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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

Scholarly writing is a craft

I am working on a lot of revisions at the moment – of my own and also with students on a writing course I am teaching online. I have been thinking a lot about the nature of scholarly writing, especially in relation to why a piece of writing is not working, and what the writer needs to change or add or remove to make it work. This has led me to reflect a bit more on how scholarly writing is a craft an exercise in deliberate, thoughtful, planned thinking, more than anything, and how this manifests in writing that is clear, focused, sensible and accessible to the reader you are writing for.

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Perhaps a good place to start this reflection is on the idea of writing that is not working, and what this usually means. I am focused on the social sciences as this is my field, broadly speaking, but I work with writers across the social and natural sciences and also in the Humanities, and these points apply to the writing they do as well. The first point is the sense that the argument or the main claim is rushed. This is a feeling when I am reading, more than a specific list of qualities in a paper that one can see and tick off as being present or absent. It’s a sense that I am being hurried through the writer’s reasoning process. Common here is claims that are made or stated, but without any or enough explanation in relation to the overall focus or argument of the paper. What I read is a series of statements, perhaps with supporting evidence, but without the writer stepping in clearly enough to comment on, position, or critique these statements from their own position (the argument that paper is advancing). This is, for me as a reader, a paper that is not working to ground and clarify the position the writer is coming from, and what informs that position.

Related to this point is that papers feel rushed when the writer is trying to do too much with one paper – too much theory for one problem, or too many data for one argument, or too many lines of research in the selected literature. If you are working to a word limit, like the usual 6000-7000 words for a journal article or book chapter, this means you tend to gloss over explanations, and rely too much on stating what the theory or data or lines of argument are, rather than thinking carefully about what they mean in relation to the argument you are trying to make. So, as a reader, I feel like I am reading a lot of potentially interesting or useful information, but I am not completely sure why, or what it means, or what you want me to make of it. This is an ultimately frustrating or confusing experience for a reader, because they have to work too hard to try and figure out what they are supposed to be learning from the paper. The guideline, regardless of field, is one main argument/contribution to research per paper, and to carefully select literature, data, methods, and so on in relation to establishing and defending or supporting the development of that contribution.

Another common issue as regards a paper not working is a paper that lacks signposting, or markers for the reader that connect the different parts of the paper’s argument together into a coherent whole. There is no one ‘formula’ for writing a publishable paper in any field. There are commonalities, such as the IMRaD structure for many of the natural sciences, but even with that, a writer cannot simply rely on sub-headings to create coherence for them or communicate the logic of the argument in their head to the reader clearly. So, one way of crafting a paper that works for readers is paying attention to the connections you are making between parts of the argument, and how you are making these apparent. There are various ways of doing this, through the use of descriptive sub-headings (so a heading that indicates what the literature is about, rather than just Literature Review, if you are ‘allowed’ to do this); through careful repetition of key ideas and phrases (introducing the idea in the last sentence of section one, and then repeating the term or phrase in the opening of the next section); and through using connecting word and phrases to signal transitions and relationships between ideas and sections.

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These words are key in writing as a craft: in relation to. Everything you choose to bring in to your paper to situate your contribution within the field, and make a case for why your argument is useful or relevant to readers and fellow researchers in this field need to be carefully chosen. This notion of choice means that you need to be thinking all the time of what that reading, or piece of data, or aspect of methodology or theory, means to your argument, and how it will help you to explain your meanings to your reader. It also means that some things will have to be left out – you cannot use your whole thesis literature review in one paper, or all the data you have generated, or your whole theoretical framework. You will need to select, rewrite, rework and relate chosen parts together into a new whole that connects to the larger research project you are working on, but does not try to cram this into one paper in miniature form. You also need to think very carefully, all throughout the writing process, of how the pieces you have selected in connect or link to one another within the logic of this argument you are making right now.

Writing as a craft is, at its core, an act of meaning making, and these meanings have to be carefully established, explained and connected together into a whole paper that makes sense to readers. A great deal of the initial acts of writing anything – a thesis chapter, a paper, a book – is planning: working out what to select in and what to leave out, and what the line of argument is that you are trying to establish and support. Later, after feedback, revisions are focused on honing your craftsmanship: editing your ideas, focusing on the connections between parts of the whole – within and between paragraphs, and within and between sections of the paper or chapter. When the first basic draft of pre-writing is down – the writing you have done to tell yourself the story of your paper or chapter – it is important to pay attention to every sentence you write. What are you trying to say here? What is the value of this information – claim, evidence, explanation, connection – to your paper? What are you communicating here, and does it connect with or move away from the core meaning your paper or chapter has to convey? Answering these kinds of questions as you write, think, read your work over, get feedback, and revise and rewrite will all move you towards more deliberate writing, more thoughtful writing, more readerly writing that shows your craftsmanship as a writer.

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