The Method Behind the Madness: Word Count Guidelines

Hailey Hurd We all have encountered minimum and maximum word counts for assignments, but have you ever wondered why they exist? Ms. Callis, an English teacher of freshmen and seniors, commented on the thinking behind these guidelines. “Having boundaries allows teachers to create assignments that are specifically designed to help students hone specific skills,” she explained. Ms. Callis also acknowledged a widespread misconception of how long a paper should be, and what makes a writer sound smarter and more persuasive. “So often students are taught or come to believe that a longer paper equals a better paper. That big words and overly long explanations mean that a paper is stronger,” she noted. “In actuality, having a clearly articulated argument and making the details of your argument understandable to many makes the paper and the student sound intelligent. By imposing word counts, teachers are able to force students to limit explanation to only the most powerful and relevant details.” Many different factors contribute to each assignment’s word count guidelines. When Ms. Callis decides on hers, she considers both the goal of the task and the students who are writing. “I try to create word counts that fit the details of the assignment. Length of a paper should be dictated by the complexity and scope of the argument and/or thesis,” she explains. “I pick word counts based on the goals of the assignment, but I also try to consider what is in the best interest of the students, the time they have to complete the assignment, and where they are in learning the writing process.” While word count guidelines often complicate an assignment, many students appreciate them. Maximum word counts can keep a student from spending more time than is necessary on an assignment, and both minimums and maximums usually make an essay stronger than it would have been otherwise. “In general, I think that word limits can be very helpful to a student even if they make the writing process more difficult,” Elena Eisaman ‘21 offers. “I always want to write more than asked,” Josephine Daab ‘21 jokes. “I think the purpose of maximum word counts is to help people refine their writing to make it say what they want it to say without being too wordy or without having too many unnecessary details,” she adds. The next time you find yourself bumping up against a maximum word count that forces you to be more concise or reaching to elaborate on your ideas so that you can meet a minimum word count, know that there is a method behind the madness. These guidelines will take you to great heights with your writing.]]>