Writing Center

How to Write Enough Without the Fluff

By Michaela Gibbs, Writing Tutor

Time: 11:59 PM.

Day: the day before an incredibly long essay is due.

You've tried every self-motivational technique: bargaining, anger, chocolate chip cookies from the cafeteria, Red Bull-fueled meditation, and you are still two pages short of the word limit. Your creativity went out the window, and to reach the word limit, you've decided to expand what you could say with one word by using three words via the dictionary.

When I find myself grabbing the nearest dictionary or thesaurus to find the longest words possible, I know that what I am saying no longer holds my own attention, and I certainly cannot expect my fluff-writing to hold my audience's attention. After I've lost my interest in the paper, I know it's time to stop being wordy and start being me.

How? I follow a 5-step formula, which I now offer to you:

1) Get a drink of water, tea, coffee, or soda. Just moving around takes your mind off of how many pages you have left and directs you towards useful thoughts (such as how to successfully drink liquid without spilling it all over the computer).

2) Instead of worrying about extending the word limit, focus on extending ideas. Think about where you could add one more piece of evidence, one more relevant anecdote that relates to the topic. If there is a quotation that you have not fully explained, you can better develop the connection to your own point; don't make the reader guess its importance. If you focus on explaining your ideas, the paper will naturally reach the word limit.

3) Read it to a friend. Have them ask you questions and play devil's advocate. Even if your friend has never heard of the Abyssinian Crisis, they can tell you if a sentence is too long to follow or if you repeat yourself six times per page. Their input will make you take time to explain what you think. This way, more of your thoughts will enter the paper.

4) Don't get bogged down in sounding professional at first. When you say something in simple, straightforward terms, your understanding of the material is clear. As a result, nine times out of ten, your reader will understand the material, too. When you are finished, you can go back and make it sound more polished, but clearly stating ideas in your own words is one of the best ways to reach the word limit while still making sense.

5) When you do go back to make it professional, use words you understand. You'd be surprised how obvious it is to your reader when you've used thesaurus.com. Your professors will know if "plethora" isn't part of your usual vocabulary as will your target audience. I'm not saying the thesaurus isn't useful; I just know that you will actually sound smarter (rather than just long-winded) if you use a word or phrase that feels natural to you.

To write your way to the word length without rambling, the best thing to do is to step outside of your writing, take a look inward, and realize that the word limit is not an obstacle. Instead, it's an opportunity to say really say what you mean without rewriting the dictionary.

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