5.1 Finishing touches

5.1.1 Word count

Your essay should be maximum 4,000 words. The examiner will not read beyond 4000 words - which means that (if your essay is longer than 4000 words) she will not get to the end of the essay. She might not see everything in your discussion, she might not read your conclusion, even if you have one! The essay is marked as a whole, holistically, so if it is not read in full, it could affect your marks badly.

Not all words count towards the word-count. The 4,000 word limit does not include the title-page, the table of contents, captions to graphics and illustrations, the bibliography, referencing footnotes if you use them, or citations in parentheses.

If you use footnotes which are not referencing footnotes, they will count towards the word count but they will not be read. If you use footnotes other than for references, you penalise yourself.

Too many words

As you read through your essay, look out for and eliminate redundant words. You are unlikely to save many words doing this, but it is still a useful exercise: it will make your essay tighter, and the reading more enjoyable.

  • Have your research question in front of you. Does each point you make in your essay contribute towards answering the research question? 
  • If a passage does not address the research question, ask yourself, "Why is this here? Do I need this?"
  • Do you have several examples or pieces of evidence in support of a point? Can you shorten one or more of these, summarise even more succinctly without losing anything?
  • Do you have several examples or pieces of evidence which argue against your point? Do you need to detail the counter-arguments, or could you simply point out that there are differing viewpoints? 
    For example: "Smith and Jones (2011) argue strongly against this, but Tucker (2014) suggests that their sample was small and unrepresentative."

Too few words

This too can be a problem. You are probably denying yourself the opportunity to make points and fully argue the research question. If your essay is too short, consider these questions:

  • Have you fully answered the research question - or are there more points you might make, more evidence you could bring in to support those points?
  • Have you fully considered the counter-arguments; could someone have other opinions or viewpoints? What would they say? 
  • Perhaps reconsider your research question. Is it too narrow, in terms of topic, population, locality, time? Can you widen the exploration (if it is not too late)?

You might need to abandon the study altogether and start again, especially if the research question can be answered too easily, or if there is not enough in the literature (already written) to support an essay, or you cannot find enough evidence to support a discussion or argument.

5.1.1a - Word count
Don't forget to use the word-count function on MS Word to know how many words you've used. Note: MS Word counts the words in areas that you've highlighted as well. 


  • Include your word count on the title page.
  • An essay which is 3,500 words or fewer is probably too short, unless it is an essay in Maths or is written in certain non-English languages which use non-roman characters.
  • During the proof-reading and editing processes, save frequently and with a new version number.