Word limits: Arbitrary or purposeful writing boundaries?

There is a fair amount of art and craft that goes into any form of writing. Scholarly writing is a form that is not often seen—especially by novice writers—in ‘art and craft’ terms in the way that, perhaps, novel or short story writing is. But I think it’s important to understand writing an assignment, a journal article, a book or book chapter, a dissertation or thesis, as an act of ‘crafting’ our ideas and thoughts into a narrative that will engage, inform, persuade the readers we are writing to.

In any form of writing there are word limits. 1500 words for a first-year essay, 40000 words for a Masters thesis, 80000-100000 words for a doctoral dissertation, 7000 words for a journal article. Even in blogging land, the average post tends to hover around 800-1000 words, a fairly standard word limit for the average post. These word limits can frustrate and annoy writers—they either feel like they are hindering creativity and expression or are overwhelming (so many words!) A student once expressed having to stick to a very short word limit for an in-class task (300 words) as ‘deeply painful’ because he felt he had to cut ideas out that he wanted to include, that were part of him.

Image by Markus Weber from Pixabay

All of us writers have, at one point or many, had to sit with a piece that was over the requested or set word limit and work out what to cut, what to leave, and what to rephrase or reword to keep the idea but reduce the word count. This editing and re-crafting process can be a painful and frustrating exercise indeed. It can feel arbitrary after a certain point. ‘Why is there such an issue with an extra 126 words in a 6000-word paper or an extra 10 pages in a 200-page thesis? Just let me say what I want to say!’

These editing and revision experiences and my student’s frustrated plea for more words may beg the question: Are word limits a purposeful boundary around a single piece of writing and thinking or are they rather arbitrary conventions devised by publishers, lecturers and examiners to save costs or reduce marking stress? Why are some word limits negotiable and others are like a solid wall: not one more word may be written!

Image from Pixabay

To answer this question, I am returning to the idea I started with: writing as a craft. In some ways, it is quite easy to include all of your ideas in a paper or thesis; you can write about everything you have read, everything you think on the issue. You can just capture your ideas as they come. This is often what we do in brainstorming and drafting: let the ideas flow so we get them out of our heads and onto paper. But we cannot send this to reviewers, editors and examiners. This is what we perhaps may share with critical friends and supervisors to obtain feedback and help with shaping one argument that can be clearly supported with relevant literature and evidence, organised coherently and cohesively into a structure that will make sense to readers and persuade them to take our ideas seriously.

This ‘stream of consciousness’ type drafting needs to be crafted—edited, reorganised, shaped—into one argument, one ‘golden thread’ that runs through the paper. This is especially the case when working on a journal article or book chapter. If we try to throw all of our thoughts into one paper, or even one thesis, we end up confusing and confused. We struggle to work out where the focus of the paper or thesis is and that leads to confusion around what we should be including and excluding, what further reading we may need to do, what data we need to select, etc. Word limits are perhaps more accurately described as argument or thinking limits.

A word limit is actually a limit on purpose and focus: 6000 or 7000 words for a journal article, for example, makes it possible for one argument to be made well. That argument, or main claim/focus, then becomes a tool that enables you to choose: relevant literature to support your contribution to knowledge; relevant theory to apply to analysing your data; selected methodology and data from your larger methodological framework and dataset, chosen to make the argument; a focused conclusion that draws the argument to a coherent close. For a non-empirical paper (conceptual, systematic review, etc.) you still need a ‘choosing tool’ and that is still the main argument or focal point of the paper.

Word limits help up to choose judiciously with the aim of making meanings clear, well-supported and persuasive. For example, if I know I only have about 800 words for a whole blog post, I can’t spend all of those on the run-up to my point; I have to get to the point quickly so that I can spend my allotted words explaining, supporting and elaborating on my point so that it is made meaningfully and as fully as possible. ‘Rambling’ around the point means I have used up my 800 words and left you wondering: ‘Why am I reading this? What is she trying to say?’ This happens with any writing that is sent to a reader without being crafted into a form that has the reader in mind, as well as the purpose and focus of the writing in mind.

Image by Thomas B. from Pixabay

Word limits, then, are not arbitrary or there to save money or time. They are there to help us as writers focus our thoughts, our reading and our research. The outcome of all this focus is clearer writing that makes a limited set of points or an argument meaningfully and effectively with the reader and the purpose of the writing in mind. While all the crafting work that goes into making any piece of writing effective and meaningful is not easy or quick, it is important. Writing is about meaning-making and meanings take time to make well. For students used to writing a paper once and handing it in for a mark, this can be a big shift in thinking and action. Writing is far more about rewriting than people tend to think it is: re-drafting, re-thinking, re-working, re-editing. But, as I have been learning in editing and polishing my own writing these last few weeks, the work pays off in the writing you are able to share and be proud of in the end.