Writing to length

“I can’t possibly write enough to fill four pages without rambling!” “I can make my point in one sentence; why do I need to write so much?”

I frequently heard those remarks from students in my first-semester college composition courses. In fact, I heard them so often, I began to lose patience with them–but I realize they come from a very real place of concern, which I’d like to address.

I’ll begin with the second complaint: why are students required to fill pages with ideas when they can make a point in just one sentence? The simple answer is that you may be able to make a point in one sentence, but you can’t substantiate an argument–bring enough evidence to bear to change anyone’s mind or give anyone reason to consider something from your point of view–in just one sentence. Even taking into account that there are kinds of writing that have different aims than the academic argument essay, no one can convey the whole of an idea in one sentence, snappy put downs and meditative food for thought notwithstanding. Obviously, if you’re writing a report, you can’t just provide one fact and reasonably expect that your readers will think you’ve covered the topic sufficiently. If you’re writing a personal narrative, your readers won’t be engaged unless you provide details. So no, you can’t really do the job in one sentence.

As for how to fill the length requirement without rambling, I grant you, that is more of a challenge for many–but that’s largely because (forgive me for sounding like a dusty old relic here) many students have not been challenged to think deeply about anything at all, and then suddenly find themselves in a situation in which they need to think past the surface of a topic to see what all the components are–and then convey to a reader how all those components work to lead to whatever conclusion the writer has in mind.

I’ve tried to come up with nifty visualizations of what it’s like to explore an idea on a deeper level, and none of them quite hit it, but I think the closest I’ve come is the difference between looking at a lagoon from the shore and scuba diving in the lagoon. Obviously, you’re going to see a whole lot more when you do the scuba exploration; this is why educators in the K-12 system refer to “deep dive” methods when they ask students to explore a topic from numerous points of view–and frequently through multiple forms of media. But you can do a deeper dive than you might know even into one newspaper or magazine article–and if you bring several articles (or books, or whatever) together, in a process called “synthesis,” you’ll be making something out of your personal, unique way of putting the important bits together into a new whole.

I always seem to come back to reading, but reading is how we get the vast majority of our information in academic circles (and it is a very valuable thing to do for personal reasons as well; you’ll get a lot more detail out of reading a newspaper article than you will watching TV coverage of the exact same thing). And ideas are how you build length in an essay. So if you’re struggling to come up with enough pages, it’s really because you’re struggling to come up with enough ideas, and that’s where you need to work.

I want to warn you right now against what teachers refer to as “filler” or “fluff.” This is the habit students have of adding words just to make things longer (and, if we’re honest, because they think it sounds more “professional” to use a lot of words). Examples include things like “In today’s modern world” (instead of just “Today”) or “due to the fact that” (instead of just “because”). But even things like “In my opinion” or “I think” are filler–of course it’s your opinion and what you think; you’re the one writing the essay, after all. And a personal favorite is “we as people” or “we as human beings” … as opposed to what, we as elephants, or trees? (Do be careful about the word “we” and your audience, though. If you’re writing about something that pertains to people of your own age group, remember that your teacher or professor is also part of your audience, so if you use “we,” you need to include the educator, not just people your age.)

So, you’re going to have to come up with ideas, and you’re going to revise your essay to be sure your ideas are as strong and fully fleshed as you can make them. (Would another example make the point more clear? Is there another way of looking at it? Might the intelligent reader still have a question you can answer–or at least acknowledge as a question that deserves an answer?) Then you’re going to edit, which will include getting rid of any fluff.

And then, you may be surprised to find that you actually wrote more than was required–in which case, you need to do some more revision to tighten up your argument. When an assignment stipulates that the students’ essays should be 4-5 pages long, educators are equally annoyed by getting papers that are eight pages as they are by papers that are two.

Like anything else that writers have to do, the more you practice, the better you’ll get at knowing how much (or how little) needs to be included to make the essay hit the Goldilocks zone: neither too short nor too long, but just right–and filled with good, strong, tasty ideas.