An editor’s plea

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.

{ 24 comments… add one }
  • Bailey February 11, 2010, 11:22 pm

    I totally agree with this -as a student and an aspiring editor, nothing annoys me more than reading and having to write ridiculous and meaningless sentences to suit an arbitrary word or page length for a teacher. I can make my points succinctly, clearly and quickly, and I shouldn’t have to add fluff to make a grade.

    • Bill Harper February 14, 2010, 4:58 pm

      I’ve actually had people question some of my reports over the years because they didn’t have enough pages. Took me a while to convince them all the information was there.

      The funny thing is, people often attach “Executive summaries” that are pretty much what the report should be. They’re short, and often have all the information anyone would need.

  • Mercedes February 12, 2010, 7:25 am

    I agree! Many people send in needlessly lengthy stories because they want to make the extra money. Sure, you’ll earn more with a 5,000 word story than you will a 1,000 word one, but if the quality is sub par, you’re still losing.

    • Bill Harper February 20, 2010, 2:53 pm

      I think those people sending in those needlessly lengthy stories are digging their own graves.

      Chances are the editor will dismiss it outright because it’s too long. But let’s just say they’ve got a slot for a 5000-word piece in their magazine. If he’s got two pieces vying for that spot, and one of them’s chock full of information while other is just a 1000-word piece padded out, which one would he choose?

      And believe it or not, this might be better for the writer than it actually being published. Because when that happens, everyone who reads it will soon discover it’s just a 1000-word piece padded out. And they’ll not only abandon the piece, but possibly the writer as well. And that push for more words (and therefore more money) might just be their undoing.

  • Glenn Murray February 12, 2010, 9:24 am

    LOL. Nice post mate. (And great writing! Ditch that editing gig, mate, and launch yourself as a writer. You’ve got the goods!)

    Couldn’t agree more. Wouldn’t it be great if we all wrote only as much as we *need to*, not as much we as *can* (or, in this case, as much as we’re *told to*)?

    Keep the great posts coming. As soon as I hit Submit below, I’ll be hitting Subscribe above.

    • Bill Harper February 20, 2010, 3:05 pm

      Glad you liked it, Glenn. And believe me, there’s nothing I want more than to ditch the editing gig and write for a living. Of course, then I’ll be facing the wrath of an editor myself, but I’m ready for it.

      There’s a great quote by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” I think more people need to think of their writing that way.

  • Paul Cunningham February 12, 2010, 10:18 am

    Everyone’s comments so far use more words than it takes to get their message across. Irony? 😀

    • Bill Harper February 20, 2010, 9:53 pm

      I don’t mind it here. I think of people’s replies as part of the conversation. (I’m sure my original post could have been trimmed down quite a bit as well.)

      Blog posts are one thing. But articles and other documents for a particular audience are another. If this was an article, and not a post, I’d make sure there was nothing in there that didn’t belong. (I’d also make sure there weren’t any double negatives like the one I just came up with.)

  • Krissy B February 12, 2010, 10:58 am

    Absolutely agree with this Bill. Every word should have relevance. Spot on.

    • Bill Harper February 20, 2010, 9:55 pm

      Thanks, Krissy. And well done on saying it in three sentences. (Standard goverment rate would be at least three pages.)

  • Gayle Howard February 12, 2010, 6:33 pm

    Love it Bill. So true. One of my favourite quotes is by Winston Churchill:
    “The length of this document defends it well against the risk of its being read.”

    • Bill Harper February 20, 2010, 9:58 pm

      Nice quote, Gayle. One of my favourites is by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

      We should start charging by the word–a hundred dollars for every unnecessary word we remove. I could retire by the end of next week.

  • Kate Toon Copywriter (@katetooncopy) February 8, 2013, 9:15 am

    Ah Bill, what a great post.
    Do you remember writing those damn essays, by hand? Your whole arm seized up. Kids today with their laptops, they don’t know they’re born.

    I like this:
    “They add words that have no right being there, words that dilute their argument and risk putting the reader to sleep,.”

    I know I am occasionally guilty of this. My advice is leave it for a night. Go back and see if you can reduce what you wrote yesterday by 25!
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Bill Harper February 13, 2013, 9:38 am

      I sure do, Kate. I always a got a cramp in my writing hand. And because I’m a leftie it was usually covered in smudged ink as well.

      I wonder if we’ll ever see the day when kids get to type their essays instead. It would be far more realistic, considering that’s how pretty much everything is written these days.

      Leaving what you’ve written and then coming back to it is always a good idea. I nearly always fin something I can either shorten or take out completely.

  • Kelly Exeter February 10, 2013, 9:11 am

    Yes! I actually had one such high school English teacher. I would go to her worried because I wasn’t at the word minimum but felt I had made my points. And she wold assure me as long as I made my points, it was all ok. Clearly I can thank her for the brevity of my writing! Never thought of that!

    • Bill Harper February 13, 2013, 9:40 am

      Wow, that’s awesome. The only time I had that luxury was when I wrote an essay in my journalism course. It was set at 3,000 words, but even the lecturer couldn’t understand why he set it so high. As long as made our case, he didn’t care how long it was.

  • Sarah Mitchell February 10, 2013, 9:12 am

    Dear Bill,

    Thank you, thank you and thanks again. I love this.


    • Bill Harper February 13, 2013, 9:41 am

      Thank you, Sarah. Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Desolie February 10, 2013, 3:23 pm

    I distinctly remember, way back in the 60s, to ‘cut the waffle’.
    And in those days of paper and biro (yes, we had progressed from fountain pen), it was a challenge to hit the word target without the padding.
    So we editors keep wielding our Track Changes as we try to get the message across.

    • Bill Harper February 13, 2013, 9:44 am

      I learned a lot about “cutting the crap” during my journalism course. Covering a story in 300 words meant every one of them had to count.

      And let me tell you: I *love* Track Changes. I feel sorry for my clients when they get my edits and sees the mass of red, but it shows them just how much work goes into the editing process.


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