The Boundaries of Length

As a teacher, I can pretty much set my watch to the question, “How long should it be?”

Last week, I used a writing activity from my Writing Process Activities Kit by Mary Lou Brandvik. I started by sharing with the students a metaphor poem entitled “Fifth of July,” in which a young student writes about the devastation brought upon his family in the aftermath of divorce. The student compares his family to an “expired firecracker”, and assigns each family member his or her own smaller metaphor:

My father is the wick, badly burnt but still glowing softly./
My mother is the blackened paper fluttering down, blowing this way and that, unsure where to land…

I have used this activity for the past five years, and my procedures have remained largely the same. After sharing the poem with the students, I always ask them to come up with a metaphor for their own family. I then tell them to write their own poem, following the “Fifth of July” example.

“You may choose any metaphor that accurately describes your family,” I say. “You can make the poem rhyme if you want, but that isn’t required. Now–what questions do you have?”

I then stand back and count backwards silently: “4…3…2…”

“How long should it be?”

“Write about four or five family members, including yourself.”

“Yes, but how long should it be?”

“However long as it needs to be…however long you have to make it in order to talk about four or five family members.”

There is a standard silence. Then: “So, half a page?”

I can’t blame my students for thinking about every piece of writing in terms of length. Few among us have never been guilty of this, after all; as late as grad school I was still e-mailing the occasional professor to inquire about essay length. So perhaps I am not the best one to speak on this subject. At the same time, I can’t help but resent the education system that has designed students this way.

From the early years right on into high school, kids are given specific measurements for every piece of writing. “Responses should be four to five sentences each,” we say, or, “I don’t want to see any essays that are less than five paragraphs long.” Of course, we have our reasons for enforcing such measurements. We hope to prevent students from writing one or two word answers, or warn them against producing essays that are little more than few sloppy sentences. As a public school teacher myself, I have seen enough one-paragraph essays to understand this concern. But that doesn’t make the dismal alternative any more appealing.

When we condition students to think in terms of length, we are effectively robbing them of the ability to judge for themselves whether they have actually completed a given assignment. “I can stop writing when I hit five sentences,” the student thinks, rather than, “I can stop writing when I’ve satisfactorily answered every part of the writing prompt with well-thought out, detailed responses.”

And instead of one-paragraph essays, I get five paragraphs in which the same idea is repeated about fifty times and couched in meaningless fluff. Glory be.

Even as adults, this “How-long-should-it-be?” nonsense is hard to shake. A few months ago, a client wanted me to write a company bio for his small business. After a few hours of work, I sent him a 200 word piece, about three paragraphs long.

“That’s not enough,” he said. “It needs to be longer.”

“Okay,” I replied, determined to give him the bio he wanted. “What doesn’t it say that it should say?”

“I don’t know. What do you think we should add?”

“We shouldn’t be adding things for the sake of adding things. What important points have I not yet covered?”

“I just think it needs to be longer,” he said, and I realized that the client’s priorities were a bit reversed: Somehow, he’d reverted into a nervous high school student, desperate to get this very important writing assignment to at least 500 words.

In the end, I was able to talk him out of adding material just to make the bio longer for no apparent reason; instead, we solved the problem by refocusing the paragraphs we already had. I maintain that this was the right way to go. After all, when you peruse business websites looking for someone to hire, do you make judgements based on how long company bios are? Are you not more concerned about what the bio has to say?

With assignments like the metaphor poem, in particular, I refuse to give students any specific guidance on length. Instead, I tell them what they must accomplish to complete the assignment successfully.

As it turns out, when students allow themselves to think outside the boundaries of length, they can produce some really excellent work. Reading the finished metaphor poems this year was–as it has been before–a major highlight of the month of September.

As you set out to complete your next short story, essay, or blog post, think about your goals for that particular piece. What is driving you to write this short story, essay, or blog post? What are you trying to communicate? What do you want readers to learn?

Simply put: Decide what you want to say. Then say it.

And once you’ve said it, stop.


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.

The editor-in-chief of Magnificent Nose requests that articles run anywhere from 500 to 1000 words. But it’s not a big deal or anything.

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