In kindergarten, children are given writing assignments that are ten words minimum. Your high school final essay probably had a length requirement of 3000 words. A doctoral thesis is often required to be 30,000 words plus a bibliography.
Just like age for rights such as driving, smoking, and drinking alcohol, the word count has become the de facto standard for measuring content. Similarly, both age and word count are largely irrelevant. We use the most useless measurement of content not because it has merit, but because it is easy to use.
Novels are supposed to be 80,000 words. If you write a pulp fiction novel that is 200,000, good luck getting it published, even if it’s the next Harry Potter.
The attachment to the word count manifests itself most obviously in the padding of statements and sentences to increase the word count while adding no content. Notice the previous sentence… it is written in the word-count style. It is a sentence a student would write to stretch his essay from 990 words to 1000 words without writing anything. It could easily be rewritten: “People add fluff to increase their word count.” But no, that will not do, because we want to make it to 1000 words! It doesn’t matter that the shorter sentence is more powerful.
I have a case of word-count-itis on this blog. If I write a long article, I boast in the opening paragraph that it is “5000 words.” Every post has a word count below its title. I have a blog-wide word count displayed in my sidebar (currently 183,363), and I’ve set a goal of reaching 250,000 by the end of the year. As I type this, a word count is being updated, in real time, right below my text box. WordPress believes word counts are just that important. Unfortunately, the lie has rubbed off on me.
Word counts mean NOTHING. They are no more an indicator of depth or quality than the number of e’s you use, whether you use serial commas, or your preference for semicolons. Sentence counts mean nothing. Page counts mean nothing. The only thing that has meaning is the quality of your writing, and that isn’t even about grammar. It is about style. It is ephemeral. It can only be evaluated by a trained mind reading your work with enthusiasm, and even then the evaluation will be subjective. Writing is an art form.
But professors don’t want to deal with art; they want to be methodical. When you have a college English class of 36 students, and you have 6 similar classes all with essays to grade, you have no time to evaluate your students based on their essays’ artistic merits. Even evaluating their analytical or factual merits is a stretch. Professors have lives, and they don’t want to spend five minutes grading each essay if it will take them 15 hours to finish them all (180 essays). As a student, your feedback is reduced to a few check marks for grammar and spelling, red marks for the intricacies of MLA formatting, and a word count or page count check. Then you get a token letter grade and move on.
Evaluating an essay by word count is like evaluating a human by I.Q. score. It just doesn’t work.
The flaws in this assembly-line system are not the issue. The issue is that the quantity over quality approach is ingrained in the minds of our students from 5 to 22. It is no surprise that none of these students become great writers, because they never overcome the factory system. It is not true that good writing requires meager output. You can write a thousand-word essay everyday, and you will be a force to be reckoned with if you write about what you love with passion, knowledge, and experience. If I was in my college English class I would not be allowed to use “a force to be reckoned with” because it is a “cliché.” I’ve got news for you: so is everything ever written.
How many high school writing assignments begin with “write about whatever interests you?” I don’t mind if they go on to say “cite your sources, use peer-reviewed articles, and use proper arguments.” The fact of the matter is that almost every writing assignment you will ever be given will specify the topic for you. Good writers don’t become good in class or by pandering to the whims of their bosses. Good writers become good by writing not necessarily what they have a passion for, but what they have experience with. This will always be nonfiction, even if it is branded a fiction novel with renamed characters and an altered plotline. It does not matter if you have all the passion in the world for World of Warcraft; if you just started it yesterday and are on level 2, you won’t be able to write anything useful.
Unfortunately, this is why there are so many personal development topics I can’t cover adequately. At seventeen, I simply do not have enough experience.
A strong 400 word essay like Don’t Multitask is much more valuable than a 2100 word pile of garbage like Conquering Big Problems: An Introduction, which ironically is not an introduction and conquers nothing at all. Fortunately I did not continue that white elephant. Now, if we are going on word counts, and I submitted either essay to my professor for an assignment which required a minimum of 1000 words, which would get the higher grade? The 400 word essay would get a D and the 2100 word essay would get a B. It doesn’t matter if half the problems article was written in Swahili. Word count would rule again, even though it is as important as the weight of the paper I use.
Defying our attachment to word count is near impossible. I don’t even know how to do it, but I know that it starts with disabling that word counter. When I see a great writer like Steve Pavlina bragging that his latest article was “more than 9000 words,” so long that he had to split it up, and he does so in italics, at the top of the article, and without mentioning the value of the words, I realize how deep our love affair with the word count goes.
Slay the word count beast. Take the first step by not bragging about the word counts of your blog posts, unless the blog post is about word counts. And if you’re writing a lot of those, you’re in deep trouble because word counts don’t matter. This post has stretched to 1000+ words, though I’m sure a more competent writer could’ve done it with 500.
The second step is to remove the word counters from your blog. For now, I am too attached.