Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Brevity and length

Last week, my students and I worked on cutting out excess words from some writing that had many of them. We started with "At this point in time, I believe that many people misunderstand issues such as racism" and turned it into "Many people misunderstand racism." Most readers of this blog (if there ever are any) will probably agree that the second sentence is better.

But will it get a better grade? I'm not sure of that. MIT's Les Perelman has commented that the grading of the new SAT writing exam seems to be based almost purely on length:
"I have never found a quantifiable predictor in 25 years of grading that was anywhere near as strong as this one," he said. "If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you'd be right over 90 percent of the time."

That's just the SAT. Are other papers graded the same way? I'm afraid they probably are. Probably 90 percent of college writing assignments have a length requirement. Papers below the length requirement are usually penalized, even if the content is good. Papers far above the length requirement are usually rewarded, even if the content is questionable. And certainly, it's rare for teachers, even English teachers, to grade a paper down because of wordiness. (My own writing is very wordy, as you can see, but no professor in college or graduate school has ever lowered my grade for that reason.)

Should I be teaching my students to present each idea in as many words as possible?

I have to say no. True, their grades might improve if they did so. But I still see value in brevity, and I will still try to teach my students to practice it.


Post a Comment

<< Home