Why word counts defeat their purpose—in 500 words or less

1,500 to 2,000 words, Times New Roman, 12pt, double-spaced—we’ve all read that section of an assignment description. I’m sure many of us have groaned over finishing an essay and falling short of the word count or have written a passionate paper only to cut it down by 1,000 words.

Writing is supposed to be a creative outlet, a form to express your thoughts in ways numbers and graphs can’t convey. Academia is already rigid enough—it shouldn’t limit passion as well.

When asked why we must stay within the limit, professors often say it’s to ensure conciseness in our writing. But word counts don’t equal conciseness—TAs and professors should discern the quality of someone’s writing by reading it, not by looking at the length of the paper.

I’m not against giving guidelines and suggestions. Every assignment is unique and requires a different amount of content. However, grading should be focused on the quality of content, not the amount.

If you want to grade for conciseness, that’s fine. But grade the conciseness itself—not adherence to word count.

There’s a difference between filling your essay with unnecessary fluff and being 300 words over your limit because you have 2,300 words of solid content. I think students should be penalized for the fluff, not for extra words of worthwhile contribution.

If a student writes 3,000 words without answering the question, that’s not due to a lack of a word count—it’s because they don’t know how to write.

A student will never learn to write well if they’re writing to reach a specific target. To judge the quality of their paper, students should be asking themselves, “Is this complete?” rather than, “Am I between 1,500 to 2,000 words?” This approach not only teaches students to write better, but it also helps them learn how to fulfill an assignment’s purpose while tailoring to their audience.

We’ve taught students to use different terminology when communicating to a general audience versus professionals in the field. Word counts are no different. We should also be teaching the appropriate times to submit a 500-word paper versus a 5,000-word paper.

By removing word counts, writing becomes about the piece itself—the story it tells. Our goal becomes internal rather than external. We finish the paper once it’s achieved its purpose, not once we’ve run out of room.

When we free our minds from the constrains of academia, we learn more about ourselves and our work.

Let’s try this again: just Times New Roman, 12pt, double-spaced. You’ll know you’ve finished when all the questions are answered.

Violetta is a second-year Health Sciences student and The Journal’s Production Manager.

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