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In the spirit of James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, I want to suggest something for people to try with their writing assignments:

Drop the word count requirement, just once, as an experiment, and see what happens.

I’m sure many of you have similar experiences with setting word minimums or ranges and having students turn in work which seems to suddenly wrap up once the minimum is reached, whether or not the piece of writing itself is “complete.”

This was most pronounced in my creative writing courses where I used to set a floor of 2500 words for their “full-length” stories, and a piece would be moving along nicely, building tension and developing story and character before some deus ex machina would drop the hammer between 2500 and 3000 words. Sometimes there wasn’t even a deus ex machina, and the story would simply stop without explanation or cause.

But the same trends were evident in first-year writing. I might say a rhetorical analysis should be between 750 and 1250 words but very few would make it past 800, again whether or not the purpose of the analysis had been fulfilled.

It was as though setting a word count limited the amount of fuel students could take on to do the assignment, and once my minimum was reached, they were spent.

Of course, this was not true. Students were more likely employing a version of the “minimax strategy,” “doing as little as possible to procure the highest possible reward.”  By trying to make sure students did an acceptable amount of work, I was actually incentivizing doing less work.

More importantly, I was inducing them to think about the wrong questions. Writers do need to ask “Is this complete?” of their work, but in genuine writing occasions, we are almost never tied to arbitrary word counts. We are asked to attend to the needs of the audience of the writing, while fulfilling the piece’s purpose. For sure, much of the work we do operates within boundaries of word counts – these blog posts shouldn’t be much past 1000 words, and are likely better off being 750 – and I write a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune which needs to land within five or so words of 600, but those word counts are driven by criteria specific to the genres.

A blog post shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to read, since reading on screen for long periods is taxing and people will abandon the piece. The column has to fit into an identical layout of a single tabloid newspaper page every single week. Sure, the designers could reformat to fit a longer or shorter text, but this soaks up time, so the 600 words is relatively sacrosanct.

Even knowing a blog post is better off at 750 words for the sake of expanding the readership, these posts routinely go over 1000 because I use them as vehicles for trying out ideas, and sometimes, I just don’t have the time to hone the ides into the tightest possible piece.

Learning to write means making choices in the interests of fulfilling all dimensions of a rhetorical situation, and one of those choices should be length.

When I first eliminated length requirements, I was scared. What if students started turning in paragraphs when I expected pages, pointing out that I didn’t have a minimum word count, so they had fulfilled the assignment, hadn’t they?

Of course, I didn’t need to be worried. The image of students as calculating operators looking to circumvent the need to do the actual work is largely mythical, at least when you give them work they believe worth doing.[1]

I also made sure I took a couple of other steps. When students inevitably asked how long an assignment should be, my answer became, “Long enough.” When they asked, “How long is long enough?” I said, “Let’s figure that out.”

In many cases this took the form of analyzing model texts for not only length, but structure and purpose as well. This helped students see how length is a product of other elements, rather than being something separate from the rhetorical situation.

When strict models weren’t available, they worked through a process of creating what I call a “question-based” outline, which is structured according to audience needs and questions that arise from the purpose of the piece of writing.

For example, for an assignment which required students to do a rhetorical analysis of a humorous work (comedy sketch, stand-up bit, comic strip, etc…), the guiding question was “Why do people think this is funny?” The goal was to analyze the text in a way which uncovers the attitudes and beliefs which are being reinforced by the text.

The first question audiences might have is usually something like, “What are we talking about?” so the first step is to introduce the text. The next question might be, “What happens in the text?” so the next step is to summarize the text for the benefit of the audience.

The outline is driven by those audience questions. Once the questions are all answered, the writing is over.

It just so happens that this takes somewhere between 750 and 1250 words, usually depending on the text being analyzed.

But by removing a word count minimum or range, I’ve eliminated the student writer version of clock watching and shifted the motivation from an external goal (word count) to an internal one (gotta say what I have to say).

It works. It took me some experimenting to make sure I was providing sufficient up-front context, but those efforts that seemed to give up because they reached an artificial finish line disappeared.

Other issues crop up, like the essay that seems to wander endlessly into the distance, but this is a real writing problem, not an artificial one created by an essentially arbitrary rule.

I could say more, but I’m at right about 1000 words, so I’ll just stop.


[1] Another book by James Lang, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty is useful on this front. 

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