Word Count vs Pages

Light ReadingCreative Commons License photo credit: quattrostagioni

"Turn in a 3 page paper, size 12 font, 1 inch margins." How many times have we heard those instructions for the length of a writing assignment? I never understood why we define a length requirement in pages when it's so easy to modify. You can change line spacing slightly, adjust the margins just a bit, use two spaces after a period or the particularly devious trick of just changing the font of periods. And that's not to mention all the filler writing students add in to get over that page requirment.

I've always found myself conflicted on requiring a length on writing. The goal of any writing isn't the length, but the quality of communication. Students often hit the length requirement and stop, as if the length were the goal, instead of editing and whittling down their writing to a focused, concise point. As Mark Twain said, "If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today.  If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.” Perhaps we should be requiring student writing to be shorter, not longer.

I've always framed my lengths as a suggestion - that in order to answer the questions presented, most students would find their paper would need to be a certain length. If I were to require a length in a piece of writing, I had always required a word count on papers. It's so quick to do a word count in Google Docs or Word, and you can't cheat the system. There's still the issue of filler content, but my evaluation for quality would account for that.

So why do many teachers use page requirements instead of a word count?

It wasn't until only recently during a conversation that I realized the painfully obvious. I chose word count because my students turned all their work in online in our class Moodle. I'm sure I would be using pages as a measure of length if I were collecting dead tree papers - who has time to actually count every word on a writing assignment? Having digital copies of student work made taking work home to grade a breeze, checking for plagiarism quick and allowed me to add comments without marking up the work permanently. That's not to mention the environmental impact of all that paper and ink we saved across my classes.

Even the fact that we call them "papers" shows that the physical printout is what we've always been concerned with. Digital definitely has analog beat in this comparison, and it's about time that every teacher ditches the paper and collects student work digitally.