Saturday, November 19, 2016

Page Limits on Assignments?

Like most teachers, I think, I don't like when students ask how long a paper should be, especially when it feels like what they want to do is the minimum.  You probably know the sort of paper I'm thinking of.  The student gets a page minimum (n), writes blather for n-1 pages, and one part of a sentence onto n, and then stops, pretty much mid-whatever, because they've done the page minimum.

It's not most students, but it happens, right?  And that's always my worry.

What I want, in my ideal world, is for students to start working on what they want to say, and to say it well until it's said, and be done.

When the shoe's on the other foot though, when I'm writing a statement for a grant or something, I totally want a page limit.

If you tell me, write two pages explaining your project for a grant, I'm pretty happy.  If you tell me to write no more than three pages explaining why my colleague should be tenured and promoted, I'm pretty happy.  But if you shrug and say, just write as much as you need to?  I'm unhappy.

If I know that everyone is just writing two pages for that grant, then I know I'm not going to turn in something wildly out of proportion to what others are doing, and mine won't look either overwhelming and too big, or like I didn't care enough to really explain. 

The same with the tenure letter; if I know no one's going to turn in a 12 page letter to get their colleague tenured, then I won't feel like my three pages are unconvincing because I could only write three pages.

(Of course, in either case, I'm going to work like the dickens to say a lot, as clearly and convincingly as possible in the allotted pages.)

How about you?  Page limits for student writing (even as suggestions), or no?


  1. Often for shorter assignments, I like word limits, because there's a difference between a 150-word answer and a 450-word answer. (A lot of students spend time carefully inflating and deflating various college essays to make a 600-word Common App essay into a 400-word supplemental essay.) I do like page limits in combination with a clear assignment that specifies how big the ambition of the paper should be. My students are finishing up a poem explication this weekend in which they are allowed to draw on their knowledge of the poet's body of work; I included a really clear instruction NOT to pad the intro (or anywhere else) with biographical information. (They are allowed to mention biographical facts that are truly relevant.) I'm hoping that we've spent enough time doing process writing that they have plenty to write about. As of Friday, some of them had definitely moved from "How can I write 4-5 pages on one poem?" to "I have too much to say!"

  2. I always tell students, "I don't care how long it is, I care how good it is." Then sometimes I'll add, "But it would be hard to make this brilliant in less than three pages," or whatever.

    Or sometimes I'll say, "If it's two pages and brilliant, I'll be happy. If it's thirty pages and terrible, I'll be extremely unhappy."

  3. "Long enough to do the job, but you probably can't do the job in under x pages" is my usual formula. But when I do give a minimum page limit or word count, I'm always surprised to have a few students who ask, "Will it count against me if I go over the limit?"

  4. I generally give them a range as in "you won't be able to fulfill the complexity of the task in fewer than x pages, and it shouldn't take you more than x pages. If you produce brilliant work in fewer than x pages, great, but if you go over x pages I will be unhappy"

  5. I include word limits/ranges, but that's partly because my course is part of a writing-intensive program, and my assignments need to add up to a minimum (and that should be checkable through the course materials should anyone wish to check it).

    I think I'd offer some sort of guideline anyway ("it usually takes about x-x words/pages to do this well") because, yes, a guideline of some sort can be useful (and real-world writing often includes a length limit of some sort). While length is by no means the major measure of quality or success in writing, and real-world writers seek out alternative venues when they realize that some aspect of their project, including length, doesn't fit the originally-planned one, length is a real aspect of writing, and one of the descriptors we use to, for instance, describe genres and distinguish them from each other.

  6. I teach technical writing in my electives. Page limits are important. A policy brief has a different amount/depth of info than a white paper or a memo even if they all cover the same topic/material. Being able to write for those different audiences and different attention spans is important.

  7. I always use word count so that students can't change things that you won't notice (like the size of their punctuation) to fulfill a page length. Usually about 300 words per page is my go-to measurement, and I tell them that so they can think about how many "pages" 3000-3600 words are, for instance. I tell them that they can always go over, but never under, the word count range. But if they go way over and it's not good work, I get annoyed.

    I think that all of us want guidelines because we don't know what the assignment looks like otherwise. For those of us who have been around a while, we know that a conference paper should be between 8-11 pages, but I always shoot for about 10. The reason I know that, though, is because I've done several conferences. Students don't know, because they aren't experienced, how much they can analyze in a typical short, medium, or long paper. So if we gave them assignments that didn't have word/page count guidelines, they would not intuitively say to themselves, "Well, this is a pretty simple assignment. I should be able to explain my ideas in 3 pages." Same with writing a tenure letter. The writer doesn't know how specific to make the letter because each institution/department/administration has a different idea of what that kind of letter should entail. I think if I were reading something like that, I'd want to see the writer address one clear example from the three parts of the job - teaching, service, scholarship -- and if there are deficiencies in one, then the stronger suit would have to be emphasized more. I would guess all of that could be accomplished in 600-900 words (2-3 pages), or less.

    For fiction publishing, submission guidelines are the norm for every publication's website. The guidelines address everything from length (always word count, not pages) to font, spacing, and the style they are looking for. Plus, special interests (like feminist writing, or sci-fi) are specified. I find these things useful so I don't waste my time sending a romantic story to a publication that only accepts ghost stories, for instance.

    To sum up, writer's guidelines aren't just something that teachers care about. Professional writers have to think about them all the time -- at least until they become famous like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling and are given free reign. But I think it takes a ton of experience and thoughtfulness to know intuitively when something is "done." Students don't have anywhere near that sort of experience. I'm 40 and I'm only just coming to feel confident about these things.

  8. I'm very similar to Fie. I explain to my students that word counts in my assignments are part of how I indicate my expectations for the scope of an assignment. Can you fully cover your topic in 3000 words? If your topic is "gender in Shakespeare," nope, no way, no how. If you only need 500 words to fully cover your topic, then you've missed the scope of the project, too. In both cases, the student has misunderstood the guidelines and expectations of the assignment if they are significantly under or over the word counts, so this tells the student something about what to expect when I do grade the project, even if I'm not grading based on word count.

  9. I happily include word counts. I've never written an article or chapter where there hasn't been a word count, often a very hard limit provided.

    With my students, I'm more forgiving than professional work has been but I still advise that 20% above or below is the best range in which to fall. If they think their topic needs a lot more space to cover than the assignment guidelines, maybe they need to rethink matters or talk with their prof, sooner rather than later!

    Using word count to guide the students to think about their topic is an important part of teaching writing. As Sapience notes, no one can do justice to gender in Shakespeare in 3000 words. That many pages might still fall short!

    Of course, I also only take in assignments electronically these days so their feeble attempts at inflating their papers fool nobody when I can run it through MS Word to strip out the extra spacing and normalize the font size.

  10. I use a word count because it's mandated by our system; to ensure work loads are 'equivalent' between modules, word counts have to be equivalent, which we all know is a stupid bean-counter's nonsense, assuming 'work' equals 'number of words'. I find short writing much, much harder than long writing, myself, and would not have done well in our system. We have a 10% run-over allowance which is supposed to avoid penalising students who cite a lot of sources (STEM-ish discipline, so Harvard system author-date citations in the text, which can add up especially in short pieces), then penalties.

    I've come to see it as a pedagogically valuable evil though - both because it DOES allow for comparison of the MARKING load between modules, even if crudely (10 x 500 word pieces are usually more time consuming to mark than 1 x 5000, but generally spread out more), and because as some people said above this is a reality of the professional world. I only encountered required word counts when I began to write for publication and for my PhD (and 80,000 for the thesis was really haaaard :-( ), apart from a run in with a school teacher who said if I was going to write "stupid horse and elf stories" for creative writing assignments they had to be no more than four pages or he would "die of boredom" (I was 13, pony-mad, and he gave us totally dumb assignments like "pick a line from this poem and use it as the title for a short story", of course all my stories had horses in them, there was no reason for them not to). He overlooked the sort of rule-bending involved in writing very small and ruling extra lines into the wide bit at the top of the page, so it only made me write a bit more neatly and recopy rather than write straight into the book, it didn't actually teach me precis). So I can see the value in it.