Sunday, February 3, 2013

Teaching Development: The Evil of Page Requirements

As a writing professor, I often have students who struggle to reach the required amount of pages for their essays.  In writing classes that students must take, regardless of major, many of them are just beginning to find their voices in academic writing.  They straddle an interesting line; either they are too wordy, too redundant, in order to meet that length requirement, or they have not come up with enough content to meet the requirement without being too wordy or too redundant.  They are upset that they can't get to five pages or they are upset that they did get to five pages and I told them it wasn't good enough.

Paul McHenry Roberts wrote one of my favorite essays about student writing:  "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words."  He touches upon many subjects but mostly, he addresses the fact that students do struggle to create intelligent and effective content and do not understand when they stretch their prose out to within an inch of its life to reach five pages that they do not get straight A's.  He wants students to use five words where they may have used ten words before, to say, "He was a fool" instead of, "It seems to me that he acted in a foolish manner."  But how do they meet the requirements of the assignment by using so few words?  How can concise writing actually fix the problem?

I think the major challenge here is creating content.  Students resort to wordy redundancy because they don't have any other ideas. They believe they have nothing else to write about, so they stretch out what they have. And hey, I was either an English or writing major for 8 1/2 years; I know all about changing fonts to make the essay longer and using ten words when I could have used three.  The trick is to find more to write about, but how?

It's easy to tell students, "Don't give up!  Go back to the brainstorming stage to come up with more content to support your central claim." But this is often an impossible instruction.  Many students are either unaccustomed to the process of brainstorming or they are unwilling to put in the extra work.  You can show them as many clustering webs and perfectly formatted outlines as you can find, but still, when left to complete this process on their own, they may feel frustration, confusion or just plain boredom.  They don't always have fully developed skills of analysis and therefore are unable to tell if the ideas they do come up with will be effective in proving their claim(s).  It's a confusing cycle and one that I think many educators struggle with as well.

So, how do we teach development in academic essays?  Are there any exercises you all use to help students to develop their existing ideas or to come up with new ones?

I have one that has been passed around between professors at a couple of the universities where I have taught.  There are different incarnations of it.  I believe I first heard it in a faculty workshop with  Jay Dolmage, author of How to Write Anything, which was, at that time, being used in freshman composition at that college.  It's a revision exercise.  The idea is that you let each student roll two dice.  The number they roll is the number of words they can keep from the original draft; they must use those words to start over.

I have revised it a bit, allowing my students to keep sentences instead of words,. but I have found that this aids in developing their ideas, because when they are only staring at like eight words and the rest of the essay is not there to create bias or to impede the creative flow, new ideas form.  They can then merge these new ideas with the original draft and (voila!) development occurs. In a perfect world, in an ideal and willing class, of course.

Are there solutions?  Tricks of the trade?  Exercises?  Power points?  What do you know that you can share?

How do we teach development?


  1. Loop writing! A great revision tool on our own FYWP resource page.

    1. Thanks, Joli! I will be sure to check it out.

  2. Because I am a business professor, my students have many large projects that require a great deal of writing including projects and case study analysis. Thus, I do not require page lengths as they (from my perspective) constrain those who have a grip on the topic and who have a great deal of supported evidence to discuss. It also keeps those who are clear and concise from putting in fluff that I do not want to read just to meet a page length. In the business curriculum, different from yours, it is about facts and reporting those facts in your own words and telling a story about what those facts mean. So, page length is something I refuse to give. Students are always asking me how many pages, I take that as an insult as I figure they are just trying to get away with as little as possible. But, it may be left over from core class where they must meet page lengths. My requests to my students are "say what you have to say without the fluff, make it clear and concise, cite the work, draw conclusion based on verifiable facts, I do not care what you think or feel - all I care about are the facts based on theory and concepts presented in the lectures and what they mean to the discipline, and if I wanted to read a 250+ dissertation I will pull mine out - so don't write one."

    1. Doreen, the last part of your post, especially where you said, "...if I wanted to read a 250+ dissertation I will pull mine out - so don't write one," really made me laugh out loud. It's funny how two writing disciplines can be so different. In my first year composition classes, it is very rare that a student writes a long enough essay that I have to instruct him/her not to do so!

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