Concise: When the Word Count Matters

TL;DR: Why are you writing this? Why should they read this?

Be concise.

I remember back in grade school, this phrase often tumbled from the lips of my language arts teachers. But what does this phrase really mean? A quick search online suggests that it means one ought to use fewer words to express an idea when possible. Kevin sums it up nicely in The Office, “why waste time say lot word when few word do trick?”

So often times, we instead write in short, simple sentences. I did this. They did that. This is important. This is why.

Such writing and editing ignores the bigger issue that our writing is unnecessary to begin with.

You must ask yourself: Why are you writing this?

Of all the shows on Netflix available to you, and all the countless YouTube channels you could binge, you instead chose to spend your precious time ruminating over what nonsense to spill onto your computer screen. 


Write down your answer, and then look at what you've written line by line. Convince yourself how each one fulfills your answer. If it doesn't, then it needs to go.

Even writing this article, I realized I went on a diatribe about things that were ultimately irrelevant to this post.

Needless to say, however, the goal of your writing isn't to convince yourself, but rather to convince the reader. They do not know of the nuances behind each project you chose to describe, nor how the skills you developed through your extracurricular activities make you qualified to join their organization. To put it bluntly, your readers are ignorant people, and they will decide your fate. 

Thus, you have to then ask yourself: Why should they care?

This point has made itself painfully clear to me in the innumerable hours I spent writing application essays for university, statements of purpose and personal statements for graduate school, and the applications for fellowships like the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. In these situations, each word (and sometime character!) comes at a price, so when you inevitably run over the word limit, you find yourself rummaging through the essay, desperate for any word you can cut out.

If this is your first few drafts, this is a waste of time. In my experience, you can usually cut entire paragraphs because as written, they are simply unnecessary (and at best, tangential) to your essay's objective.

In the generic, exaggerated application essay I presented, usually the writer could cut out any number of the paragraphs between 2 and n-1, and instead choose to flesh out a select few to show the significance that experience had on them. This is where storytelling is important, because it not only offers concrete examples exemplifying your skills and development, but stories draw readers in.

Similarly, when you write about projects and experiences, you must show how they are directly relevant to the position you are applying for. You must assume that the reader does not know, nor cares, about this project. You must assume that they are asking themselves, "Why should I even read this paragraph?"

 The connection may appear to you as clear as day, but remember, the reader is ignorant, yet they decide your fate

If your reader finds themselves asking, "why should I care?", then you have to either flesh it out and show why they should care, or you'll have to remove it entirely. 

After all, they probably won't read it anyway.


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