Why You Should Never Assign a 500-Word Essay
“Does spelling count?”
“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,
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.
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.