voice. Let’s show you what we mean:

  • Active voice: Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440.
  • Passive voice: The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440.

Writing with an active voice not only helps reduce your word count but can also help you communicate your argument in a more effective and clear way than using a passive voice.

7 Avoid unnecessary adverbs and adjectives

Adverbs and adjectives add extra words to your paper, and depending on their usage they may weaken or not add any value to your argument.

  • Original: Thomas Jefferson’s entire presidency was undoubtedly controversial.
  • Edited: Thomas Jefferson’s presidency was controversial.

6 ways to increase word count

The word count may make up a significant part of your paper’s grade, but your final mark will likely rest on how well you write and the clarity of your argument.

For that reason, you don’t want to use more words merely to reach your word count even though using more words is an easy way to reach the word count.

That last sentence is a perfect example of what not to do. Here are some ways to extend your word count without resorting to adding unnecessary words.

1 Investigate the paper’s topic more thoroughly

Read through your paper and see if there are ways in which you can further discuss your topic without adding redundant or unnecessary information. Two ways you can accomplish this are:

  • Providing statistics: If applicable, use data from a reliable source to back up your argument. This could be a poll or a scientific study.
  • Discussing your topic’s history: Whether you’re writing about politics or philosophy, it might be a good idea to write about your topic’s origins and how that subject has evolved over time.

2 Explore all angles of your paper’s thesis

Check to see if you’ve explored all angles of your thesis statement, which will not only increase your word count but will likely strengthen your argument as well. For example, if you wrote a paper on why people should exercise but only discussed physical health reasons, you could also discuss its psychological and economic impacts.

3 Include alternative points of view

Introducing alternative points of view can help increase your word count and show that you’ve thoroughly researched the topic.

For example, if you’re writing about capitalism, you could also discuss Karl Marx’s critiques of the economic system.

4 Flesh out thin body paragraphs

It’s important to note that you can flesh out thin body paragraphs without introducing redundant or unnecessary information. Instead, you’ll want to write detailed sentences to support your topic sentence, which can be accomplished by introducing facts, quotes, examples, or anecdotes backing up your point.

  • Original: Fight Club deals with the theme of consumerism, such as when the main character criticizes people’s desire to buy new things.
  • Edited: Fight Club deals with the theme of consumerism, such as when the main character criticizes people’s desire to buy new things. “Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need,” he says.

5 Find another primary or secondary source to include in your writing

Including additional primary and secondary sources is yet another tactic that can increase your word count and give your argument more legitimacy.

As a reminder, primary sources are anything that provides a firsthand account of an event (autobiographies or diaries, photos, artifacts, or videos). Secondary sources are descriptions, interpretations, or analyses of such events (textbooks, research papers, or documentaries).

6 Expand quotes

Writers will often paraphrase quotes in an effort to keep their argument concise, but there are times when you can expand on them to increase your word count and further illustrate a point.

Let’s revisit the Fight Club quote we used just a bit ago. If we wanted to expand the quote, we could’ve included the main character’s next sentence, which is, “Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need.”

When expanding quotes, it’s important that they add value to your argument. If the next part of that quote dealt with soap making instead of consumerism, it would not have been a good idea to include it.

Word count FAQs

What is word count?

Word count is the number of words in a writing sample. Word counts are used for many reasons, but in research papers and essays they’re used to level the playing field: Each student has the same number of words to get their point across.

How do you decrease word count?

  • Delete unnecessary words, such as “that” and “the”
  • Erase unneeded adverbs and adjectives
  • Eliminate redundancies
  • Use an active voice
  • Remove unnecessary information

How do you increase word count?

  • Investigate all angles of your topic
  • Explore your topic in more depth
  • Include alternative points of view
  • Flesh out thin body paragraphs
  • Find additional primary and secondary sources
  • Expand quotes
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