Assessment word limits are often the bane of law students’ existence: either you’re hundreds of words over the limit, or you’re straining to reach the minimum.

The one thing we take for granted, though, is that the software we’re using is giving us an accurate word count. But is it?

Before you submit your assignment to Turnitin, make sure one of these situations doesn’t apply to you!

Situation 1: Microsoft Word is automatically counting your footnote text in the total word count

Make sure that your word processor is only counting your essay’s body text towards your final word count–not your footnotes.

Count don't count

In most cases, only your body text will count towards your final word count: footnotes that include citation information will not usually be included in the total. (However, discursive footnotes where you have provided additional information or analysis will be counted toward your final word count. Ask your teacher whether they will permit discursive footnotes, and if so, whether they will be included in your final word count!)

In other words, you don’t want your references taking up precious room that could instead be used for another paragraph or two. So to check whether Microsoft Word is automatically counting the text in your footnotes towards your document’s total word count, go to the Review tab and click on the Word Count icon.

Word count icon.jpeg

Or here’s a shortcut: simply click on the word count itself at the bottom of your document.


Either method will launch the word count dialogue box. Here, make sure that the Include footnotes and endnotes option is not ticked (checked).


Now you can be sure that the software isn’t including your citations in the essay’s total word count, saving you hundreds (if not thousands) of words in the process.

The same goes for your bibliography/reference list! To check your word count sans bibliography, highlight all of your essay except for your bibliography. Microsoft Word will then tell you how many words are in the highlighted section.


Another option is to temporarily delete your bibliography to see what your total word count is without it (just don’t forget to undo the deletion!)

Situation 2: Different software, different word counts

Word processing software use different word calculation methods. This means that two different word processors will give you different word counts for an identical document. Here’s a side-by-side comparison after I pasted identical text into a blank document in both Google Docs and Microsoft Word.

word count comparison v4

As you can see, Google Docs reckons the same text contains twelve more words than Microsoft Word thinks it does. Twelve words may not seem like a big deal, but the longer the document, the larger the discrepancy is likely to be. So while it’s up to you which word processor you use, because Turnitin requires you to submit your final draft as a Microsoft Word (.doc or .docx) document, the onus is on you to make sure that your assignment’s final word count adheres to the limit in Microsoft Word.