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.
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:
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.
Choose one of the following prompts. The Coalition recommends you write an essay between 300 and 400 words and no longer than 500 to 550 words.
Be personal: Make your essay about you; speak in the first person. Avoid speaking in the editorial “we.” Tell a story from your own life; this is not an opinion piece about social ideals. Write in words and phrases that are comfortable for you to speak. We recommend you read your essay aloud to yourself several times, and each time edit it and simplify it until you find the words, tone, and story that truly echo your belief and the way you speak.
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.
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 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.
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.
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. 😛