Maria’s writing tip

by Maria McCann

Royal Literary Fund Fellow in the Department of Arts and Cultural Industries.


‘I can’t keep to word limits’

Over-long written submissions waste your time and energy. Here are some suggestions for easing the situation.

Before writing: the proactive way

Break the assignment task into parts and allot a word limit to each part. Tutors often do this for you.

Make a list of the main points you want to make in each part.   Record each point in the form of a topic sentence.

Under-write each topic sentence into a paragraph. By under-write, I mean write skeleton paragraphs in good grammatical English but containing only the bare essentials. The writing will feel skimpy, but you are always over word limits, remember? Stick with it.

Now check the word count. Still a few left? Good. You can add to some of the paragraphs. Already over limit? Trim back. In all cases, see if you can concentrate the paragraphs by packing more meaning into the same number of words. The key concepts here are clarity, precision and focus. Prefer ‘ten daffodils’ to ‘some flowers’.

This should prevent paragraphs becoming too unwieldy in the first place. You can practise the skill and sharpen your awareness by taking bits of old essays and cutting them down by 25% or more without losing the sense of the writing. The poet and novelist Sheenagh Pugh cuts down all her work by at least a third before the final draft, so you’re in good company.

But it’s already written and due in tomorrow!

For desperate situations there’s the brutal way. Go through the essay and find the least valuable paragraph. Axe it. Make any necessary adjustments to the rest of the essay. This is emergency action for when the deadline looms and the essay is way over limits: it’s savage, but at least it makes you scrutinise each section of writing. Sometimes students write an extra paragraph which only repeats a point made elsewhere. Removing these repetitions will improve the essay as well as shortening it.

Both of these methods (proactive and brutal) should ideally be followed by the painstaking way, in which you scrutinise every paragraph for needless sentences, every sentence for redundant or imprecise words. Tip: adverbs are sometimes a good hunting-ground. Words like actually, basically, truly become a tic in some people’s writing and add nothing to the meaning. Do a word search for ‘ly’ and see if this is true of your work.


If you’d like to book a confidential one-to-one session with me to work on your writing skills email me at I’m in 3S201 on Frenchay on Wednesdays and Thursdays.


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