Make Words Count, Instead of Counting Words

Yesterday was the first day of what has been dubbed #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) on Twitter, and it’s gotten me thinking about word counts.  I’m an avid reader of PhD2Published‘s Dr. Charlotte Frost, and I think that there are many good reasons to participate in #AcWriMo.   To participate, an academic writer makes a goal to write a certain number of words per day or for the month of November, similar to #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) where writers pledge to write an entire novel in one month.  Some #AcWriMo writers are pledging to write by project instead of by word (so, for instance, they pledge to write a conference paper [my personal goal] or a thesis chapter by the end of the month), but many other participants have word count goals.

This probably works very well for advanced writers (many of the participants appear to be graduate students or teachers in higher ed), who may have trouble getting motivated to write, but once they get going they can really produce.  These same advanced writers most likely have fine-tuned revision processes, where they take the hundreds or thousands of words they’ve produced and edit them into polished and publishable prose.  These participants, if yesterday is any evidence of what’s to come, also have an ally in Frost who has been cheering on the academic writers through the Twitter stream.

Still, I wonder if using word counts as goals even for advanced writers is beneficial.  So I tweeted,

“Love the idea of #acwrimo but so many are measuring progress with word counts. Is there a way to make quality a goal instead of quantity?”

Frost responded,

“Sure, or measure the time you put in. We’re not anti-quality, we’re pro process! :-)”

And I think that’s the key  when approaching teaching writing to students.  #AcWriMo isn’t trying to be a model for students, and it really has nothing to do with teaching.  But it’s gotten me to think about the ways in which we approach assigning writing to our students. Often I see assignments asking students to write a certain number of words, and it always makes me cringe a bit.  The implication is that the quantity is more important than the process or the quality of the work.

Many teachers indicate length requirements for student assignments by providing word counts; my sense is that because our own writing in academia is often defined by word counts (most journals will set a word count for submissions), some teachers use that same approach with their students.  But our students, in most cases, aren’t striving to be professional academic writers.  I’ve always believed that providing a word count, or any length requirement for that matter, can send a dangerous message to students: you value quantity over quality.

I did early in my career provide page restrictions for student writing assignments; I did this because I was too inexperienced to trust my students that they would write “enough.”  But as I became more interested in Rhetorical Genre Studies, I came to realize that what matters more is that students make certain moves in their writing – that they meet the criteria of the genre and the rhetorical situation – not that they write a certain amount.

This can be a troubling concept for student writers.  When I present an assignment, the first question often is, “How long should it be?”  That is a perfect teachable moment – a great time to talk about genre and what the situation of the writing task calls for.  Depending on the assignment and the audience for the project, I ask a question back, “Well, if you were the President of the University receiving this report, how many examples would it take to persuade you?”  Or, “When you were a high school student, how much writing would you have wanted to read on a brochure?”

Since I’ve stopped providing length requirements for students, I’ve found that their work is more thorough and less redundant.  I don’t get a lot of questions like, “How do I get to the required length without repeating myself a hundred times?” or comments like, “I feel like I’m saying the same thing over and over.”  And even though some students find it unsettling, what’s more important is that the message is clear — what I value in their writing is not that they’ve reached a certain count of words.  I’m interested in how they’ve made those words count.