Word Length Pain


Everyone’s been there. A paper with a completely arbitrarily page or word  length was due in a class. And, of course, you’ve managed to write a coherent and strong argument in 5 pages instead of 7, or 11 pages instead of 15. So, here comes the fudging.

I’ve had friends try to overcome length minimums through all manner of creative workarounds: instead of single spacing after a period, double space; instead of using 12 point font, try to use 12.3 point font. You could always manually change the margins of the paper so that they are invisibly more narrow, adding in another few lines of text. My personal favorite was using footnotes in a paper instead of endnotes or internal citation. It’s both an approved method, and with enough footnotes a page can easily be added to the length of a paper.

All creative solutions aside, the best way to increase the length of a paper in situations like this was just through useless padding. An introduction that could be 4 or 5 sentences would suddenly become half a page. A clear sentence would become reworded into something longer, more along the lines of “The sentence, which was clear, could be rearranged in such a way as to increase its absolute length.”

Ultimately, all page minimums would really do was increase someone’s ability to bullshit while also leading to bad writing habits and overly long, complex sentences.

I just started a job writing at Business Insider for their Military and Defense section. Adapting to the more conversational, though still journalistic, style of BI has been difficult for me. The main problem I face is that I feel almost preconditioned to write in a flowery, bullshit padded academic style. This style just happens to be the enemy of journalistic writing.

Most writing generally deemed to be stronger and better when the author can present the argument clearly and concisely. If that can be done in 5 pages instead of 10, then why insist on the length?

4 thoughts on “Word Length Pain”

  1. Hello Jeremy

    Auntie Billy here.

    I have found as a marker and judge of scientific essays, students found the word limit challenging because they vastly went OVER the limit. ie, we were trying to teach them to argue more concisely and coherently. It’s just as hard, if not harder, to reduce the number of words as it is to increase them.

    1. That’s definitely true. I never thought about the difficulty of having to reign yourself in on a paper too. In that case word limits definitely help promote good writing. There is definitely a major difference between having a maximum word limit and a minimum – one encourages coherence, while the other encourages BS.

  2. Mazal Tov on the new job!

    Btw, the best way to BS paper length is to increase the character spacing. You could routinely add 15-20% of the length of a paper and it would be nearly impossible to detect.

Penny for your thoughts