Scrutinizing my computer screen, I read another sentence aloud. I heaved a sigh. None of the words seemed superfluous; I felt like I had trimmed off every spare word I could without weakening my essay. I continued reading the paper, wondering how I was ever going to get my word count below my professor’s limit of 500 words.
Picture me at ten or eleven o’ clock at night going through this exact same routine once a week for eight weeks, and you will have an idea of my experiences while taking a course on American history this past spring. I have a problem most students would envy. I struggle with word count rules, not because I have trouble reaching the minimum, but because I always overshoot the mark—usually by a lot. No matter how much I curbed myself as I typed my rough drafts, I always had too many thoughts, too much supporting material, and too many quotes I wanted to include. Most of the essays were about American war novels, each of which was full of important and interesting information that I felt I needed to mention if I was going to write a thorough paper. I also needed to include as much historical context and analysis as possible to satisfy my teacher.
While my professor’s word count rule felt constricting and chafed against my urge to write more, the limitation challenged me to become a better writer. Because of this restriction, I had to make every word count, to reexamine how I organized my paper and structured my sentences. I experienced what every child hates: that frustrating time when your parents tell you, “Do it. It’ll be good for you.” Except this time, I was the one having to remind myself of the advantages of this word count rule while simultaneously becoming annoyed with it. I was trying to see the bright side of the matter as I attempted to find another 20 words to excise. Facing character-building challenges is so frustrating.
In the end, somehow, I always managed to chop the paper down to size without making it sound like Procrustes had gotten to it. And now the ordeal is over, I am able to fully appreciate how it challenged me. Writing those essays helped me spend my words wisely and more thoughtfully than I would have otherwise. As I worked my paper down to 500 words, I felt like I was condensing it into something stronger, boiling out excess material and making it more potent in the process. My success each time also encouraged and continues to encourage me, reminding me that I can overcome writing obstacles, even when they prove to be extremely challenging.
I have to admit that oftentimes as I worked on those history essays, I wished for 750 or 1000 words to work with. (I’m guessing that desire was really strong on the papers that ended up 499 or exactly 500 words long). However, as I think about that wish now, I can see the long paper being a different but equally demanding sort of challenge as the short one. Would the paper have been as powerful? Would I have wasted time and ink on insignificant words, quotes, or ideas? Would I have been able to make every word count in that long of a paper? Perhaps that should be my next challenge. Maybe we writers would all benefit from counting every word.