No more than 1000 words

1000 wordsTeachers should reward brevity, not bullshit. (This is a follow-on to yesterday’s post about teaching writing.)

Writing assignments today look like this:

Turn in 4- to 6-page paper on themes and symbolism is Raisin in the Sun by Monday morning.

Everything is wrong with this. The page length trains students to focus on print rather than online, which is their future. Teachers then need to create rules about margins and font sizes to keep students from gaming the system.

Students should get a feel, not for pages, but for words. The limit should be 1000 words or 1500 words. Writers like me write differently for a target of 250 words, 800 words, or 1500 words; so should they.

More importantly, why specify a minimum? This implies that longer is better (and we all know the joke about tossing the papers down the steps and giving the ones that land at the bottom an A). Shorter is better. The student who can elucidate the most powerful ideas the most effectively in the shortest piece is the one who has mastered the subject (and writing).

I’d like to see assignments that look like this:

Upload your piece on racial challenges in America by Monday morning. Maximum length: 1000 words. Papers that express original ideas boldly and logically will receive the highest grade.

Students who hand in 200 words will get a D either way. But if you can write 500 brilliant and insightful words, you deserve to do better than the hack who generates 1000 words of fluff. This also gives the teacher a way to reward the hard-working students who pare their 1100-word papers down to a tight 750.

Photo: Niklas Bildhauer via Flickr

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  1. Totally agree with this post. I can remember writing with ease those long papers in college years ago because it was so easy for me to write. Today, everyone’s attention span is so short, the focus must be on precise impactful language not fluff.

  2. I had my 12 year old son read this post. Nothing is more boring to him than reading about writing. He didn’t want to read it, he wanted to play his video games instead and talk with his friends on Skype. But he did read it because it was short and he finished reading it because it was to the point. And we talked about that – and it really drove the message home that he needs to be able to write in the same way in order to get his messages across and to get the results he wants, even if the reader might not initially be interested. I would love to work with him this summer on how to really, effectively write and persuade. I hope you share some of the exercises you are doing with the kids in your class, I’d love to work on this with him.

  3. Excellent points about (a) the relevance of word count/irrelevance of page count, and (b) general merits of brevity. It is more challenging to write short and the product is usually better. That said, how do we make allowances for students who are intellectually curious and really want to do an occasional deep dive? If a student can write a 2,000-word paper, properly cited and without redundancy or flowery, bullshit language, shouldn’t he or she occasionally be able to do so?

  4. I agree. Good writing is done using the least amount of words necessary not making 4 pages of an answer you can give in 1 sentence. Essays are bullshit. Busy work. It’s to me. Am I just now learning how to read and write? What’s the point of taking up all of this space? Waste my fehking time.