Sunday, January 8, 2017

Have Students Write Better by Writing Less with Google Docs

Certainly one of our goals as educators is for students to write more. However, that does not necessarily mean to write more words. Quite the opposite, there are actually several benefits that come from having our student write fewer words.

By that what I mean is having students distill their ideas down to just the most important, relevant, clear, and concise words. By putting limits on the number of words or characters our students can use, this forces students to:

  • Summarize key points
  • Select what is most important
  • Choose words that best convey meaning
  • Restate concepts
  • Avoid unnecessary filler and fluff

In this blog post we will take a look at how students can use the "Word Count" tool in Google Docs to easily check the amount of words and/or characters they have written. This can be used for writing activities where you put a limit on how long the students’ writing can be. See below for details and directions.

And I will try to keep it short. As Shakespeare said, "Brevity is the soul of wit."

Choose your limit and topic

First you will want to decide what limit to put on your students for their writing. You might decide to limit them to a certain number of words (20 words, 50 words, 100 words) or a specific amount of characters (100 characters, 200 characters, etc.)

The idea is your students will have to write something that fits within those restrictions. What they are writing might be:

  • A summary of a story they are reading
  • The main point of an article
  • A description of a character
  • A clear statement of an argument
  • A new title for a story, book, play, or movie
  • The dust jacket blurb for a book
  • The Netflix description for a movie
  • A personal definition for a vocabulary word
  • A simplified explanation of a concept from science, math, social studies, etc (ELI5 = Explain Like I’m Five)
  • A Tweet summarizing their thoughts on an article, chapter, book, concepts, etc.

The point is, the students will need to boil down their ideas to a smaller set of words, which forces them to really consider what is most important and how to communicate that clearly.

By the way, if you want to use the Twitter idea above, you can make the limit be 140 characters, and can use the "Compose a Tweet" Google Drawings template below for the students to write up their final wording. To get your own copy of the template, click below.

Use the Word Count tool in Google Docs

Now that you have the assignment and the limit, it is time for the students to write. They can use Google Docs to write as usual, so they will have all the benefits of that tool including anywhere/anytime access, auto-save, Voice Typing, the Explore tool, collaboration features, and more.

As they write though, they will need to keep checking on how many words or how many characters they have used, depending on the limit you have set. They can do this easily with the "Word Count" tool built into Google Docs.

Here’s how:

  • Select the text you have typed. If there is other text in the document, be sure to just select the portion you wrote and want to get the word count for.

  • Next click "Tools" in the top menu bar.
  • Select "Word count" from the drop-down menu.
  • You will now get a pop-up window that will display the statistics.
  • Words = The number of words you selected, out of the total number of words in the document.
  • Characters = The number of characters you selected, out of the total number of characters in the document.
  • In either case you will want to take note of the first number, since that will be the count from the text you wrote and selected.
  • Click "Close" when done.

As needed, the student can now edit what they have written. They may need to reduce the number of words or characters by deleting content, rewriting, summarizing, and such. Or they may still have some room to breathe and can add more details.

Throughout the process the student should keep using the "Word Count" tool to see what impact their changes have made, until they are within the limits you have set.


Writing within a word or character limit can be a great way to help develop student skills of summarization, restatement, and clarity. Google Docs can be a big help in this process by providing the students an easy way to measure their word or character count. This can also be very helpful for you as a teacher when it comes time to evaluate their writing, as you can also use the "Word Count" tool to verify what the students have done.

If you would like to learn more about creative uses of Google Docs for literacy activities, feel free to join me for my free webinar on January 26th:

4 Fun Literacy Activities with Google Docs
January 26, 2017 - 3:30pm to 4:30pm EST
Webinar link - (click to register and watch live webinar)
Description: Looking for ways to techify your literacy activities? In this session we will explore several engaging hands-on literacy activities that use features built right into Google Docs. These will include improving reading comprehension with Google Docs "Black Out", writing interactive "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories in Docs, summarization skills with the Word Count tool, and fun ways to use Emojis in Docs for reading and writing.

Post by Eric Curts. Connect with Eric on Twitter at and on Google+ at


  1. This is a great idea Eric. I missed the live webminar you have but thankful that you have recorded them.

  2. Thank you VERY much, Eric!!! I'll be using your wonderful idea --as usual, you are so generous!!!-- in a webinar I'll be running for teachers locally (Argentina), giving you the credit you deserve, of course! ;-)

    1. You are so welcome Rita! Best wishes for your training!

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