Trimming Down an Essay

Sometimes we come across professors that demand much in their assigned essays: astronomical word counts, unrelated questions to address, intense amounts of detail, etc. These assignments can drive a student mad, working hour after hour adding detail after detail. The end result might be a seventy-page research paper worthy of a Ph.D, or a Nobel-prize worthy lab report. Just as taxing, however, can be a restrictive word count.

Anybody who’s ever applied to jobs, scholarships, or graduate schools has been there before. You want to demonstrate all the amazing things you’ve accomplished, and demonstrate the wonderful employee or student you’ll be. It’s kind of hard to do that in 300 words or less, and it can be easy to get down to that 330 mark and have no clue where to trim from there. Every word might seem essential.

First, make sure that all your paragraphs relate directly back to the thesis statement. If the essay is about the ethical debate surrounding cloning, a paragraph covering GMOs might not make a whole lot of sense to include. It’s not usually that cut-and-dry, but take a second to make sure that each paragraph is reinforcing your main point. If it’s not, then cut it out.

Second, be on the lookout for redundant sentences. Look over every individual sentence, and ask yourself if you’ve already covered it. In particular, students can have the tendency to start with a general sentence and then repeat it with specifics. Consider the following:


I will be a good choice for this fellowship because I’m a really great student. I get my work done before the deadline, and I pay attention in my classes.


In this sentence, “I’m a really great student” could be demonstrated by the specific actions in the subsequent sentence. A more concise sentence might read:


I will be a great choice for this fellowship because I get my work done before the deadline, and pay attention in class.


Seven words were eliminated just by doing away with the generality and combining the two sentences. If you do utilize this method, make sure you’re not creating a run-on sentence in the process!

Another strategy is cutting down on adverb use. Adverbs are words that modify verbs (action words), adjectives (descriptive words), or other adverbs. In general, any word that ends in “ly” is an adverb. Quickly, happily, and stunningly are some examples. The English language is notable for containing adjectives and verbs that can convey quite specific meanings, without the use of an adverb. For instance, one could replace the phrase “quickly ran” with “sprinted”.

Also watch out for qualifier statements like “I believe” or “I think”. Not only can these add an unnecessary sense of doubt to the essay, but they can be removed without losing much meaning. For instance, “I believe that my genomics lab experience has prepared me for this position” sounds less certain than “my genomics lab experience has prepared me for this position”, and the essay is three words shorter.


– Daniel Stockard, 11/5/2015

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