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Does Length Matter?

posted: 4.5.11 by Traci Gardner

2606645766_e5a934eb40_mI want to confess a career-long struggle with length requirements. It’s really a life-long struggle if we take into account my days as a student, but I digress.

Every writing teacher has at some point been asked, “How long does it have to be?” That question derails the entire point of nearly every writing assignment.

As a new teacher, I used word counts, telling students that they needed to write 1,000-word essays. Before computers, that word-count requirement led to endless tedium as students questioned which words counted, how to deal with hyphenated words, and other minutiae embedded in their brains by past writing teachers. When I confessed that I never counted their words, but offered the requirement as a rough guideline, it didn’t end the obsessive word counting. I often found little penciled-in numbers above every 25 words in an essay,  the students’ trail of evidence that the 1,000 word requirement had been met.

So I began using page lengths instead. My essay assignments instructed students to write four- to five-page papers. This change in policy ushered in a new era of constantly shifting margin widths. In some cases, margins grew to as much as an inch and a half; in others, they shrank to three quarters or even half an inch. Students asked how far down a page you could space your title, how much extra space you could legitimately put between the title and the first paragraph, and just how much text you had to have on that last page for it to count as a page of text. Length requirements still weren’t working for me.

The introduction of computers made things even worse. My page lengths became whimsical challenges for students who triple spaced and tinkered with font size unendingly. The pages of text in 16-point fonts were certainly easy to read, but not exactly what I had in mind.

So began the era of combined word-count and page-length requirements. Papers should be four to five pages long, double-spaced, with approximately 250 words per page. I defined acceptable fonts, their size and weight, margin widths, and so forth. My assignments looked more like spec sheets for complicated engineering projects. Instead of a writing teacher, I had become the newest member of the “format police”—and I hated it. It didn’t make sense to return papers ungraded because the font was wrong, but I was desperate for a system that would work and was running out of options. Worse, I had regular visitors to my office who couldn’t understand that simply being long enough and formatted correctly didn’t mean a paper earned an A.

Paper length was really beginning to anger me. None of those requirements had anything to do with whether a paper was any good. I found myself telling students that I didn’t really care about the actual number of pages, that I just wanted them to cover the topic thoroughly. That’s how I ended up with what I now think of as the sexist length requirement.

I had read of a teacher who used an analogy to explain paper length to students. Having run out of solutions, I tried it. I shudder to admit this, but I actually stood in class and told students:

Your paper should be like a girl’s skirt—long enough to cover the topic, but short enough to still keep things interesting.

This length requirement was met with giggles, but it didn’t solve the problem. I ultimately ended up with a system where I combined this analogy with word counts and page lengths. Surely a requirement that focused on both nuances of the content and the specifics of concrete measurement would work. It did not.

My conclusion after years of experimenting is that length is silly. It doesn’t matter, and asking students to meet some specific measurement focuses on the wrong elemnt. Students end up obsessing over the mechanics of presentation instead of concentrating on the messages they’re trying to communicate.

There are times when we have to talk about length. Sometimes mode or format determines a length with no room for error. If students are composing text messages or sending out updates on Twitter, there are limits to the number of characters they can use, and we have to talk about them.

Most of the time though, I’d rather talk about whether there are enough details in an essay than worry about the number of words on a page. It’s an imperfect solution. Students ask for length requirements, and I try to dodge them with discussions of content, audience, and purpose. If you have a better solution, I’d love to hear it. For now though, I’ll go on record and say that to me, length simply does not matter.

[Photo: Ruler – Wooden; No “Inches” by Biking Nikon OGG, on Flickr]

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Categories: Writing Process
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