Essay Contests: How to Stay Under the Character Count

How to Avoid Getting Disqualified

Keyboard with a red question mark key in place of the J key
Which Characters Count Toward Your Essay's Limits?. Onur Dngel/Getty Images

Some writing contests set a limit on the number of characters your entry can contain. This happens most often with contests that are looking for short pieces of writing like poems, greeting card sentiments, or jingles, but character limits can occur in any kind of essay contest.

It's important to read the rules carefully and check if there are character limits before you start planning your entry. Judges will disqualify your entry if the character count is too long, wasting your efforts! Be sure you know what counts as a character so you can stay under the limit.

What "Characters" Are in Writing Contests

Characters are the basic building blocks of writing. Whether you're composing a writing contest entry, a 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, the 280-character limit includes everything you type. 

When it comes to contests, however, the rules might be a bit different. Some writing contests don't count spaces or punctuation toward their character count, for example.

To know what to count as a character, check what the contest rules say. If the 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 Count the Characters in Your Entry

If you're not sure whether your entry comes under the allowed character limit, don't worry — you don't have to count each letter by hand. There are several easy ways to count your characters:

  1. Use a Word Processor: Compose your entry in a word processor like MS Word or Apple Pages and click on the Word Count feature to how many characters your entry has.
  2. Use a Free Character Counter: Some websites offer a free character counter. All you need to do is copy-paste your text into their web form, and it will tell you how many characters it contains. Some even let you specify whether spaces should be counted or not. is one site you can use, or you can do a Google search for "character counters" to see all your choices.
  3. Use a Writing-Specific Processor: Writing programs like Scrivener automatically track your character and word count at the bottom or side of your screen for you. This running total is handy to watch as you compose your essay.

Reducing Your Character Count

If your essay contest entry has too many characters, don't worry. With some editing, you can reduce your length to come under the limit.


There's a reason why kill your darlings is a popular motto among writers. It means to be ruthless in deleting words and sentences that don't serve your story, no matter how good they sound or how much work you put into writing them. This mindset can help a lot when you're trying to come under a tight character count.

Start by going 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.

Next, look at the phrases you use to see if you can find shorter alternatives. For example, prepositions aren't necessary in phrases like "Open up the letter" — "Open the letter" works just as well. Similarly, you can replace phrases like "In order to..." with shorter ones like "To..."

When you can no longer sacrifice length without losing important content, look at the words themselves. Are you using character-heavy words that could be effectively replaced by something shorter? A website like will help you with more concise synonyms. 

For more tips, read the University of North Carolina's guide, Writing Concisely.

Character Counts Vs. Word Counts

Be careful not to confuse character count limits, which are usually used in shorter pieces of writing, with word count limits, which are used in longer essays.

A 500-word essay would be about a single page long, whereas a 500 character essay would be about 100 to 150 words long. It's important to be clear about your terminology before you plan out your essay.

You can use many of the same techniques listed above to stay under a tight word count. Sites like can help you determine how many words your entry has.