Instructors should stress quality, not quantity, of papers

Managing Editor and Managing Editor

How would you react if an instructor assigned you a research paper with no required length?

That’s right, you read correctly — no word count, no page limit, no restrictive table of contents.

Most students would probably panic in such a predicament. Instructors incessantly stress the importance of page counts, making many students focus only on quantity, not quality, when writing.

I, however, would leap for joy if presented such an opportunity. After all, I’m confronted with this situation nearly every time I write for a newspaper.

“Write until you’re done telling the story,” my editors tell me when I come back from an assignment. Or, “you know how long a column needs to be,” the forum editor instructs me as I discuss my ideas with him.

I am rarely, if ever, instructed to meet a extensive word count for my career.

In the world of journalism, less is best. Most news stories consist of only 400 to 600 words. And every word has (or should have) meaning.

Quality writing is concise, direct and meaningful. A skilled journalist summarizes a barrage of thoughts in a few swift sentences, covering all sides of a topic.

As a news story travels through the editing process, it is often cut by 100 words or more — this saves space in the newspaper and produces easy-to-read content. To help reduce my word count, I cut filler words like “that,” I avoid passive voice and jargon, and I keep my sentences short and direct.

Unfortunately, these skills don’t easily transfer into the classroom.

The farther I progress in my career, the more difficult it becomes to meet expectations for academic writing, especially after an assignment exceeds a reasonable five-page range.

Some instructors threaten to deduct full letter grades if written assignments don’t meet a page requirement. Such actions are unnecessary and place students’ attention on quantity, not quality, skewing their perception of what is “good writing.”

Often, like many students, I resort to filling pages with “fluff” material when I come up short. I commit a journalism taboo. It’s effortless, but it makes me cringe, because it’s also meaningless.

So what’s the solution?

Unless all students make a conscious effort to improve their writing and to prove quality is more important than quantity, I’m not sure if one exists.

At the moment, length guidelines are necessary for written assignments; without them, some lazy students might argue a single sentence could suffice for an entire research paper.

But in the process, skilled writers who have perfected the craft of carefully constructed, concise storytelling can easily be mistaken for lazy students if they don’t meet instructors’ often unreasonable page requirements.

We need to find a middle ground. We need to educate students — and possibly instructors, too — about emphasizing quality over quantity.

For example, if a four-page paper addresses a topic better than a five-page paper, but an instructor demanded five pages be written, does the latter paper receive a better grade based solely on length?

In a perfect world, no. In the current academic world, probably.

One of my favorite quotes, often circulated among journalists, states, “A news story should be like a miniskirt on a pretty woman: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting.”

The anonymous phrase, though slightly sexist, is valid. It applies not only to news stories, but to all forms of writing.

Unfortunately for students who are skilled writers, in an academic setting, it seems most men prefer women wear long, flowing gowns instead of miniskirts.

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