How Word Counts Ruin Writing

“It’s not as if we simply are taking a plate out of our heads and laying it down on paper and printing from it, we’re not. Writing is an act of discovery. And the moment you start, you start with a character, you start with maybe yourself or someone else, but you start with that character and you learn about that character by writing about that character and you wind up in places you never thought you were gonna go when you started out. That’s the whole reason for writing, is for discovery.” – Garrison Keillor

Good writing never came from a writer who did not know what he was trying to say. But most school writing assignments not only miss the point, they emphasize the wrong thing. The culprit: word counts.

You know, Write an essay analyzing a short story by Franz Kafka. It must be at least 500 words in length.

You could write a paragraph on “A Hunger Artist.” You could also write a book about it. So we do need some kind of depth gauge, if you will.

But most students do not write 500 word essays. They write 400 word essays with one-hundred unnecessary words.

The first couple of essays I had to write for English 101 had to be 500 words long. The next few had to be 1000 words. Nobody can get away with adding 600 unnecessary words, so a higher word count will make you think more.

But this is missing the point. The value of an essay is the idea behind it. Word count should merely describe the depth at which idea is explored. The strength of an idea is difficult to quantify though, so word count has become the goal. Which makes it unsurprising that students give word count precedence over the quality of their writing.

Many students wrote entire essays four hours before the assignment was due. Intro, body, conclusion. 350 words. Think a bit more. Add a few sentences here, a few more words there. 503 words. Done. No need to read it over. Print. The teacher would correct it and hand it back three weeks later, but they were not going to read the corrections if the score was at least 80%. (If it was under 80% they would not read the corrections because they were too depressed.)

Learning to write should be about the process of writing. It would help a student become a better writer if he was made to re-write what he had already written. There is nothing wrong with a 500 word essay. But then make them re-write the same essay in less than 300 words, or in 1000 words, or in one sentence. You always have to think when trimming 200 words off an essay without losing important parts. Make them discover what they are trying to say.

If you know what you are trying to say, length is not much of a concern.

This essay is 394 words long. It was 700 words the first time I wrote it. I deleted a bunch and got it down to almost 200, then rebuilt it. Obviously it is not the same essay now as when I started. It was in re-writing it that I was able to get out what I was actually thinking.