Word count woes

One of the reasons I’ve been a little quieter on here than usual is because I’ve been devoting most of my efforts to the first Ergonomics module assignment. The deadline passed a little earlier on today and I did manage to submit it several hours beforehand, but it was a very, very long weekend making sure that I had something to hand in.

From my perspective, a large proportion of the effort I needed to put in seemed to be spent on getting the assignment under the word count limit. I knew I was in trouble when half of the assignment had taken all of the allowance, but my first completed draft weighed in at a massive 3,500 words – a *mere* 1,000 over the limit.

Chatting online, it seemed that fellow students also found the word limit challenging, so here’s some of our collective wisdom about tackling this problem.

  • Go back and read the question again once the first draft is finished. This should help to eliminate whole paragraphs that are not going to score as highly as other things and better still, eliminate things that aren’t going to score any marks at all. I think I probably managed to remove around 600 words of flab from the assignment that way.
  • Revise paragraph and sentence construction to make them as simple as possible. On first drafts I never seem to use one word when I can use ten! Finding better ways to write things, by shortening long, rambling sentences with too many ‘ands’, ‘buts’ and ‘alsos’ helped me to remove another 250 words.
  • Eliminate duplicate arguments. For example, I’d written in two different places about the utility of having warning tones combined with visual cues. Slightly re-wording and re-ordering my argument saved me another 50 words.

Which left me a seemingly intractable 100 words over the limit. These were finally culled by a number of techniques:

  • If you can argue a point using a single in-text reference rather than two or three, then that’s a few more words saved. However, I always like to make sure that if I do cull a multiple reference I’m still using the same source somewhere else. After all, there are marks to be had for demonstrating wide reading.
  • Using acronyms (provided you’ve already defined them) can also help. For example, Autonomous Cruise Control shortened very nicely to ACC and saved me two words every time I used it!

The result of all of this effort? Success!! I somehow managed to scrape in two words under the limit!

But of course, all of the effort spent in trimming down this assignment will be of little use if I’ve not interpreted the question correctly. I’m not feeling as confident as usual about this assignment if I’m being honest. However, there’s no time to dwell on what might have been as the second module assignment is due on 16th June.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how to stay within the word count – and I’m sure my fellow distance learners would too! There’s a nice big comment box below these ramblings waiting for your wisdom …

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 12th May 2014.

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Reader Comments

  1. Gail Ollis

    Your first tip above is my top recommendation. Ruthlessly interrogate EACH AND EVERY SENTENCE as to how it contributes to answering the question. It’s my experience too that this does the bulk of the culling.

    Your second tip would be my next one. Reading aloud can help. Unfit, flabby sentences just can’t stand the exercise if you are speaking them aloud, but are slippery customers which can be very adept at letting you skim over them otherwise.

    I’ve not noticed a problem with duplicated arguments as such, but I have sometimes got mileage from reordering material. If the logical flow is right, less explanation is needed.

    I highly recommend Helen Sword’s book “Stylish Academic Writing”. It’s a short and enjoyable read and some of the advice in there should help fight the flab. Or should I say “assistance in avoiding flabby sentences may be obtained by the reading of the cited volume”? 😉

    I have one more surefire effortless tip for reducing wordcount but unfortunately have run ou

  2. Arnold

    The one that my uncle used many moons ago is sadly no longer possible most of the time these days – for one of his OU assignments that was a touch too long, he just narrowed the margins, reduced the font size and handed it back in. It was judged the correct length!

  3. Suz

    I’m really worried that I may have gone over the word count for an assignment due back on Tues (word limit 3850, including the +10%). I know that subheadings are included, even though they have been prescribed, not made up by me (lost 1% on the last one because I didn’t realise this!). Does anyone know whether the titles of each separate question (numbered, but not really a main title given, just 5 questions) will be included in the word count?? I am very worried, as I didn’t think they’d count, but will be 70 words over the limit if they do! I don’t think I’ve done very well on this assignment, so think I cannot afford to lose that 1% (or is it more? Hope not!); it may just be the difference between a pass and a fail. I am so upset and worried 🙁

    • tim

      Hi Suz,

      The answer to your questions is really going to depend upon your university and course/module! On the MSc I’m doing at Leicester, everything after the title, except for the references section and any appendices are in the word count – and it’s a hard limit – even a single word over is frowned upon.

      On many OU modules I’ve taken, there was a +10% leeway – e.g. you were ok with 1,100 words for a 1,000 word assignment. However, not all OU modules did this – for example, SD226 used to have hard limits set for each assignment.

      The best advice I can offer is that you need to read your course/module handbook if there is one, and to definitely talk to your tutor / course director / someone in authority about your concerns if you can’t find the guidance.


  4. Suz

    Hi Tim! Thanks for your response, was v v thoughtful of you! 🙂

    I am also doing an MA at Leicester, but it’s college based, and sounds like your distance learning courses have been much better!! If we email our tutors for help, we either get completely ignored, or the whole year group gets ‘told off’ (via email); they say that they don’t want to be bothered by any more questions (even though most of us have never ‘bothered’ them with a single one yet!!).

    They think we don’t deserve support at Masters level (and have said words to that effect!). During lectures we get spoken to as if we are 7 yrs old, even though most of the group is late 20’s to early 50’s. People have been very vocal about expressing their concerns, but nothing ever changes. Even the lecturers can be v rude to each other at times, and I have never known anything like it; the uni where I did my undergrad and postgrad (15 yrs ago!) was totally different (but nerves got the better of me during the interview for my MA at the same uni, failed that, so I ended up at Leicester). I’m sure different courses are better, but my overall impression of Leicester is that the attitude of the staff is disgusting; in fact, a lecturer from a different dept called one of our lecturers an “f***ing a***hole” across the lecture theatre!!! What the hell??!!!!

    I bumped into some ppl from my course in the library earlier, and they did put my mind at ease a bit more; apparently, if we fail an assignment (as they have done in the past), we don’t have to write the whole thing again from scratch, which I really thought we did!!! We just have to put right what we got wrong and resubmit; so if this turns out to be just the subheadings at fault for taking it over the word limit, all I have to do is take them out!! 🙂

    Thanks again for your help though, Tim, and all the best for the rest of your learning!!

    p.s. I can’t promise I won’t be back for another gripe in the future, lol!! 😉

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