Word Limit

“… You should aim for a total text length of 6000 words. Other than in exceptional circumstances, you should not exceed 8000 words.”

That’s a typical guide for a dissertation at Cambridge. When I read that, I think to myself, ‘Okay, in that case I should aim to write around 6000 words.’ Seems straightforward enough.

But apparently I am almost alone in that regard. Most people think, ‘Right, if the word limit is 8000 words, I am going to write 8000 words. In fact, I’m going to write as much as is humanly possible without blatantly breaking the rules.’ If the word limit was 10,000 words, they’d write 10,000. If it was 15,000, you’d still see people complaining about not being able to fit everything in.

How do I know this, other than the fact that other people have told me their essay word counts? It’s through the way people talk about word limits. I commonly hear questions like, ‘Are figure legends included in the limit?’, ‘Does it matter if we’re a few hundred words over’ and ‘Can I use numbers to refer to references instead of authors?’

What the hell? If people are worried about adding a few dozen words onto their essay, I hate to think of how far over the word limit they are. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people are emphasizing quantity over quality, but I do get the feeling that many students have no appreciation for the elegance of a short and concise piece of writing. And why indeed should they, when it’s so much easier to write down every single detail and repeat yourself? It’s as if people are writing essays without realising that someone has to actually read them.

It should come as no surprise that all of the examiners and supervisors I’ve spoken to greatly prefer shorter and concise essays than bloated ones, and that in general, short is good. That’s not to say that you can’t write a good, long essay that hits the word limit, but it is much more difficult and there is always the question of whether the topic warrants a long treatment.

Perhaps it’s just my work-avoidance skill speaking, but I have a real love of concise writing that tries to be as comprehensible as possible. It really is an art, and when I read a well-written essay and learn something new, it’s enjoyable. In contrast, reading bloated essays feels like a battle; tiring and depressing. So kids: conciseness is your friend!

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