Writing beyond the word limit

Whenever a teacher stands in front of a Literacy/English class and tells the class of a writing assignment the first - and only guaranteed - question will be the student favourite.

"What is the word limit?”

As my students in Grade 7 are learning, and my Grade 8 students have suffered through for two long years, my answer has always been, "There is no word limit, I want your ideas to develop and express themselves fully."

For students to be free to express their ideas and develop and grow as they write is a process by which I am still thrilled. The joy that I see as they craft a story in which characters develop and change, that face hardships and setbacks that are all too real is one that still intrigues.

There is a common saying when writing - kill the limit and kill the character. By requiring students to follow a word limit there is the corresponding requirement to limit characters, characterisation and cast. To limit the creativity of an individual, to stifle their creation, by applying an arbitrary limit seems to be the height of might over right.

You may ask a teacher, “Why assign a word count?”

The reasons that teachers assign word counts is purely pragmatic. When grading papers, a teacher’s dilemma is how to compare a 6,000 word essay and a 500 word essay. The amount of dedication required to craft a sixteen page essay versus a two page essay makes it impossible to equitably assign a grade. However it is this dilemma that is reinforcing the bad writing habit that plagues teachers - padding.

When confronted with a word limit students may resort to padding and fluff. Students need to be encouraged to write concisely with some emphasis on effective vocabulary. Mark Twain once said "The difference between the almost right word and the write word is a large matter. It's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." Word choice is a key skill that saves multiple reiterations that plague student writing.

This is not to say that just killing word limits will solve all problems of students padding their essays. In reality, it can cause the same problem - students will compete to see who can write the most or expect that the longest essay gets the highest marks. Certainly there's room for James Joyce and as well, room for Hemingway and that is what's really at stake here. What we aspire to have are writers who find the topic that moves them so that their work takes on a life of its own.

Ultimately, what needs to be encouraged is writing for a student’s own satisfaction. To bring the joy back into the writing process we teachers must appreciate the delicate collection of glimpses into what makes our students' inner writers tick. What's their muse? A proficient writer might write a very uninspired piece following what to her might be a meaningless prompt, whereas an image and just the right questions will spark just the right length. A paper’s length need be determined by purpose, not arbitrarily prescribed. Some stories take longer to tell than others. Some topics require more explanation. Some arguments demand more detail to be convincing.

We need to encourage concise, economical writing rather than excessively verbose writing and in this I hope to help students find their inner muse. 



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