What Do Essay Contests Consider Part of Their Character Count?
How to Avoid Getting Disqualified
Editors will often require specific character or word counts for your work. They do this for a variety of reasons—to save themselves from having to read entire novels, to test how clearly and concisely an essayist can write. No matter what the reason is for the assigned character or word limit, you must comply. The first thing an editor will check is your character or word count and if your essay is too long, it will be immediately disqualified.
How Essay Contests Define Characters
Characters are the basic building blocks of writing. Whether you are composing a writing contest entry, a Google headline or a tweet, the number of characters you use in your writing is important. So what counts as a character? Do spaces count? What about commas and periods?
Most of the time, spaces, letters of the alphabet, numbers, and punctuation all count toward a character limit. For example, if you are composing a tweet, you will be limited to 280 characters, and everything you type counts.
Some writing contests may not count spaces or punctuation toward their character count. Check what the contest rules say. If the writing contest rules don't explicitly state that some characters are excluded from the character count, play it safe by counting them all. It's better to trim a few letters from your entry than to be disqualified for exceeding the character count.
How to Tell How Many Characters Your Entry Has
If you're not sure whether your entry is under the allowed character limit, don't worry—there are several easy ways to count your characters:
- Use a Word Processor. Compose your entry into a word processor like MS Word or Apple Pages and click on the Word Count feature to see the number of characters.
- Use a Free Character Counter. There are several websites that offer a free character counter, where you just need to copy-paste your text to check the number of characters written. Some even let you specify whether spaces should be counted or not. LetterCount.com is a popular option, but you can do a Google search for "character counters" to see all of your choices.
- Use a Writer-Specific Processor. Tools like Scrivener automatically track your character and word count at the bottom or side of your screen for you. If you need to swap out longer words for shorter synonyms, the clicks to check your character count after each change can add up in a normal word processor.
Shrinking Your Character Count
If your essay contest entry has too many characters, it's time to edit aggressively. Go back through the essay to see where you can be more concise. Be ruthless about shrinking your character count by removing unnecessary repetition and by making your prose as clean and smooth as possible. When you can no longer sacrifice words without losing important content, it's time to look at the words themselves. Are you using character-heavy words that could be effectively replaced by shorter synonyms?
A tool like thesaurus.com will help you find those more concise synonyms.
When Character Counts Are Usually Used
Most of the time, short writing is limited by characters. Longer pieces of writing usually use a word count as a limit. For example, a 500-word essay would be about a single page long, whereas a 500 character essay would be about 100 to 150 words long.
The word count for a page will vary depending on font size and type, margin size, and spacing elements (single/double space, blank lines, subheadings, graphics).
For a page with 1 inch margins, 12 point Times New Roman font, and minimal spacing elements, a good rule of thumb is 500 words for a single spaced page and 250 words for a double spaced page. Using this as an example, a 3-4 page double spaced paper is 750-1000 words, and a 7 page double spaced paper would be 1750 words.
Assignments often specify a research paper or essay length in terms of words, rather than pages - a paper of 750-1000 words or a paper of 1500-1750 words. This way a student's paper will still meet their instructor's length expectations, regardless of varying font size, margin size, or use spacing elements.
When viewing an electronic version of a student paper in MicroSoft Word, the exact word count can be easily determined. Some research assignments require students to include the word count of their paper.
Also, clarify with your instructor whether the words on the title page, abstract (if used), and reference list count toward the expected word/page count.