Why Obsessing About Word Counts Can Make Your Writing Worse

It’s typical in our education system for teachers and professors to assign essays that need to be a specific word count (500 words, for example) or a specific length (3 pages, for example).

Although I understand the need to set some kind of expectation for the length of an assignment, word and page requirements are my nemesis. And, I’d argue, they can work against students’ learning too.

Let’s look at my recent coaching session with Wendy, an 8th grader. She was preparing for an in-school essay she’d have to write the next day. Wendy was feeling super-stressed out beceause the essay would need to be 2-4 pages, but Wendy had no idea how to make it that long!!

We practiced outlining on a separate piece of paper. We thought through her introduction and conclusion and added topic sentences for all the paragraphs. When we were done, she had an outline that would EASILY fill up 2-4 pages.

While we were outlining, Wendy kept saying something that bothered me: “I want to write about (insert topic here) because it will take up more space!”

I redirected her: “It’s NOT about how much space you’re taking up! It’s about the quality of your ideas, and how to flesh them out. If you have a rockin’ outline, you can write a shorter or a longer piece, but at least there is a coherency and flow to the ideas. When you’re just trying to fill up space, your argument may not make sense.”

At the end of the session, I asked Wendy to give her future self some tips. Here’s what she said (in her own unedited words):

  1. Plan it out.
  2. Make sure that stuff that seems obvious is fleshed out to its full potential.
  3. If I notice myself making a list, look to see if one is more important, or if I can make write a sentence about each part of the lists.
  4. If I notice myself making a list, notice WHY I’m making it and what makes it different than the other writing around it. Write better transitions.

Do you have a good essay writing strategy? Talk about it in the comments!

P.S. If you know a student who could use this advice, be sure to forward this article to them!

 

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