How Many Words Are In This Essay?

Essay Word Count

Have you ever had those students who try to get away with doing as little work as possible? Silly question to ask of teachers, right?

While their more industrious peers, when confronted with an essay assignment, will craft a working outline, write a rough draft, go back and add more details and information, to finally end up with an essay of decent, if not prodigious, length.

Our students with brevity as their super power will write something like this:

The sky… is blue.

Yes, I am exercising my hyperbole license. We have all had that student, though, who insists an entire argumentative essay is contained within one paragraph. That’s where the minimum essay word count comes in.

My first year of teaching, I told my 10th graders they would need to write a minimum of 500 words. Much gnashing of teeth ensued. (Somehow, the number FIVE HUNDRED sounds huge.) For the record, this blog post is 156 words long.

This particular group of students honed in on the fact that it would take a month of Sundays to count the words in a five hundred word essay.

That’s when I remembered all those galleys of copy I had to word-count in my high school journalism days. For some reason, the way my teachers explained it to me then made sense to me, but I had some difficulty translating that process easily to my students.

So, after consulting with the math teacher upstairs, I created this set of instructions and algebraic equation. (Talk about math across the curriculum!)

Essay Word Count

Ask your students to write out the rough draft of their essays, and then follow these instructions to determine the word count:

  1. Choose five normal length/written lines of your essay.
  2. Count the number of words you have written on the first line and write that number to the left of the line.
    1. Short words like “a,” “an,” “I,” and “the” are counted individually, unless two of them are next to each other. Then you can count them as one.
    2. Remember that the average word is five characters long.
  3. Repeat Step 2 on the four other lines you chose. Words on a line = W
  4. Add up the five numbers that you have.
  5. Divide this number by 5. This is the average number of words you have written on your lines.
    1. Write this number at the top of your essay and circle it.
  6. Now, count the number of lines in your essay.
    1. Write that number at the top of your essay and put a box around it.
  7. Multiply the number of lines in your essay (boxed number) by the average number of words on a line (circled number). Total Lines = TL
  8. The resulting number is a close approximation of the number of words in your essay. Essay Word Count = EWC

Since my students seemed to be very mathematically inclined, I gave them the following equation to help them remember how to find their word counts:

[(W1 + W2 + W3 + W4 + W5)/5]·TL = EWC

Yes, I know that equation looks rather scary to us logophiles, but my classroom math gurus loved it, and I put them in charge of helping those of us without an algebraic aptitude. Problem solved.

Related topics: Teaching Writing

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

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