Sooner or later each person in the academic community faces the word count restrictions. And almost always that number would seem to be significantly smaller than a reasonable one you (or any other peer) would come up with. The rule of the game is very simple: meet the requirements. Realizing that none of us can change the allowed number of words, and it’s a waste of time to bargain over another hundred.
Why do they do it?
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Mark Twain
Let’s face the truth: it is very difficult to write a short, precise, well-structured text. When you know so much you have to pick the facts carefully, build up a strong argument with the relevant points and make clear conclusions. Just having plenty of facts or stories to share is not enough. And that is when the word count comes up. People on the other side (tutors, examiners, admission committee) don’t want to waste time looking through pages of text in search for grains of valuable information. They test your academic skills by judging the choice you’ve made when deciding on the content.
It’s just five words over the limit…
In most cases (if not always) the bottom line is not identified but the top is clearly defined: maximum 900 words, up to 500, no more than… The exact phrase is not that important. Just be careful and don’t go over that number no matter what. And it is wise to have a few spare words left in case of unexpected corrections and additions (forgotten name of a scholar, an extra date, missing articles etc.).
Those strict people will never agree to give extra few words for a very simple reason: if 3 words more is ok, then why not 5? Actually, 10 words won’t make much difference too… You see the problem with pushing the limit? Once settled it should stay. Otherwise, there is no fairness in the assessment.
Style? Who said style?
It may seem that the text style is the first to fall a victim when the text is being cropped, but it is not the case. Academic writing tends to use long sentences, plenty of cohesive devices to lead the reader, terms to be specific and scientific. You don’t need flourishing phrases, catchy starters and rhetorical questions – save them for later. I’ll repeat it again and again: be precise. Even if it is not a research paper, but an essay for a uni application.
How to make the text shorter?
The key to success is to stick to the question. Read the task again, make sure that you understand the task correctly and remove all sentences (or even phrases) which have nothing to do with the task or (which happens a lot) don’t add anything valuable/new/are a commonplace.
Look for shorter synonyms. ‘In order to” can be as good as simple ‘to’.
Most of the passive constructions can be shortened by the active voice – 12 words. (The active voice makes passives shorter – 6 words).
Use plurals when possible to get rid of the article ‘a’.
The number one way to shorten a long phrase of nouns-articles-of’s : get rid of all but one first article and the preposition and go with a chain of nouns.
Use punctuation. The colon is extra helpful, so are the parenthesis.
In most cases, there is no or little need for adjectives and adverbs (unless you describe an experiment or a character), so keep them out unless it really gives important information.