Working with your word limit

Working with your word limit

Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

When coaching students nervous about the blank page, I’ve often used the word limit as a technique for getting started. A big project, such as a PhD thesis, is less intimidating once you break it down. For example, at the start of a literature review chapter of 20,000 words in a social science thesis, I advise allocating words to the different sections. Allowing 2,500 to 3,000 words for an introduction and conclusion means the main body can be shaped into perhaps four sections of 4,000 to 4,500 words. Now what seemed like a mammoth task is a series of smaller ones.

Engaging with the word limit can be useful towards the end of a project too, although the emphasis is different. I was thinking about this recently after a one-to-one session with a PhD candidate who was deep into her final draft. She’d asked me for advice on line-by-line editing techniques. Her word limit was 80,000 to 100,000 words — 20,000 words is a lot of leeway, I thought. But her supervisor had offered some sensible advice. Why make your markers read 100,000 words, she said, when 80,000 will do the job just as well? You’re not doing your reader any favours by making them read more, unless more words are absolutely necessary.

When nearing completion of a project, it’s tempting to count the words to judge whether your work is almost done. But while editing, it can be better to banish reminders of the word count for a while. In Microsoft Word, you can hide the status bar to do this. Click View, then Focus. Now the document is placed against a black background, with no word count or any other distractions. It’s a great view for a line-by-line edit. If, after a close edit, the work is significantly shy of the word limit, the argument may need more attention. Is the analysis as rounded as it could be? Perhaps more detailed examples are required. Now you are engaging productively with the word limit as part of your editorial discipline.

The word limit can be a useful tool if you engage with it appropriately at different stages of a project. Embrace it at the start, lean on it, use it as a crutch; but towards the end, give it just an occasional nod from a safe distance.

4 June 2020
Printing your work

Printing your work

man looking at map

Maël Balland, Pexels

We work so much on screen that I often wonder if the value of printing out a draft has been forgotten. Students often postpone printing until their work is finished, but I think it’s useful to do so earlier. All kinds of problems can emerge while drafting — the writing might become cluttered, or the argument might lose its flow or stop developing. The writing process isn’t just cerebral; it’s also physical, technical and practical. Seeing a hard copy of what you’ve written can confirm what’s working well, and what isn’t. Print your draft with 1.5 line spacing. Give it wide margins. Print one side only (you can use the other side later for something else). Spread the pages out and go in with highlighters, pens or sticky notes. It’s like taking out a map halfway through a journey, reminding yourself of where you’re going and how to get there.

Cherise Saywell
26 March 2020

Pruning versus felling

Pruning versus felling

felling a tree

Franz W. from Pixabay

When cutting words, most of us start by pruning here and there, trimming away the ones we do not really need. Or rather, most people start by pruning unnecessary words. (See what I did there? I just cut the word count of that sentence by more than half.) Selective pruning is a good approach, which makes writing clearer as well as more concise. However, sometimes you need to fell a whole tree. It can be painful, when you’ve struggled to complete a draft, to sacrifice an entire paragraph or section. But an essay is not a document you brandish to prove you did your research — it’s a focused answer to a question. So if a paragraph does not absolutely, definitely belong, put away your secateurs and bring out your axe. Sometimes, felling a tree is what the whole landscape needs. It lets in air and light, and life.

James McConnachie
12 March 2020

‘Find’ your tics

‘Find’ your tics

checklistIt’s easy to miss word repetitions, sentence structures you overuse or punctuation errors. The ‘find’ function in Microsoft Word (control+F on a PC or command+F on a Mac) offers an invaluable shortcut for eliminating unhelpful writing tics. If you know apostrophes trip you up, search for them and check every single one is correct — or look for particular words, such as ‘it’s’. Clusters of ‘ofs’ or too many words ending in ‘ion’ or ‘ment’ are sure signs you’re using too many nouns instead of active verbs. For example, you could amend ‘Mwangi was responsible for the introduction of an innovative system’ to ‘Mwangi introduced an innovative system’. Variations on the ‘it is . . . that’ sentence structure waste words and can become an irritating habit. Compare ‘If you know that it is apostrophes that trip you up’ to the original phrase above. You can catch your own bad habits by making and using a checklist every time you edit your work. Your readers will appreciate the effort.

Lydia Syson
27 February 2020

A bird’s-eye view

A bird’s-eye view

[check structure]

When you have a first draft of your undergraduate essay or report, you’ll want to check the structure. Are some sections too long or too short? Are they in the right order? Is anything missing? What you need is a bird’s eye view — and this is difficult to get from reading through your work on the screen.

[Navigation Pane]

Fortunately, there’s a better way. If you’re working in Word, it’s called the Navigation Pane. On the View tab, select the Navigation Pane checkbox. The Navigation Pane opens on the left and lists all the headings and subheadings in your document like a table of contents.

[Reorder headings]

But first, you’ll need to assign each heading a Style (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.). The headings will then appear in the Navigation Pane, and you can drag a heading up and down the list to re-order the corresponding text in the document. If you are not using headings, you can create some as temporary place-markers to describe the content of each section. Once they’ve helped you shape your work, you can delete them.

Heather Dyer
30 January 2020

Break up long sentences

Young woman readingMiniscule pinprick of black — there’s not a lot to a full stop, but to your reader’s brain it can be like oxygen. We write sentences in order to hand our reader a piece of information, a unit of meaning. When we write a sentence that contains not one point, but two or three, or even four, our poor reader never gets the chance to process that initial point before another barges into their mind — a sense of suffocation soon follows; so find the place in over-long sentences where your first point has been made and insert a full stop.

Let’s try that again:
When we write a sentence that contains not one point, but two or three, or even four, our poor reader never gets the chance to process that initial point before another barges into their mind. A sense of suffocation soon follows. So find the place in over-long sentences where your first point has been made and insert a full stop. It will let your reader breathe more easily.

Chris Simms
13 June 2019

Don’t waste – recycle

Don’t waste – recycle

recycling sign

Elias Schäfer from Pixabay

When I was writing my 20,000-word critical paper for my practice-based PhD, I had to cut an entire chapter. When my supervisor said, ‘You don’t need chapter 2’, I was devastated. All that work for nothing! But I realised I could recycle my unused words and was able to turn them into two journal articles.

I recommend to my students that they keep a folder for any material they are unable to incorporate in their assignment — interesting (but irrelevant) sources, single paragraphs or entire sections. The materials might be relevant for another piece of work, helpful for developing ideas for a dissertation or useful for revision.

Lucy English
30 May 2019

‘Your academic writing isn’t academic enough.’

‘Your academic writing isn’t academic enough.’

Student on laptop

Jan Vašek from Pixabay

If you’ve ever got this kind of feedback for one of your essays, it can be a bit of a blow. You’ve tried hard to meet the expectations of your assessment criteria by including content you thought was necessary, but something about the way you’ve written the essay doesn’t quite fit the bill. What does ‘not academic enough’ mean?

The paragraph you have just read includes some language that is not appropriate for academic writing. The tone is informal, using expressions we might use in conversation with a friend. Notice the clichés (bit of a blow, fit the bill) and the contractions (‘you’ve’ instead of ‘you have’).

So how is academic writing different? In general, academic writing is more formal. One way you can achieve this is through the use of suitable verbs. Academic writers generally use powerful, single-word verb forms instead of phrasal verbs (verb + preposition). For example, instead of writing ‘bring about’ change, you could say ‘effect’ change’; instead of ‘wipe out’, you might use ‘eliminate’.

For more examples of the difference between appropriate and inappropriate academic language, this is an excellent resource:
‘Using Appropriate Words in an Academic Essay’ (NUS)

Anna Barker
4 April 2019

This… what?

This… what?

Writing tipsDo you often start sentences with the words ‘This is’? If so, you might be making your reader sweat, while missing a chance to underline or refine the point you’re making. When you write ‘this is’, your reader is often forced to try to remember whatever it was in the last sentence you were talking about.

So remind them. This . . . what? This belief, this breakthrough, this reappraisal, this campaign, this experiment, this opportunity . . . You need to figure out precisely what you were talking about and then tell the reader in one single, crucial word. This is about more than just reminding the reader. (Actually, that sentence should be, ‘This technique is about more than just reminding the reader.’)

When you add a word between ‘this’ and ‘is’ you force yourself to reimagine, in an abstract way, the underlying nature of whatever it is you are describing. And that little move towards a higher-level evaluation of what it’s really all about, is the very essence of academic thinking.

James McConnachie
21 February 2019

Where’s the conflict?

Where’s the conflict?

Image credit: Kona Macphee

Heather Dyer

When I’m writing fiction, I only recognise what a story is really about when it’s very near completion. Only then does it become clear that it’s about ‘control versus letting go’, for example, or ‘security versus freedom’. I realise I need to go back and find the places in the text where these tensions arise, and explore them more deeply.

This can apply in academic writing in the arts, humanities and social sciences, too. Try the following exercise with your essay, dissertation or thesis. Identifying opposing elements in your work can expose underlying conflicts and reveal potential themes.

  1. In two columns, list at least five pairs of ‘opposites’ within your project. You might identify opposing elements in relation to size, space or time — or personality, habitat or temperature, for example.
  2. Freewrite to reflect on the relationships between these pairs of opposites. (Freewriting is writing steadily without stopping and without knowing where you’re going.)
  3. Identify places in your work where you may want to consider these relationships further or make the conflicts more apparent.

I used this exercise on my own doctoral thesis, which explores parallels between the mythic archetype – or classic story arc – and the creative process. I quickly noted down the following ‘opposites’ in these paradigms:

Female Male
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Not-knowing Insight
Surrender Questing
Heroine Hero


Studying the list, I noticed that these opposites might be further aligned by the typical qualities of masculine and feminine, or yin and yang:

Masculine Feminine
Male Female
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Insight Not-knowing
Questing Surrender
Hero Heroine


I realised that the protagonist’s journey through a story and an individual’s creative process both swung between these two poles. This informed the conclusion of my thesis.

At a writing workshop for artists and writers, I asked them to consider opposites within their own work in progress. Participants identified contrasts they hadn’t previously been aware of: movement and stasis; smooth and rough; child and adult. These tensions triggered ideas that enabled them to develop the central theme of their work.

If you try this exercise, it might help you identify hidden tensions that reveal a theme. You may then want to ensure that you have highlighted these tensions within the work itself.

17 January 2019