How to Reduce Your Essay Word Count

reduce essay word count

When it comes to writing essays, there are two frequent issues that arise; the word count is either too low or too high for the stated range of the essay. For those who perpetually end up with too few words, you need to figure out ways to increase your essay word count. For those who frequently find themselves with too many words on the page, there are some simple steps to take when editing to help reduce the number of words while at the same time making it a stronger piece of writing. Below are some suggestions to do this.

Rank Your Arguments

If you find you’re well above your word count maximum, the first step is to rank the points you use to substantiate your argument. By ranking the importance of the arguments you make in the essay, you can eliminate ones which aren’t as important as others, keeping the essay strong while removing large portions of writing. If you don’t want to eliminate any of the points, you can still reduce word count by mentioning all the arguments, but not writing as much detail about those not as strong as the more important points.

Focus on the Main Point

Once you determine what the important arguments are for your essay, read through it looking for any paragraphs or sentences which fail to address your main argument(s) or topic. It’s easy to accidentally go off on tangents when writing, and eliminating these tangents can help reduce word count. The more focused you can remain on your topic and arguments, the more concise your writing will be.

Use the Best Verb

This may sound obvious, but a lot of writers don’t do this well. When writing, always use the perfect verb rather than one that’s close, but not perfect. When you use the best verb possible, it will reduce the amount of writing you do in most cases. This is due to the fact that when you use a verb that’s not quite correct, you usually need to add more words to clarify your meaning. Here’s an example:

“They beat the opposing team by a lot of points.”

While “beat” is accurate in this case, it’s not the perfect verb because they not only beat the team, they beat the team by a lot. Using the better verb “trounce” in this instant will reduce the word count while still giving the same meaning as the longer sentence.

“They trounced the opposing team.”

Remove Adverbs

Look through your essay and see if you find any adverbs, especially adverbs which have “ly” endings. In many instances, these adverbs end up being filler words which end up being placed in the writing because it’s the way we talk, but the words don’t add anything beneficial to the actual essay. Go through the essay and ask if each one is needed and remove those that aren’t. Some words you may want to look out for are (click on image to expand to see better)

list of ly adverbs

Remove Adjectives

Much in the same way as adverbs make their way into writing, multiple adjectives are used when one (or none at all) would suffice. Read the essay to see if all of the adjectives used are needed, and remove those which don’t add to the meaning of the sentence being written. Some common adjectives to look for are:

able, bad, big, different, early, first, few, good, great, high, important, large, last, little, long, new, next, old, other, own, public, right, same, small, young

(Photo courtesy of Matt Hampel)

33 comments

  1. I hate maximum word counts because I can never stay under them. Why do teachers do this to me? Why can’t I just write as much as I want?

    1. If you saw what the majority of students turn in for homework, you would understand perfectly why there is either a maximum or minimum (sometimes both)for writing assignments.

    2. This is such a challenge sometimes. I hate editing because I love all my words. It helps to know how to reduce the word count even though I don’t want to do it. I think teachers should let us write as much as we want. Isn’t that helping us to be better students than limiting the amount we can write?

      1. Limiting the amount you can write is actually something that can help you write better. It forces you to clean up your writing and only make the most necessary points which will make it more concise and accurate. Editing is more important than the actual writing to write well for most people. Your teacher is doing you a great service by limiting the amount you can write.

  2. This isn’t a problem. The problem is reaching a minimum word count. Anyone who complains about writing too much doesn’t know what a real writing problem is.

    1. A classic case of someone thinking that the world revolves around them and not understanding that just because it’s not a problem they have, others can’t have it. A very narrow world view. You might want to actually try and see things from the perspective of others every once in awhile.

      I write too much. I’ wordy. I always have to reduce word count. It’s as much of n issue for me is not having enough words is for you. I hate it when people dismiss problems of others jus because it happens not to be a problem for them.

    2. This may not be an issue for you, but it is for many people like me. It’s pretty self-centered of you to think that only your specific problems matter.

  3. I’m wordy. Far too wordy. I do my best writing when I have to edit myself and these ideas are good places for me to begin. I wish I could stay under my professor’s word count limits, but it never happens I guess it’s better than writer’s block, but it’s still an issue.

    1. Learning to write concisely will improve your writing so much. It’s not easy, but it can make a huge impact on the points you’re trying to convey. it’s worth practicing it.

  4. Editing is such an under appreciated part of writing. I love the quote that says that great writing is composed on the editing block. Reducing your word count shouldn’t be viewed as a chore but as an opportunity to improve your writing. Being able to get your point across concisely is a great skill to have.

    1. I agree. Most students don’t realize the importance of good editing and how it can greatly improve their writing. I believe students should spend at least as much time editing their essays as they do writing them.

    2. This is soooooo true and they don’t really teach you this in school. They tell you to write, but not to edit. I would have loved it if I was given a document that I had to keep the same meaning and important points, but shorten it by 200 words. It’s a skill I didn’t learn well in school but you need in the real world.

  5. This is a new problem for me. I used to always be under word count, but recently I’ve started to always go over word count. I thought that being under was bad, but being over seems to be even more difficult. I’m not good at editing so it takes me so long to get under word count.

    1. Editing is a lot like writing. The more you practice, the better you will get at it. Don’t get frustrated and continue to work on your editing skills. You’ll be surprised at how much better your writing gets the more you practice them. Good luck!

  6. Seriously, who ever needs to reduce their essay word count? Everyone I know is always trying to make their word count. Do these people just write random things to get that high of a word count? That makes no sense…

    1. ha ha. I assume you’re still in middle or high school with a comment like this. One day you’ll learn that writing can be fun and interesting, and when that happens, you won’t have enough space to write everything you want.

  7. There’s an easy way to reduce your word count that works great for me every time. JUST DON”T WRITE SO MUCH!

    1. I don’t know if you were being serious or not, but for some people that’s easier said than done. I tend to be wordy in my first drafts, and so when I go back through I cut a lot of words while editing. If I only wrote the exact number of words required the first time through, my grades would be a lot worse than they are. When I edit, I make my essays a lot better. I think most people do. If you’re only writing first drafts of any assignment, you’re not putting your best work forward. While your advice seems like it’s simple, it actually is bad advice for those who want to get good grades.

    2. I think it’s difficult for people who have a hard time reaching a word count minimum to understand how difficult it is for those of us who have a hard time staying under word count. Although they are completely opposite problems, they are just as difficult for both sides. It’s kind of like two sides of the same coin.

    3. What if you have a lot to say on the topic? Should I just dumb down my writing because the teacher says that I have a maximum word count that I’m not supposed to exceed? Sometimes it’s important to write a lot when there’s a lot to be said.

  8. Some of us like to write with detail and that can also make your word count extremely high. By toning down your piece and being a bit more general, it might also help decrease your word count.

  9. I recently have found that I no longer have trouble reaching assigned word counts, but now I am constantly going over them. I’m not sure how this happened. Even worse, I think being over word count is even harder than being under it. Who would have thought?

    1. I think this is a common problem as people become better writers. As you become more confident in your writing, you tend to write more. The previous writing problems turn into editing problems. the good news is that as you get better at writing, your wordiness will tend to go down again. Just like it to practice to increase your word count, it will take practice to reduce your word count as well.

  10. I happened to be a wordy writer. I never seem to be able to stay under the assigned word count on my essays. I found that one of the best ways to reduce the amount that I write is to take the time to outline before I even start writing. If I outline and I see that the outline is too long, I know my writing is going to be long. That gives me the opportunity to focus on the most important points of the essay which helps to keep the word count down. I don’t know if this will work for everybody, but it works well for me and I thought I would share it in case it helps somebody else.

  11. Use contractions when possible, use active voice and leave out the unnecessary adjectives. Be careful of going on tangents and stay on topic. Idioms and cliches are you enemy.

  12. I’m 478 words over my essay maximum and I have no idea how I’m going to get it under the limit. All the words are important and if I cut anything, it ruins it. Why do I always have so much to say?

    1. Were you able to get your essay under the limit? Learning to be concise in your writing is difficult, but it will make your writing a lot better in the long run.

    1. That’s easy to say, but how do you learn to edit well? I want to reduce the number of words in my essays, but they all seem important. I don’t want to edit out words that are important to the essay. If all seem important, then how do you choose which ones to eliminate?

      1. Practice. Editing is like writing…the more you do it, the better you become. You don’t even have to write to practice editing. take something someone else has written and see if you can make it read more cleanly. It can be fun and addicting.

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