Writing to length

Having just completed a semester as a student (yes, I’m back in school, at my age!), I have been thinking about writing to length. As a student, I have been frustrated by professors asking us to write about everything including the kitchen sink but to fit it all in a shoe box, but some of my classmates have been struggling when they are supposed to write more than about 8 pages. So, what’s to do?

First, when a professor wants you to cover a lot of territory but doesn’t give you much length in which to do it, take advantage of the opportunity to learn how to 1. recognize your most important points and 2. learn how to strip down your prose to the leanest, most muscular wording you can. (I tend to be very verbose, so this is particularly good practice for me.) If a professor has given you an upper limit of pages (or number of minutes for a presentation), don’t go over. Sometimes you will have to get rid of a point you think is really great but that isn’t as important as other things you need more room to explain. But that’s the task: see points 1 and 2 above.

However, if you or your professor’s assignment is on the other end of the spectrum–looking for more length than you think you can come up with–do not pad your paper with fluff or filler. Excess verbiage is just that: excess. Instead, you need to work on idea development. What other points can you make? Might your reader still have a question about something that you can answer–or can you at least acknowledge that the question could be asked but is, as yet, unanswered? Is there more you can say about a point to make it more clear?

I’m talking about academic writing here, but similar skills are needed for creative writing. (Publishers often want a pretty specific range of words for a manuscript, and if you give them something that’s significantly over or under, that’s a quick way to the rejection pile.) And of course writing poetry: well, that’s a whole different ball game, but still, saying all you want to say in the most clear, muscular way possible is still the goal.

Cutting/trimming. Expanding/fleshing out.

Neither one of these skills is necessarily easy to master, but both are important to becoming a good writer.