The Grammar Bitch: Filling the Page

One of the hardest things for any writer to do is to write a minimum required number of words or more. I personally hate assignments with specific length requirements, because I feel that it only encourages sloppy writing and stupid formatting tricks. (And trust me, your professor or TA can tell that you’re playing with your font sizes, punctuation sizes, spacing, and margins. They know.)

 I think that quality writing should take exactly as many words as it needs in order to accomplish its goal. I am not, however, your teacher, professor, or boss, all of whom love to impose word length requirements on you. I remember those days, and not fondly. So what’s a writer to do when facing a word count that may be much higher than the number of words you actually need to use to successfully write your piece?

The first thing to do when trying to fulfill a very specific word requirement is to write exactly what you normally would. Get all of your words out onto the page, and don’t edit any of them away. If you’re using your first draft the way we talked about before, you’ll find that first drafts are helpful for increasing your word counts, mostly because you’re still trying to word vomit as much as possible onto that page. The main difficulty you’re going to face is in the editing process. You want to increase the quantity of your words without decreasing the quality. If you’re someone, like me, who feels that fewer words are usually better, this can be a daunting process.

After you get your first draft onto the page and begin the editing process, take care to refine your word choices without decreasing your word count. Replace weak words with more descriptive ones. Avoid the urge to add “very” before every adjective. Once again, your professor or TA knows you’re doing this. It’s awkward and clunky and glaringly obvious. If you’re going to chuck in adverbs, make them count. Use ones that make sense in the context of your sentence and don’t jump out as filler.

Once you’ve refined your first draft and, with any luck, haven’t reduced your word count by much, now you need to use a few tricks to get that word count up. Again, throughout this process, always keep your finished piece in mind. You don’t want to compromise the integrity of your writing for the sake of a minimum word count. In a perfect world, professors would be far more flexible with their assignments, recognizing that by making students pad their word count, they’re actually reducing the quality of work that their students produce. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and those in positions of academic power continue to stubbornly insist on strict word requirements. So, until they ease up over there in academia, I’m going to help you make it to your word count goals.

One of my tried-and-true tricks is to add one sentence to each paragraph. It seems like a silly thing, but if you go in and try to add full paragraphs instead, you may find yourself digressing from your piece’s main point or adding in extraneous information that would be better left out. By adding one sentence to each paragraph, all you’re doing is further exploring the content of that paragraph, and you may even find yourself adding in information that naturally flows into another whole paragraph. Go back and read each of your paragraphs as a separate work. What’s missing? Is there a point you could clarify, or information you could expand on? When you break your piece down into smaller chunks like this, adding words in isn’t quite so scary.

I’ve already mentioned avoiding the old standby of piling on adverbs. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should avoid clearer descriptions completely. There may be a noun or five in your piece that are just calling out for an appropriate adjective. Once you’ve added one sentence to each paragraph, see if you can add one word to every sentence. Please remember, though, that this may not always be the best idea. You don’t want to crap all over your work for the sake of reaching a magic number. If your sentence is well-constructed and stands on its own, don’t go piling words in there just to add to your final number. You’re better off creating a new sentence from scratch, rather than destroying something that’s well-written already.

As a sort of experiment, I set myself a word goal for this post, which I never do. My goal was about 200 words higher than the average length of my posts, and my challenge was to write a piece that didn’t seem to be all filler. What do you think? Was I successful? My first draft was almost 200 words short of my goal, and after following my own advice and beefing up the word count in the editing process, I still ended up falling about 50 words short of my goal. (I’m not counting this paragraph. That seems a little like cheating.) Since I’m not answering to a dictatorial professor, I’m OK with that, but I still remain a little bit disappointed that there’s still so much pressure for students and other writers to churn out pieces with high word counts, quality be damned. Professor PoM would encourage all of her students to submit their best possible work, regardless of length, so that formatting tricks and word-padding parlor games wouldn’t be necessary. Until the day when I’m in charge of the world, though, all you writers are just going to have to keep an eye on your word counts while remembering to maintain your integrity and the quality of your work.

4 replies on “The Grammar Bitch: Filling the Page”

One thing I tell my students is that if they’re consistently struggling to meet the length requirement, they might not be coming up with suitable paper topics. (Our essay assignments are open-ended.) A particular prompt, like, “write three paragraphs on why you love pinatas” might be a slightly different beast, but I do think that in general the length requirement suggests something about the nuance with which you’re expected to approach the topic. Three paragraphs on pinatas means I’m supposed to like, think hard and share a personal experience or connect it more abstractly to something else, and in a case like that “write three paragraphs” is as much a part of the assignment (and what the teacher wants to see you do) as “tell me why you love pinatas.” I as a prof don’t actually care about why you love pinatas, but I might want to see you struggle to expand on a weird idea. Preaching to choir, I know, I know.

Good suggestion about adding to each paragraph, though. Usually this isn’t filler at all, but clarifying and expanding, as you said PoM.

Agreed with the two comments below. As fairly experienced grader, assignment-creator, and, well, writer of school assignments, word counts and page limits are directed at the type of prompt. A close reading? 1-2 pages. If you can’t fill that up, you’re not trying hard enough. A short essay? 4-6 pages. You can usually fully develop one idea in about that space. If you’re falling short, it’s probably a good idea to reassess your idea/ approach/ development.

And that holds true all the way on up, from 8-10 page papers, to 12-15, to article length, to chapter length to dissertation length to (I presume) book length. Naturally the specific length will vary across disciplines.

One trick that I offer to students who are struggling is based off that horrid old write-by-numbers that you may have learned in high school: one sentence of quotation followed by two sentences of description, interpretation, or analysis. It’s formulaic and I only advise it if students are really struggling–but it can work. I do it myself if I’m stuck.

Dear god. As a newly minted college professor, this post strikes terror in my heart.

Word limits are not necessarily minimums. My more advanced students almost always bump their heads against the upper limit, not the lower one. It’s very hard to be precise and concise, instead of just meanderingly writing down whatever your personal thinking process happened to be that day. If you’re really having a hard time filling out the word limit, it’s because you haven’t generated enough ideas about the topic yet or you’re oversimplifying something — and not a sign that you just need to do a little padding.

Pileofmonkeys is on the right track with her comment about adding in a sentence to each paragraph and seeing what new ideas come out of it. You also might look back at your work to see if you’ve set up an overly simple paradigm, like a black-or-white either/or scenario, that now you need to rethink.

Boring or irritating your reader is one of the worst things you can do in a graded essay — and that’s exactly what you’ll do if you pad. Have some compassion for us — we really are human beings, out there, reading your work after you’ve written it!

Agreed. I tend to give word or page guidelines because an 8-10 page paper is a very different beast from a 12-15 page paper or a 5-7 page paper in terms of depth. Very few of the professors I know actually mark off for a too-short (or too-long) word count. These “limits” should give students an idea of how in-depth their discussion of the topic needs to be. I’ve read plenty of papers that have padding in it (or worse, the ones that go into far, far too much detail when the assignment is supposed to be an overview of a topic), but I try to stress that the page limit is not about sheer quantity of words, but the depth of the discussion.

POM, I love the “add a sentence to each paragraph” trick. I was habitually under page guidelines when I was a student, and that would have helped out immensely!

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