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As we all know, during our higher education careers there have been many professors who have assigned academic papers that require a minimum word or page count in some shape or form.

Personally, I feel this simply forces students to create "fluff" in their papers. I can understand creating a maximum word-count (this makes students sift out what they feel is relevant to answering the prompt of the paper) whereas a minimum word-count encourages one to think more broadly about how to go about the prompt. In some situations this is good -- perhaps the instructor expects evidence or more critical thinking -- but in most situations this will only lead students to find more evidence to reaffirm their claim (which is not very useful if you can prove your claim with less evidence) or create "fluff" in their paper in order to meet the requirement.

I found a blog post about word-counts for people writing stories/articles but this is in the professional world (not academic) and doesn't actually have statistics, but it does give some interesting perspective.

I want to know if there are any statistics or studies that prove specifying a minimum word-count is beneficial or hurtful in academic paper writing? Does it vary based on subject? Perhaps instructors can give their experience and/or thoughts on this?

So far there have been answers of people's experiences which is extremely beneficial and I encourage more of them. Inevitably though, I am hoping to accept an answer that has a case study or any research relevant to this topic.

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Technically a minimum word count is irrelevant; the instructor has to assess whether the content is fluff or not. –  alexy13 Nov 22 at 23:33
    
@alexy13 That's true but that is from the instructor perspective. From a student's perspective, they feel obligated to meet this requirement and it could end up hurting their paper. It's been a while since I have checked in on this question but given the answers, I have temporarily accepted earthling's answer. I still encourage any answers on studies for this question though. –  aug Nov 23 at 0:23

6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

As we all know, during our higher education careers it is inevitable to be assigned essays or academic papers that require a minimum word-count.

I do not agree with your premise here. For my undergraduate and graduate students I rarely include a minimum word count. I do include a maximum word count (which students often want extended) for the reason you wrote: Encourage students to write concisely.

Minimum word counts do promote the things we want to avoid. Writing the same information with fewer words give greater power to the writing so encouraging students to do the opposite does not really do what I want to do.

That said, I do find that I have to be VERY clear with my students that writing too little can cause them to fail. I explain that when it comes to word count, there is a maximum, say 3,000 words, but no minimum. If they can show they understand everything they should understand in 500 words, great! However, unless they are an exceptional writer, they should expect to fail if they submit too little.

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I fixed my premise. It was wrong of me to make the notion everyone does it but I assure you there is a large handful of professors who do require this. I really appreciate your answer though. –  aug Dec 9 '13 at 10:36

Well, you don't specify in which area you are. I certainly know that in mathematics and theoretical computer science, only a very weird professor would enforce a minimal length on a solution of a problem (which is a typical assignment: to solve a problem). You simply assign a problem and you think to yourself: "This should be for 2 or 3 pages of proof." To your surprise, the student writes a 10-line proof in a way in which you never treated the problem before (and maybe no one else either)!

So you never put a lower bound on the length of the solution, for the above reason. You can put a upper bound so that the student "can't simply list all possibilities", but even that is not necessary; however, it still of course makes sense if you have many students and a lack of time.

N.B.: One of my favourite scientific paper has 5 pages including abstract and references, and shortens a proof that was previously ~20 pages. Isn't that beautiful?

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Let me start by saying I'm an undergraduate, so take me as seriously as you feel I deserve. I've TA'd for a 200-level class with a fair amount of writing, which meant grading lots of papers, and dealing with students who need to have a word/length requirement to be happy. I also have worked in journalism both as a writer and editor (again, college paper), so I've done lots of writing, and spent a lot of time working with writers on their articles.

In class, length is seen as a good thing, while in journalism, it's seen almost as a bad thing (due to space requirements). Dealing with tight space constraints was very tough for me at first, but after doing it for a few years I've learned to write compact stuff. You write better when every word is a gift. You really think about what you can cover in a given space, and how to give every word as much impact as possible. You think about structure more, knowing you won't have room re-summarize later, and you don't bring up anything that's not essential to what you're writing. It's harder, but it makes you better.

Giving long length requirements seemed to have the opposite effect. Topics diverge, and structure can easily be ignored. Writing/syntax is encouraged to be verbose. I see many writers come onto staff used to writing they do in class, and what I've noticed is that their writing often lacks clarity and purpose.

Most of what I do as an editor/teacher is ask questions like, "What exactly are you trying to say?" and "Explain this to me like I'm a 5-year-old." I find that this really helps, and that good writing follows good and clear ideas. This is regardless of the length of assignment, but I think having limited space forces students to do this.

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I agree that providing a minimum word count promotes fluff. I have often used an approximate number of pages (12 pt double spaced) expected together with a minimum number of references. The reason for providing anything, is that students ask how much they need to write.

The question from the students is the key, as I see it. They do not know what constitutes good scientific writing and tend to try to quantify knowledge as "number of pages to be read to the exam" and similar quantities they can relate to. How this should be translated into what we usually are looking for "quality" is not at all clear to them, nor us in most cases! This has made we think more about the training throughout the education and how to get the message of "quality" across. I, unfortunately, do not have a patented solution but believe that organized writing exercises throughout the education is necessary. The problem is that most if not everyone in the education have to synchronize exercises across course boundaries in order to build understanding of academic writing among the students, starting with simpler exercises and leading towards essays.

Part of the writing task should also be a clear goal providing a goal for the writing exercise, other than a ten page requirement. what are the goals? to write ten pages? To quickly gather some information on a topic? To handle references correctly? To write concisely? The list can be extended substantially. The goals need to be made clear and then one must have a clear picture of what one expects out of all these goals because a different number of them can be satisfied at different levels of an education.

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+1 for your thoughts. Just explain me how you manage to read something double-spaced and not be horrified by the look? I prefer them to use narrower columns instead, which leaves me the space for making notes, but I can't stand double-space writing, it's on a similar level as using Comic Sans ;) –  tohecz Dec 10 '13 at 5:39

Whether a minimum length is justified depends on the purpose of the assignment. For a typical problem set, of course it would be ridiculous. The purpose is to solve the problems, and a short solution is even better than a long solution. However, I sometimes assign term papers to teach students about technical writing. Writing a very short essay would defeat the whole purpose of gaining writing experience (and writing one perfect paragraph is very different from writing twenty good pages, in terms of the level of organization and skills required). In these assignments, the students are given quite a bit of choice regarding the topic, and I offer guidance and feedback. If the paper is not long enough, then either it's poorly written or the topic was too narrow, and the student should figure this out early enough that the topic can be broadened if necessary. I'm not sympathetic if someone says "I started writing my twelve-page paper the night before it was due and discovered that I could only think of four pages to say on this topic." [Of course precise rules are silly, and I make it clear that there's a little flexibility. I wouldn't penalize someone for turning in eleven pages with no fluff, while twelve pages with a lot of fluff would count as bad writing.]

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Generally, I try and provide enough room between the minimum and maximum word counts to accommodate both verbose and terse writers. I use word counts to provide a guide as to the scope and depth I want in the assignment. Generally, the students who stretch out/tighten up their writing to stay within the minimum/maximum range have bigger issues than just being overly verbose or terse.

I would probably see better writing if I let students use their natural length, but generally my writing assignments are about learning a topic in breadth (long assignment) or focusing on a key issue (short assignment).

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