One of the hardest things for any writer to do is to write a minimum required number of words or more. I personally hate assignments with specific length requirements, because I feel that it only encourages sloppy writing and stupid formatting tricks. (And trust me, your professor or TA can tell that you’re playing with your font sizes, punctuation sizes, spacing, and margins. They know.)
I think that quality writing should take exactly as many words as it needs in order to accomplish its goal. I am not, however, your teacher, professor, or boss, all of whom love to impose word length requirements on you. I remember those days, and not fondly. So what’s a writer to do when facing a word count that may be much higher than the number of words you actually need to use to successfully write your piece?
The first thing to do when trying to fulfill a very specific word requirement is to write exactly what you normally would. Get all of your words out onto the page, and don’t edit any of them away. If you’re using your first draft the way we talked about before, you’ll find that first drafts are helpful for increasing your word counts, mostly because you’re still trying to word vomit as much as possible onto that page. The main difficulty you’re going to face is in the editing process. You want to increase the quantity of your words without decreasing the quality. If you’re someone, like me, who feels that fewer words are usually better, this can be a daunting process.
After you get your first draft onto the page and begin the editing process, take care to refine your word choices without decreasing your word count. Replace weak words with more descriptive ones. Avoid the urge to add “very” before every adjective. Once again, your professor or TA knows you’re doing this. It’s awkward and clunky and glaringly obvious. If you’re going to chuck in adverbs, make them count. Use ones that make sense in the context of your sentence and don’t jump out as filler.
Once you’ve refined your first draft and, with any luck, haven’t reduced your word count by much, now you need to use a few tricks to get that word count up. Again, throughout this process, always keep your finished piece in mind. You don’t want to compromise the integrity of your writing for the sake of a minimum word count. In a perfect world, professors would be far more flexible with their assignments, recognizing that by making students pad their word count, they’re actually reducing the quality of work that their students produce. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and those in positions of academic power continue to stubbornly insist on strict word requirements. So, until they ease up over there in academia, I’m going to help you make it to your word count goals.
One of my tried-and-true tricks is to add one sentence to each paragraph. It seems like a silly thing, but if you go in and try to add full paragraphs instead, you may find yourself digressing from your piece’s main point or adding in extraneous information that would be better left out. By adding one sentence to each paragraph, all you’re doing is further exploring the content of that paragraph, and you may even find yourself adding in information that naturally flows into another whole paragraph. Go back and read each of your paragraphs as a separate work. What’s missing? Is there a point you could clarify, or information you could expand on? When you break your piece down into smaller chunks like this, adding words in isn’t quite so scary.
I’ve already mentioned avoiding the old standby of piling on adverbs. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should avoid clearer descriptions completely. There may be a noun or five in your piece that are just calling out for an appropriate adjective. Once you’ve added one sentence to each paragraph, see if you can add one word to every sentence. Please remember, though, that this may not always be the best idea. You don’t want to crap all over your work for the sake of reaching a magic number. If your sentence is well-constructed and stands on its own, don’t go piling words in there just to add to your final number. You’re better off creating a new sentence from scratch, rather than destroying something that’s well-written already.
As a sort of experiment, I set myself a word goal for this post, which I never do. My goal was about 200 words higher than the average length of my posts, and my challenge was to write a piece that didn’t seem to be all filler. What do you think? Was I successful? My first draft was almost 200 words short of my goal, and after following my own advice and beefing up the word count in the editing process, I still ended up falling about 50 words short of my goal. (I’m not counting this paragraph. That seems a little like cheating.) Since I’m not answering to a dictatorial professor, I’m OK with that, but I still remain a little bit disappointed that there’s still so much pressure for students and other writers to churn out pieces with high word counts, quality be damned. Professor PoM would encourage all of her students to submit their best possible work, regardless of length, so that formatting tricks and word-padding parlor games wouldn’t be necessary. Until the day when I’m in charge of the world, though, all you writers are just going to have to keep an eye on your word counts while remembering to maintain your integrity and the quality of your work.