OPINION: Word counts — where good writing goes to die

OPINION: Word counts — where good writing goes to die

I have been told an embarrassing number of times that my writing is wordy. That I have run-on sentences that do not really seem to get to the point and keep going on forever and ever without a touch of punctuation when I really should be adding punctuation somewhere because it would sound so much better and more formal. I have worked hard to sharpen my writing. However, it has been difficult to address my wordiness due to one nagging thing: word counts.

Word count requirements are set by professors so students thoroughly answer writing assignments and to discourage unnecessarily lengthy responses. In theory, they add structure to assignments. However, this structure often comes at the cost of improving students’ writing skills, especially when students in different majors need to learn varied forms of writing to best suit their respective fields.

My main concern with word count requirements is they place too much emphasis on how much students are writing and not enough on the quality of writing. Typically, word counts encourage longer essays. These longer essays are often seen as better as it takes a certain length to develop a good argument. Thus, ideally a longer paper translates to a more thorough paper.

However, this isn’t always the case. A study that looked at the correlation between essay length and quality found that longer essays did not always score higher. Graders in the study actually gave the highest scores to the shortest papers. The study confirmed what word counters don’t want to admit: more words don’t always equate to a higher grade.

Frequently, word counts turn what could have been a clear, concise message, into a wordy, repetitive paper. Numerous blogs and discussion threads share cheats for reaching word counts. Repeat ideas, include excessive quotes, add extra sentences in hidden white font — these tips have nothing to do with improving papers. Often, students become so focused on hitting a word count that they forget the real purpose of these assignments is to learn material and improve their writing skills.

Look at any laudable writer, they are praised for their ability to clearly and effectively convey a message. Ernest Hemingway is not famous for how long his novels were — nobody knows, nobody cares! Alternatively, he is remembered for his concise tone. Simplistic writing requires ruthless revision, something that word counts stifle.

Revision is, arguably, the most important part of the writing process. It’s what turns a cluttered paper into a dynamite argument. Productive revision involves weeding out unnecessary words, helping students develop an individualized tone and create tighter arguments. When students focus solely on hitting word counts, the last thing they want to do is delete words. Ultimately, revision is devalued and papers are left in their wordy, first-draft forms.

On the flip side, word requirements that fall too short can limit students’ chance to explore new ideas. While it does not happen as often, some students are forced to cut out valuable insight just to meet a requirement. Meager word counts can discourage […]

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