word counts and limits

In a forum recently a teacher expressed deep indignation about the limits on the number of words in Delta assignments. Not that they were hard work to keep to (that is often grumbled about), but that they were there at all and to my surprise others piped up and there ensued a mini consensus (mini in that the Brits were not joining in) that said in non-UK academia, word count limits were rarely to be found.

Asking around and talking it through with others (several saying they were more aware of rough minimums than specific maximums), I slowly realised that I didn’t remember any actual limits at university in the early 80s, but then at university I was expected to arrive in a tutor’s rooms and read out what I had written, sometimes being allowed to say it all before it was dissected and sometimes having thoughts pounced on as I uttered them and only getting through a paragraph of what I had laboured to produce before my hour was up (so the limit there was in terms of the amount of time you had the attention of a tutor for, in itself a different way of focusing what you could achieve). Though while I might sometimes worry about the lack of independent study skills some seem to start Delta with, the extent to which I was left to sink or swim at university is not something I would wish on others.

Maybe the specification of limits on the number of words is a function of the fact that we can now easily count words, as I don’t remember word limits on Delta assignments when I was writing them in the early 90s either (perhaps just a selective memory), but those were written in pen on paper – counting would have been at best a number of words in a line times number of lines/pages estimate, or at worst a dreadful waste of time. Ten years later when I was marking Delta assignments and writing Masters assignments both involved word limits (even though neither was at that stage fully electronic in the writing or the submission). When did the shift happen or were limits always there and simply something I didn’t notice ?

Now many British university web sites talk about a suggested word count and unless otherwise stated usually a +/- 10% tolerance. On Delta assignments parameters are given (2000-2500 on background assignments for Module Two and 4000-4500 for the main body of the assignment that is Module Three). In fact this is more flexible than the university tolerances, but there is no tolerance about going over the higher of the two figures and it is almost always this upper limit that people see as the problem constraint. Reading the teacher’s forum post, the protestation that he ought to be able to say all that he wanted and needed to say about something sounded fleetingly very reasonable (as do the equally heartfelt protestations that a person could pass the exam if they just had a bit more time to write it all down).

So why do I find myself wanting to defend limits ?

They are useful in that they give you one idea of what is expected.  When I first started my Masters the fact that a series of ten introductory tasks were supposed to be about 500 words each (and the foundation Module was presented as being about 200 hours work, half of which was reading time) gave me a cut off – a point at which to stop in tasks which were interesting and new and could have kept a person absorbed for a great deal longer in terms of both time and words. Word count limits aren’t in themselves key to task achievement though. You could spend the suggested time and stick to the specified count and still not address a task or answer a question in the least bit adequately, so they might be a governing parameter, but are not a means of evaluation. In the case of Module Two background assignments, does the analysis demonstrate clear understanding ? Do the sections of the assignment build on each other ? Is there evidence of a range of reading on the subject ? Any of these are more important than the constraint of the word count, but none is as easy to to measure or articulate nor makes meeting the word count less of a requirement. Being able to achieve the more nebulous elements within the concrete constraints of the word count is as a whole achieving the task.

Why be so very strict about it ? It is often hard to know where to draw lines and in the count being set the line has been drawn. If 10 words more are ok, why not 15 ? Why not 50 ? While I’ve probably never returned an assignment that was over by fewer than 50 words, why not ? If 45 is ok, leading only to mild admonition in the report, what is wrong with 75 or 125 ?  Who am I to have added a personal tolerance even of only 2% and do I jeopardise grades in later moderation if I do so rather than simply telling the person to cut it back to the count ? Having written this post leaves me thinking I should actually be stricter than I have been until now.

If a focus is too big then the assignment writer won’t be able to do it justice (cover what it includes fairly comprehensively, explain and illustrate points, refer to key sources, add a sense of their own voice, explore interesting and generative elements). That is not the fault of the word count, but of the focus and of the way the writer is presenting it. When we read about something new we often then go on and try to tell the reader everything we have just learnt (when in fact assignments are not meant to be an overview of what the writer has read, but an exploration of something they have specified). The idea that writing is recursive is a particularly useful one in the face of word counts as you can and should keep moving between focus and sections and gently rebalancing until you have information that will fit, but that perspective does not sit easily with the idea that there are ‘correct’ focuses. In fact it is usually easier to say what will not work as a focus than what will. I know that you can’t present ‘cohesion’ well as a discourse focus or intonation well as a phonology focus for example, as while both have narrowed from a full system or skill, both also involve too wide an area and the writer will end up talking only about minor elements or saying a lot of things extremely superficially, but other focuses can be less clear. Someone just starting out on the Delta would quite naturally like to be told that there is a right answer to be found and that the focus they have just stated will lead them to it, not that these assignments while they have core requirements are also very open and actually there are many different ways of achieving the criteria. If I have to help a lot I can only guide people to the path I have visualised as an end point (and that can work sometimes), but what is most interesting is reading something I had not previously visualised, but which works. LSA background assignments can follow a well trodden path through an appropriate sequence of TEFL concept chunks one after the other and that can achieve a goal even if it is not likely to achieve a higher grade, but they are much more interesting for writer and reader if they say something that has not been said in exactly that way before.

With the first (the ‘correct’ answer, there is a model) style of assignment the word count limit will be less of a problem as knowing it has been done before also means knowing it is doable. Though even there, having read much about a new subject can leave a writer mired in length if they try to present all. The only known is that it has been done, not how to get your own writing style down to the level of punchiness and conciseness required or how to choose what to put in and what to leave out. With the second (exploring something you have noticed) style of assignment the word count becomes more important still as it impacts on what the initial idea is and whether that needs to be honed at all during the writing.

The word count also partly sets the style. Being anecdotal or chatty might be possible in some genres, but won’t work against tight constraints. It also means that things must be written well in the sense of being clear and yet concise. Wandering or repetition won’t fit. Seeing where things relate and presenting them in that way, with similarities and differences and highlights works better with word limits and also gets higher grades. Paraphrasing with occasional direct quote highlights works better than quoting literally at length in terms of style and word count. Going back through something to cut out words forces a writer to work out what is central to their idea (and what their ideas really is) in any text. The idea of the original poster suggests a world where you say everything, leaving the reader to extract the points that are important, but the limit on the number of words turns this the other way up, ensuring the writer must choose what is important and in making choices about what and what not to present also demonstrates how well they understand the whole.

Not unlike the quote from The Little Prince:

… perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.

Perhaps I should have word limits on these posts (rather than the more usual time constraints).


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