Worried About Word Count? To Take the Stress Out of Writing, Embrace the Process

Worried About Word Count? To Take the Stress Out of Writing, Embrace the Process

If there’s one discussion I can always count on having in the early stages of my work with college-essay writing students, it’s on the subject of word count. One or two calls in, we’ll have an exchange that goes something like this:




Me: “Can you expand a bit in the third paragraph? Do you think you can write more detail about how you learned to play basketball on your own?




Student: “I’m sorry Mrs. Restrepo, but I can’t write anymore.”




Me (genuinely worried): “Why not?”



Student: “I’m already getting close to reaching word count.”




The fact that students worry about word count in the first drafts of their essays is something that keeps me up at night. Their stress stresses me out! Fundamentally, what’s missing here is a better understanding of the creative writing process.




When students sit down to write their college essays, this is what they expect to happen:




Simplified Creative Writing Process


Write Revise

(1-2 drafts)




When a student says they can’t expand on an idea because of word count, I stop everything we’re doing. I pull out my “creative writing process slide” and break the news. This is what a more realistic creative writing process looks like:




More Realistic Creative Writing Process


Brainstorm Free Write Idea Selection Free Write  

Idea Development  Free Write  Revise

(3-6 drafts)




Three to six drafts?!? I can tell by the glazed looks on my students’ faces that they’d rather go back to stressing about word count. So, while I still have their attention, I transform myself into a math tutor and ask them to make the following calculation:




Take your word count and multiply by two.

Take your word count and multiply by three.

Take the average of these two numbers.

Ta-da! There’s your “early-draft-stage” word count.




Why. So. Many. Words? Think of your writing project as someone you’re about to date. Do strangers reveal their inner truths on a first date? I know the dating scene has changed a lot in the past few decades, but I hope the answer to that question is still no. Getting to know someone is a slow, steady process. It takes at least two or three dates to begin to reveal yourself.




The same thing happens when you write. The first few drafts are an early dating game. The meaningful parts of your story aren’t going to fully develop themselves the first time you sit down to write. Worse still, if you have the ticking time bomb of a strict word count hanging over your head, then what you’re doing is more akin to speed dating: fast, stressful, and with a low likelihood of success.




Understanding the writing process is important not only for when we write, but also for how we plan. People often dismiss the work involved in writing a short paragraph, or, in the case of high school seniors, short supplemental essays. Just because an essay requires 150 words doesn’t mean you don’t have to go through the writing process. In fact, shorter essays often require more time to revise. If you want to say less, write more.




As we get closer to revision, students begin to get all flustered about word count again. They’ve finally produced an insightful essay. It took weeks to write. Now they have cut it down two or three-fold?




Word count really begins to work in your favor when you revise. Having a strict word count forces you to engage in a thorough revision. It may sound like a nightmare, but I actually love collaborating with students on bringing thousands of words down to 650. We walk through the essay top to bottom, top to bottom, top to bottom, four, five, even six times. During the first round, I’m the one proposing cuts, but by the second or third read-through, my students take over. They find the superfluous words. They notice the details that while nice, aren’t necessary. They even learn to cut out phrases they love that aren’t essential to the piece, or images they worked really hard to build, which they’ll have to save for another essay. It’s in the process of revising that word count pushes us to be better writers (and not before).




When my students take over, my role as a writing teacher changes too. I love being the quiet presence at the other end of a zoom call: a writing enthusiast silently overflowing with joy at the sight of a fellow writer shaping their story.