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Norman Sperling
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Write it for What it's Worth

© Norman Sperling, October 13, 2011

For many years, I assigned my college students to write a 5- to 10-page term paper as part of their course. I wouldn't approve any topic unless I thought there were good enough sources to produce that much content.

After doing their research, some students had a lot of information and a lot to say about it. They often found rich resources I didn't know about, and sometimes contacted scientists directly. These students often wrote very thorough papers, but to cram everything into a mere 10 pages they used type so narrow it was hard to read, a point-size too small to read, and the thinnest margins their printer would allow. They also edited out not only fat but meat, and the resulting paper suffered.

Other students didn't find much, and had only a little to say. Sometimes they found 8 books but they all quoted the same original research. Such students padded their narratives beyond reason, used the fattest, biggest type they could get away with, with very wide margins and only a thin column of type down the middle, just barely dripping a couple of lines onto page 5. The resulting paper suffered.

So I changed my directive. While 5 to 10 pages was the initial target, when they had finished diligent research, I told them to "write it for what it's worth": include everything that ought to be included, and then stop. Don't leave out anything useful, but don't pad either.

The result is papers of a far wider range of quantity, but a significantly higher quality. These papers aren't artificially stretched or compressed. They feel comfortable because the writers weren't compelled to distort them out of all proportion. The average grade went up noticeably simply because all the papers could be right-sized for whatever the writers found. The students are happier because they aren't squeezed, and get better grades. And I'm much happier because the papers I read are well-proportioned, which makes for better reading.

So, when I took over JIR, I made this the rule for the magazine, too. We receive submissions in an extreme variety of lengths, from one-liners up. I only rejected one submission purely for length (it was 54 pages long, and our whole magazine is just 36 pages per issue). But all the others are pretty much the right length for what they attempt, and don't feel cramped or puffed out. That improves the quality of the magazine for readers, eases the constraints on the writers, and improves my reading and editing. Win-win-win.

So I recommend that the same rule be adapted as widely as practical. Try it, you'll like it.

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