I’ve seen lots of “word limits” lately – in survey responses, professional forms, proposals and articles, and ok- I’ve imposed a few too, in assignments in my school library and youth literature courses. I’m not surprised when graduate students sigh and explain that they could write more, that it was painful to edit down their writing, and that I’m terribly cruel (they say in jest, I think) in limiting online discussion posts or critical annotations to a specified number of words.
I was surprised, though, when a colleague from another discipline questioned me on my tendency to structure some student work in this way at the graduate level, which made me revisit why I require word limits in the first place.
From an assessment perspective, when the formats of student learning products are similar, say, a set of 100-word annotations of sources (and this might apply to K-12 students, too, depending on the context), it creates some parity to employ a reasonable use of a length requirement. When students are constructing lots of diverse learning products, then we have to come up with different ways to assess. That’s a related, but separate, topic.
But if everyone’s writing, then a person who writes 200 or 300 words has more words to establish an argument, give details, or maybe just ramble, as compared to the person who follows the guidelines and writes 100. If all the students have the same parameters, then everyone has to work hard to get the most bang for their buck in word choice, and the activity becomes not only a way to give information, but also an exercise in revising writing for a concise message.
And here’s the heart of my rationale: professional librarians must use writing and other forms of communication effectively and efficiently, every day, on the job. More often than not, these forms of information-sharing are designed for specific audiences and purposes, and as such, require certain conventions, formats, and yes, lengths. Remarks at school board meetings, book reviews, grant applications, report cards, conference proposals, elevator speeches, and tweets all have word limits either defined or inherent, and it takes practice to craft a successful message that’s on point. In other words, there’s not much room for sweet nothings in professional writing- except perhaps to wish you Happy Valentine’s Day, and maybe, Happy Revising.