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How long should an essay be?

Date published by Date updated: January 15, 2015

The short answer to this question is a bit vague: as long as it needs to be and no longer. Let’s unpack what we can draw from this answer.

Is bigger better?

No. In essays, bigger is neither better nor worse. In an essay that can be 2000-2500 words (about 6-8 pages), for example, you should not feel obligated to hit 2500 words. A well-argued essay that requires only the minimum length equals in quality any well-argued essay that requires more explanation.

How should I think about the suggested length?

While the word count seems like its primary purpose is to guide the length of the essay, it actually has two more-important, loosely related purposes.

First, it should help you determine how complex or ambitious your argument needs to be. If you need to go over the word count to make your argument, you’re argument is probably too ambitious, or your writing is not compact enough. If you can’t hit the minimum suggested length, you’re probably under-explaining yourself. And your argument may lack ambition—in other words, if you can fully support your argument with a paper significantly shorter than the minimum suggested length, you should make an argument that requires more support.

Second, the suggested length gives your marker a sense of how much work will be involved in evaluating the paper. This marker expectation is important, since in the mind of your marker, it’s usually vexing to realize on the eighth page of an eight-page assignment that there are still four pages left to read.

Can I exceed the suggested length?

Maybe. The best person to answer this question is your professor, but I can make a few general remarks to take into consideration.

A common guideline is that students have 10% leeway to go long: if your essay is to be 2500 words, you are fairly safe going over the count by 250 words, so long as your writing is compact and your argument is good. It’s smart to check with your marker before you rely on this rule, though.

If you do go over, ensure that it’s absolutely necessary. If you have fluffy writing, for example, it may be the case that you could condense your paper with better writing, eliminating the need to exceed the suggested length.

Remember, any time you go over your limit, you’re imposing extra work on the person grading your paper. Some markers don’t mind the extra work, but some get very frustrated with it. It’s never wise to annoy your marker, so exercise caution.

Can I go under the suggested length?

No. The nasty truth is that, with only a few extremely rare exceptions, papers going under the suggested length appear lazy, careless, and under-wrought. Unfortunately, essays that are too short will often seem this way even if the writer has laboured with care to adequately explain the content of the essay.

Is filler obvious to my professor?

Yes. Filler usually takes the form of added words that bulk up an essay enough to hit the minimum suggested length. This is usually pretty obvious, since it often involves a series of irrelevant comments and unnecessarily wordy sentences. To a marker, one of the only things more disappointing than an essay that goes well under the suggested length is an essay that reaches the minimum length by wasting words.

If your essay’s too short, opt not to use filler, but try to find another good point to support your thesis. Rather than padding the essay with unnecessary words, add a good argumentative paragraph where it’s appropriate. While this addition will require more work, it will yield much better rewards.

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Article by Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master’s degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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