Are word counts outdated?

Aug. 7, 2022, 10:42 p.m.

You sit staring as your cursor blinks, almost mockingly, at the end of everything that you have written. But your work is far from over — in fact, the hard part is only just beginning, for this essay requires “x” number of words. Despite professors often preaching “quality over quantity,” it seems they fail to ground themselves in the reality of their own words. 

Consider an essay a speech. How many words a speaker says at the podium has little to no bearing on the effectiveness of the speech. The most famous lines are short, sweet and to the point — not paragraph-long lead-ups. When you hear a dense speech, your mind starts wandering to when your next meal will be and what your plans for the rest of the day are.  The whole message — if there was one worth salvaging — gets lost amongst all of the fluff.

On the other hand, when it is clear that the speaker has carefully considered each sentence, each word and even each punctuation mark in the context of their speech, it is entirely more memorable and effective. Take one of the most famous lines in oral history: “​​That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” Abraham Lincoln’s exclusion of even the tiniest conjunctions places an emphasis and urgency on his words that might have been lost amongst rambling or over explanatory additions to his sentence.

Just as adding more words is not synonymous with improving a speech, nor is it with improving an essay. The idea that a thousand word essay might be more commendable than a 999 word one is downright fanciful. Anyone can add an “and,” “however” or “additionally” to make the cut. True skill comes with compiling a succinct and fruitful piece of writing. Requiring students to meet a word count maximum instead of a minimum will encourage them to include only what they find to be the most crucial aspects of a topic, resulting in a more inspired and compelling essay. 

Furthermore, the word or page count maximum, rather than spurring academic insightfulness, leads students to find workarounds that will do little to enhance their actual writing skills. Take those of graphic design: desperate students might learn just how far apart lines can be spaced before a page looks ridiculous. Similarly, techniques such as over-adding conjunctions or entire descriptive paragraphs can muddle thoughts and give the reader a less enjoyable experience. When a writer only has a certain number of words to get their point across, each one must be deliberate and clear, so as to articulate their point best within the guidelines. The reader does not have to sift through extra information to find the takeaways from the piece when the writer includes only crucial sentences throughout. 

Even here, as I type this article, I wonder, “is it long enough?” The word count minimum seeps into our perceptions of writing and often leads us to falsely equate length with merit. Now, I could achieve a longer reading time if I elaborated more on why the word count minimum is bad, or if I told you about the history of essay writing, or if I included a second opinion. But, in the spirit of deliberateness, I believe I’ve said all that I need to, and I’d rather not dilute my argument against word count minimums — if one was deployed on this very piece, I would lose the autonomy to make that decision. 

The word count maximum, on the other hand, forces students to weigh their thoughts, and ultimately include what they believe to be the most worthwhile of which. This way, students will write not from the head — that can easily make up some filler — but from the heart, creating a passion that will often translate onto the page. Instead of their words existing to fill a requirement, words written under a word count maximum imply that the writer really wants those words on the page, and of course, writing is infinitely more powerful when it wants, rather than demands, to be written. 

Academia is ever-evolving, and rapidly, at that. We are far from the days in which students rewrote sentences hundreds of times on chalkboards, and more recently, moving away from standardized testing. The education techniques that once upon a time were knee-jerk are scoffed at now. A century from now, will the requirement that students churn out a specific number of words still be practiced? Or will we recognize that it, like much of the confounded writing it creates, can be rendered obsolete?

Roxana Gosfield is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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