How Do I Loathe Thee…

I’ve been fundamentally opposed to length requirements for as long as I’ve been a teacher. Faced with the prospects of writing 50,000 words next month, I’m revisiting that position and reconsidering when such requirements might be appropriate or even helpful.
Back in January 2011, I wrote a blog post about word counts and how much I dislike them, believing them to be pedagogically unsound. I argued that they take attention away from the content and put it on something that is rather unimportant about writing: how much of it there is. I used as an example a story about a student of mine who would write forever about anything, but that was just her style. I never cut her off after a certain number of words, and she learned to stop worrying about how much she wrote, instead focusing on how well she wrote.

All was fine and good for a while, but then I started writing proposals for conference presentations, and there's only one thing they all have in common: strict word counts. Now I'm preparing for the Digital Writing Month that starts in less than three days. The major stated goal of this project: to write 50,000 words. Sure, the organizers will say that goal is flexible, arbitrary, and almost even beside the point—they want us instead to focus on what we learn about digital writing, about the environments in which digital writing is published, and about the tools used to create digital writing. In essence, I suspect that they hold a philosophy similar to mine when teaching: the content is important, but the word count isn't.

So why include the word count as a goal in the first place?

I'm starting to have a bit of a change of heart on this issue. Word counts can convey a sense of expectation that is difficult to express in other units. How else can we quantify the depth, complexity, or thoroughness of an idea, explanation, or other piece of writing? There's a level of detail we expect from a novel that we generally don't expect from a tweet. (Then again, #DigiWriMo encourages participants to consider writing the former using the latter. Can the formats be so flexible as to coexist?) When teachers give page-length requirements to students, the idea is to set out the general expectation of how thorough the thinking in the piece should be. If a teacher says 1–2 pages, students know to put a few preliminary words on paper and call it a day. If the teacher says 4–5 pages, students know to produce something with structure and a sense of purpose. At 6–8 pages, students need a solid explanation of various aspects of the issue. So when I tell students to write without telling them a length requirement, they have to work despite the absence of a significant framing tool.

But is that a bad thing? I did a minor experiment in class the other day. Students were nervous about the length of their papers, thinking they hadn't written enough. It was a rather simple assignment, given what's normally expected in my class, but some students thought they may have come up short, regardless. I interrupted group discussions to ask students to hold up the number of fingers that corresponded to the number of complete pages they had written on their rough drafts. Two students who struggle with excessive brevity held up two fingers. A couple students who write fluidly no matter the assignments used all the fingers of their raised hand. The overwhelming majority of the class showed "three". As students looked around, they sighed, they giggled, and they felt both exposed and relieved. By displaying their page count, they could have been the odd outlier. But most found they were more typical than they had expected. I suggested to them that the assignment's expectations seem to take about three pages to express. Those who had written fewer already knew they needed more help—several had already called their drafts "partial". I told the few who wrote more that they could work on compressing their ideas or narrowing their focus. Nobody complained, and the whole room felt more relaxed.

Do we need word counts? By giving students a numeric goal for the length of their papers, we encourage BS-ing. In lower grades or foundational classes, student thinking may not yet be elaborate enough to necessitate pages and pages of content. They might still be exploring their ideas, unable to fully articulate the complexities or nuances we would like them to eventually develop. (See Meyer & Land, 2006, for details.) I believe that in classes where students are being introduced to new concepts, and particularly new ways of thinking, a word count constrains free and creative thinking. To encourage students to write their thinking, rather than resorting to filler, we should give students a blank page and a blank check. They should be free to write what they can, or what they need to make their point.

That changes when students are more familiar with the content. In upper-level classes, where students are working to refine their understanding of a concept, or to apply their thinking to new experiences, a word count works as a guide, rather than a constraint. Students who are comfortable with material can use a word count as an indication of the level of depth or detail required, rather than the amount of space to fill. In essence, I'm suggesting that if the expected length of a document is less than the extent of a student's understanding of a topic, the student should be given a word count as a guide for when to stop. Word counts should not be used as a guide for how long a student should drone on without substance.

So that brings me back to my personal challenge. I have signed up to write 50,000 words in one month. I am painfully, acutely aware that that equates to nearly 2,000 words per day. I am also aware that this sentence does not even reach the 1,000 mark for today. By my reasoning in the previous paragraph, the only way my 50,000 goal is going to be helpful to me is if I have more than 50,000 words worth of ideas in a single month. Today, that feels awfully intimidating. I'm going to try and frame the challenge in terms of things to have ideas about, rather than in terms of words I need to write. If my thoughts start drying up, I'm going to find something else to think about.

At least that's the plan. In three days, I see if it works.

[Photo by me. CC-NC-BY-2.0]
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