Why You Should Never Assign a 500-Word Essay

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There are questions that drive teachers crazy:Boy's hand writing

“Does spelling count?”

Why do we have to know this?”

“Will this be on the test?”

As a teacher of writing, I am often plagued by the question, “”How long does this have to be?”

The question reminds me of the anecdote in William E. Curtis’s The True Abraham Lincoln. The President was traveling by train with Stephen A. Douglas and Owen Lovejoy. These two men were notably dissimilar in body shape. Douglas had a long upper body and short legs, while Lovejoy had proportionately long legs.

They were teasing each other regarding their physiques and asked Honest Abe to settle the dispute: “How long should a man’s legs be?” they asked.

He allegedly responded, “I have not given the matter much consideration, but on first blush I should judge they ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground.

By basing the grade, even in part, on the number of words a paper contains, teachers communicate that excess verbiage is a good thing.

It’s a silly answer to an even sillier question. And it’s why I’m tempted to answer students, “Papers should always be long enough to get from the beginning all the way to the end.”

Those who have had school experiences certainly remember being assigned papers of expressed length: 500 words, 800 words, 1,000 words. This idea is so familiar to us that it has become part of our educational instincts: Write a 500-word essay on the French Revolution.

The reason classroom teachers assign papers of a required — though arbitrary — length is pragmatic. Teachers must grade fairly, so it is necessary to establish a baseline for how much work is expected of them. Otherwise, Susie Studious would turn in a 20-page paper while Abby Apathy would turn in a page and a half. There’s no way to equitably assign a grade to projects that have required such disparate levels of effort. So, teachers have to be clear about how much work is expected.
The problem with this is that it reinforces bad writing habits. It literally encourages wordiness.

You remember how it went: You write the paper and count the words: 465 — thirty-five short. What do you do? Seek an additional illustration to support your argument? Heck, no! You go back and add as many words as possible to your existing sentences. Instead of saying,

The French Revolution failed to bring about a classless, egalitarian society,

you say,

In the opinion of this writer, the Revolution that took place in France in the 18th Century completely and utterly failed in its primary objective, which was to bring about a society where there are no social classes and all people are treated with total equality.

There. You just turned a simple eleven-word sentence into a sprawling forty-six worder.

Click to Subscribe Now to the WriteAtHome Blog!

Conscientious and observant teachers call this padding and penalize it, but what they often fail to realize is that the very nature of the assignment encourages this kind of blather. By basing the grade, even in part, on the number of words a paper contains, teachers communicate that excess verbiage is a good thing.

WriteAtHome assignments come with suggested length in terms of pages. For example, we may suggest a report be two to three pages long. Originally, we didn’t include this information, but we were so bombarded by questions about required length that we caved. It was easier to give a guideline than tell the Abraham Lincoln story.

The truth is, we think a paper’s length should be determined by its content and purpose, not arbitrarily prescribed. Some stories just take longer to tell than others. Some topics require more explanation. Some arguments demand more detail to be convincing. Since we are working with individual writers in a tutorial program (rather than a competitive, graded, classroom context), we are under no pressure to level the playing field arbitrarily.

This allows us to encourage concise, economical writing rather than excessively verbose writing.

So when a student asks, “How long does this have to be?” we can answer: Just long enough and no more.

*****

Your comments are welcome. Please respond below with your thoughts and questions.

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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    I agree with you, Brian. Holistically, this is the way assignments should be administered. However, there are plenty of students out there who would find a way to take advantage of this system. If they didn’t get a good grade because their content wasn’t sufficient enough length-wise to get their point across in an intelligent way, they might be able to protest if the syllabus doesn’t say anything specific about length. This could be a serious problem as some professors may bend to students wills so as to avoid poor reviews, eliminating the good intention of this theory of yours. Of course, it could be avoided if the university/school set up some sort of policy protecting professors from being taken advantage of in the aforementioned way. What do you think?

  153. Mark
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    I agree, but might I offer a varied perspective: I learned how to write precisely *because* of the 500 word essay. Our HS Honors English teacher would regularly assign papers with the following instructions:

    “For tomorrow, write a one page, highly persuasive essay comparing Hamlet with Pac-Man. I must be convinced by whatever arguments that you make.”

    There were other non-standard and out of the box style instructions, but you get the point. The idea was to learn how to be brief, pithy, and effectively argumentative.

    We struggled. We pulled our hair out. Most of us got low grades to start with. The teacher would even gently critique papers in front of the class. Yet as the weeks went on, critique turned increasingly to praise, grades went up, and 30 young men learned how to write. For a particularly wordy writer/speaker like myself, it was also a blessing in disguise. I am grateful for these insensitive, unreasonable 500 word papers, and every article I publish now bears their mark.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko06-12-2014

      Thanks, Mark. You apparently had an exceptionally good teacher. I don’t believe, however, that the arbitrary minimum of 500 words had much to do with the effectiveness of his assignments.

      Let’s see. Both Hamlet and Pac-man were haunted by ghosts. Both had to adroitly maneuver to avoid those who would kill them….That’s all I got. I’m glad I didn’t take that class. :)

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  156. Lisa Strader
    Lisa Strader10-28-2013

    Almost every writing book I’ve ever read has said something to the effect of, “Forget everything you learned in high school about writing”— especially in regards to word counts and verbosity. Fortunately, I didn’t have to relearn anything because I learned it right the first time around!

  157. Merri Larsen
    Merri Larsen10-25-2013

    As a college writing tutor, I am almost daily faced with word count questions and issues. When a professor dictates a minimum word count (as usual), the student and I search together for ways to include pertinent description and more concrete examples instead of artificially attempting to add wordiness which does nothing to clarify.

    I am also grateful for the helps I have learned from you and Write at Home regarding wordiness.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-25-2013

      That’s great, Merri. Too bad most student writers don’t have access to such wise writing advice.

  158. Evelyn Krieger
    Evelyn Krieger10-23-2013

    I used to answer this question by saying: “As long as it takes to be good.” Although I agree teachers shouldn’t be sticklers about word count, there are times when word count does matter. For example: college and scholarship application essays, submitting to an op-ed or story contest. As a professional writer, I frequently have to trim my essays or stories because they are over the word limit stated in the publication guidelines. Students should also develop a feel for the length of a piece. They should know that 1000 words is about 3-5 pages. If they want to submit their work, there will almost always be a word count minimum and maximum.

  159. Sophia
    Sophia10-22-2013

    I completely agree. And now, in the middle of college applications, all of which contain writing supplements of 650, 500, or 250 word counts, I agree even more! :-)
    However, being the wordy writer (and terrible editor) that I am, I find it more difficult to stay within the limits the word count than to reach it. :-P

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-23-2013

      I have fewer concerns about maximum word counts. Having to cut words is a good exercise. It’s minimum word counts that teach bad habits with young people.

  160. Brett Sweeney
    Brett Sweeney10-21-2013

    Brian,

    I am currently a middle aged male in college training for a second career. I am in college comp which, as you know, is a ton of writing. My question is, I don’ t know the basics of writing, such as punctuation, structure of a sentence, etc, and my instructor is very vague on instruction, I’m lost on so many things, can you help me or point me to someone who can?

    Thank you

    Brett

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-21-2013

      Sure, Brett. My blog has a Free Resource page that includes a good number of useful articles addressing basic composition, punctuation, etc.

      But, generally speaking, Google can be your best friend here. If you are unsure of an issue or need help with grammar, do a search and you are likely to find plenty of good resources.

      Here’s a well-trafficked site with tons of basic grammar instruction: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/

      It’s a bit dated in terms of design, but it’s loaded with basic information and was created by a community college professor.

      If you run into particular questions that you can’t find answers for, feel free to post a question to my Facebook page or send me a private message there: facebook.com/WriteAtHome.

      Hope that helps!

    • Lisa
      Lisa10-23-2013

      I noticed that http://www.coursera.com is offering a free writing course for those who need help with writing basics. You might check in to it.

      Good luck!

  161. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko01-31-2013

    That’s great to hear, Emily.

  162. Emily
    Emily01-30-2013

    I really liked this paper it made me think of what I should put in my 500 word essay and I was hitting a road block at 465. Thanks alot.

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