Attention all high school English teachers.
I would like to declare the 1500-word essay the worst idea in the history of education.
Oh, I can see why you do it. It’s so you don’t have to put up with smart-arse students (and let’s face it: they’re all smart-arse students) handing in a three-word report explaining the motivation behind the main character of [insert name of whatever “classic” novel you’ve got them studying for the semester]: “He was crazy”.
But here’s what happens: they write their essay, fully explaining their reasoning and backing it up with examples from the text, and find that it’s 300 words short. So what they do? They pad. They add words that have no right being there, words that dilute their argument and risk putting the reader to sleep, because if they don’t reach that magical 1500-word minimum you’ll mark them down for not following your instructions.
And you’ll hand back their essays with “A” or “B+” written in red felt-tipped pen at the top of the page, and it’s all good.
Except it’s not, because you’ve planted an idea in their heads: when it comes to writing, longer is better. And so as they go through university they write longer and longer essays, essays with a 3000-word minimum, and once again they are marked down if they don’t reach this magical goal. And then they get jobs in government, where they write page after page of drivel with phrases such as, “Please be advised regarding the aforementioned document” that I’m expected to read.
Or worse still, expected to edit so the rest of the organisation can understand it.
Am I asking you to forget about making them write essays altogether? No, of course not. Everyone else has suffered them, so why shouldn’t they? But forget about the length. Instead, focus on depth. Tell them they need to argue three or four points, and to include enough information to back up their arguments.
If they can cover the material in 1,000 words, or even 800, they should be rewarded, not punished. And if someone uses big words and empty statements to make it longer, mark them down. Show them all the words they didn’t need. Maybe you need two sets of scores—one for their reasoning, and the other for their writing. And take a mark off their writing score for every needless word you cross out. Start showing the next generation of writers that words have power, and that the less padding they have, the more powerful those words will be.
And then send them my way, because I sure could do with a rest.