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Word Count Woes: Writing to a Word Limit

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The toughest thing about law assignments is the word count. Yep, it's even worse than footnoting. At the start you think, “How could anyone have 1,500 words to write about constructive trusts?” But this soon becomes, “If I play with the margins, can I get away with an extra 400 words?”

If you’re WAY over the word count on your assignment, here’s what you can do next…

Don’t try to hide it

Tinkering with font size, margins and line spacing in a bid to hide those extra words is not a great plan. You might be able to get away with an extra 100 words, but markers can usually spot overly long essays. Same goes for writing 1500 words on the cover sheet when you’re just shy of 2000.

Check the faculty’s writing guide

Most law faculties will have a style guide for assignments, and there’s usually some leeway for word counts – my uni permits assignments that are 10 percent over or under the allocated word limit. So if the assignment is 2,500 words, you’re allowed to go 250 words over or under. That might not solve all of your word count dramas, but it’ll help.

Revisit your argument

Go back to the question and consider what it’s asking and what you need to say. Work out what’s absolutely essential and focus on getting that across. Lecturers won’t assign a question that can’t be answered within the word limit, and you may be overthinking your arguments.

Simplify your language

Sometimes the intricacies of an argument will call for extremely long sentences, but adopting a plain English writing style of shorter sentences and less flowery language will help to shorten your assignment, make it more convincing and easier for the marker to read and understand quickly.

Revisit your quotes

Whenever I start writing I always feel the need to reach the word count quickly. My short cut to doing this is to put in all my quotes from journals and cases early in the writing process. Not long after that, I’m well over the word limit and still haven’t covered everything.

The trick here is to go back and read all of your quotes – chances are you have a lot of sources saying the same thing (albeit very eloquently). Be brutal and cut out all but the best quotation on that point. If you’re faced with a super long quote, it may be better to summarise it.

Also tackle repetition in your own writing. Saying the same thing in five different ways may seem like a good way to emphasise certain points, but it uses up words that could be used for more interesting discussion. Using fewer words to get your point across can actually have more of an impact. Think about it – when we read judgments, we tend to ignore a lot of obiter in pursuit of that beautiful, concise ratio decidendi.

Footnotes are your friend

If a lot of cases or quotes say the same thing, keep the best authority or most persuasive quotation in the body of your assignment, and refer to the rest in your footnotes. You should check with your lecturer, but footnotes usually don’t count towards the word limit.

Sadly it’s not a free-for-all. If large chunks of text are in the footnotes, the marker might decide to include your footnotes in the word count. Use footnotes for additional examples and minor clarifications, and retain all of the central arguments in the body of your paper.

Practice makes perfect

I don’t always agree with William Shakespeare (especially on killing all the lawyers) but he was onto something when he said, “Men of few words are the best men.”

Writing concisely is an important lawyering skill. It might not be fun to learn, but think of all the lawyers and law students that will love your clear, concise judgments when you’re appointed to the bench!

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published on Survive Law on 19 September 2012.

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