Let's posit:

  1. You're a university student. I don't posit degree level; you can be undergraduate or postgraduate.
  2. You must not overstep the essay's word limit, whatever it is. You lose marks if you overstep.
  3. Your word limit is too short to elaborate an argument or idea.

How do academics write that the word limit precludes elaboration? Is this common or professional? Something like

The word limit prevents me elaborating this idea.

I cannot elaborate this argument here given the word limit.

Or is this stupid? Will the professor already know the word limit precluded you from elaboration?


Stock phrases you will hear are "is beyond the scope of this piece" or "is excluded in the interests of conciseness", perhaps with a pointer to where it has been discussed.

You might for example see something like "The fooing of bars became popular in 2025. The full process involved in fooing is beyond the scope of this piece, but the topic is reviewed in Jones et al., 2030".

Or even "The fooing of bars became popular in 2025. Fooing is a complex process (reviewed Jones et al, 2030)".

But probably if you are thinking that you can't fit something in then either:

  • a. It's not that important and you can leave it out.
  • b. It is important and you've included something that isn't.

The professor will understand how much can fit within a word limit, and therefore what level of importance is needed for inclusion. If you don't include a connected but unimportant topic, the professor will know why this is. Part of what you are being assessed on is judging which topics are important enough to cover in depth.

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    "is excluded for concision" saves 3 words compared to your second example. Your "or even" could drop the "reviewed" if desperate, and if you've got free choice of referencing style, (superscript) numbers are fewer words - they're common in my field but not in many – Chris H Aug 14 '20 at 17:11
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    I tend to insist my students include "reviewed" when they are referencing it for the references contained within it. (of course I tell them this first). "beyond this scope" might be longer, but it is the cliched phrase that is used. – Ian Sudbery Aug 14 '20 at 17:41
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    "Scope" does not mean "length." – Anonymous Physicist Aug 16 '20 at 2:12
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Not necessarily, but it probably does in a well set essay - if the professor is doing their job properly, the word limit should be long enough to be able to discuss things that are within the scope of the piece. – Ian Sudbery Aug 16 '20 at 14:37
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    @Nelson - his slides are just a word. Thats not the same as the whole prentation being a single word. Slides =/= presentation. – Ian Sudbery Aug 16 '20 at 14:39

How to communicate that word limit prevents you from elaborate something in essay?

You don’t. You take the time and put in the effort to make your argument in the available space. If you do that, more likely than not the resulting essay will be a better piece of writing that does a better job of putting your argument across than if it had been longer. Thus, you will have nothing to excuse or apologize for.

And don’t take it from me, many famous thinkers have expressed similar thoughts about the benefits of conciseness (and the difficulty of achieving those benefits). My favorite one of these quotes is Woodrow Wilson’s reply when he was asked how long he takes to write a speech:

“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

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    Nice quote. But my favourite example in conciseness is: "I have a truly wonderful proof for this, but the margin is to narrow to record it." It's unifying Motivation, Future Work and Trolling sections in one. – Captain Emacs Aug 14 '20 at 13:46
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    Yet another from the Bard: "Brevity is the soul of wit". – Nuclear Hoagie Aug 14 '20 at 14:41
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    I'm not sure of your domain. I'm an engineer. Our papers always had a word limit. Taking a topic about which you could write 50 pages and distilling it down to the 5 pages to which you are limited is a great way to tone up your thoughts and produce a much better argument. Once you get out of academia, brevity is valued - summarizing something in a page is what is expected of you. I've given presentations to senior management where the guideline is "you are limited to 5 sparse slides to make your point". – Flydog57 Aug 15 '20 at 0:40
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    @Make42 - you don’t explain everything, that’s the point. You explain what needs to be explained. Decades ago, my father went to Harvard Business School, where they used the case study method. Each week, for the case at hand, they turned in a paper on the problem, their analysis, and the proposed action and path forward. Total allowed length? 250 words, roughly one double spaced piece of paper. Focusing on the essentials leads to a crisp concise paper and identification of the real issue (not issues). – Jon Custer Aug 15 '20 at 15:13
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    @Make42 yes, if you are writing a manual for a nuclear reactor or something, four pages won’t be enough. For a college essay on postmodernism where the professor limits you to 1500 words, presumably that’s long enough to say something worthwhile. – Dan Romik Aug 16 '20 at 8:28

How do academics write that word limit occludes elaboration?

We don't normally try to argue our way around them. First, because it would be unprofessional. Second, because word limits, though inconvenient for the writer, tend to improve the quality for the reader.

We simply get used to word limits and learn to communicate efficiently.


Even if the professor didn't set the word limit themself, they're working in the system that did. They are well aware of the limit on word count and the restrictions that places on you and every other student. One reason for it is that they don't want to have to find the relevant material buried in paragraphs that could have been replaced by a handful of citations.

Instead I'll turn your question around: Given a tight word limit, why waste some of it on excuses?

  • Well said. Let your writing speak for itself, rather than trying to make excuses/apologies for incompleteness within that essay. – V2Blast Aug 15 '20 at 3:09

Will professor already know word limit occluded you from elaboration?

Yes. Assume that they will. Professors deal with word limits constantly. They are also responsible for reading the directions that state the limit.

  • Thanks. But "How communicate that word limit prevents you from elaborate something in essay?" I don't think you answered my other questions. Apology! – Nai Aug 14 '20 at 7:41
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    Your other questions did not need further answering. "Assume that they will (know)." – Anonymous Physicist Aug 14 '20 at 8:53
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    I just afraid essay will feel defective, if I don't highlight word limit occluded me from elaborating something. But other answered my affray here. – Nai Aug 14 '20 at 16:03
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    @ParkKiHyun: Yep, as others have said, part of how you'll be assessed is how well you manage to cover the important/necessary points while staying within that word limit. You're obviously not going to be expected to go into extreme detail in a 500-word essay, for example. What matters is whether you sufficiently touch on the important points while following the instructions. And as Chris H's answer says: You should make the most of the words you do use. Let your writing speak for itself, rather than trying to make excuses/apologies for incompleteness within that essay. – V2Blast Aug 15 '20 at 3:06

Next to the excellent answers already given.

The word limit is not just a limitation, it is also there to teach you somethings:

  • Prioritizing: What data does really need to be in here. Nothing is equally important, so prioritize and throw away the least important one.
  • Writing: Knowing how to write clear and to the point can save you quite a lot of words and can make the paper easier to read.

I can only answer from a student's perspective (in the US), but if the professor sets a word limit, that's the length they're looking for. For example, even though you may have a lot to say on the topic, and they may be good arguments/ideas etc., the professor doesn't want that much elaboration. (It may be because of time constraints on their part or because of the level of the class etc.)

Will they know if you exceed the word limit? It's likely, and they could take points off for not following the instructions.

Edit- I removed the suggestion of asking your prof. to remove the word limit. I can see others' point about it looking like you're unable to do the assignment if you do that.

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    If the point of the exercise is to be brief then that point is lost. – Solar Mike Aug 14 '20 at 6:42
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    Don't ask your teacher to extend the word limit. in the best case, she'll ignore you, in the worst case, she'll think you're not able to do the assignment. – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 14 '20 at 8:52
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    I guess this post got minuses from lecturers who had to read many times long essays overpassing the word limit – Mihail Aug 14 '20 at 10:20
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    @Mihail More likely they're from people who believe the point of the limit is to focus the student on brevity and clarity. – TripeHound Aug 14 '20 at 16:06
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    P.S. If you can't get them to relax the word limit, ask them if you can submit the paper in German. ;-) – Michael Aug 16 '20 at 1:26

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