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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
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