“How long does this need to be?” - National Council of Teachers of English
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“How long does this need to be?”

This post is written by NCTE member Jennifer Kirsch. 



“How long does this need to be?”

When students ask this question, my first instinct is always to refuse to reply. My reaction stems not from annoyance or frustration that students are inquiring about length requirements, but rather because most of the time my honest response would be “I’m not sure.” When I ask my students to write, I’m not looking for them to write a certain number of paragraphs or pages; I’m asking them to express themselves, to communicate ideas or opinions in a way that shows a developing understanding of grammar and syntax, tone and style. Putting a length guideline on such a request feels to me like it changes the goal of the assignment. I want them to write to explain themselves or their thoughts, not to achieve a certain number of words on the page.

As much as I try to avoid giving students length requirements, I’ve also come to understand that my default response of “Write until you feel you’ve told your story” doesn’t quite resonate the same way for every student. When I generate an assignment, length is usually an afterthought, and cliché though it may be, “quality over quantity” is indeed the guiding rule I want my students to adhere to as they write. This rule works for me, an adult who has had countless opportunities to play around with writing requirements, who can mentally map out the structure of a piece of writing before ever putting pencil to paper, but to them it feels frustratingly vague, as if I’m tricking them. And the truth is, as much as I struggle to articulate how long a piece of writing should be, I do know when a student has written too much or too little. So of course it’s understandable that my classes would inquire about my expectations for a specific assignment.

My goal has become striking a balance between respecting their developmentally appropriate desire for guidelines and my own concern that parameters might stunt or distract from creative expression. I have come to realize that leaving an assignment too open-ended is counterproductive—it gives some students the impression that they needn’t edit their work at all, and leaves others feeling anxious and unsure, two major enemies of generating writing. I still tend to shy away from word and page requirements, which feel rigid and impersonal, but find that offering students a range (for example, 3–5 paragraphs) offers a middle ground that leaves everyone feeling comfortable. This approach also opens up great opportunities for mini-lessons on various writing skills including prewriting planning, efficiency of language, adding specific detail, and focusing on main ideas or those that move a narrative or argument forward.

In recent years, as I’ve incorporated more writing-to-learn practices into my classroom, a new solution to this challenge has arisen and taken hold. Formal writing assignments are still accompanied by graphic organizers and group discussions that give students a sense of how much they should write, but short writing responses are quantified differently. I might pose a question about a class novel and ask for 5–7 sentences, but more often, I share a writing prompt and let my students know they have 10 minutes (or 5, or 15) to respond to it. The first go at this always produces a bit of anxiety for some students, but soon our classroom becomes a place where writing is an exercise in thinking and self-expression, in considering ideas and questions and putting them down in complete sentences. The end goal moves away from “Is this long enough?” and toward “Does my writing say what I wanted it to?”

This low-stakes (i.e., non-graded) writing strengthens students’ more formal writing while also discouraging them from thinking too rigidly about how long a piece should be, and instead focusing them more on what they want to express and communicate to a reader. The time limits I give are flexible and ever-changing, so if after 10 minutes students are still feverishly scrawling or typing, I know that they need more time. Conversely, if after three minutes I see idle hands and wandering eyes, I know my class is ready to share out their work and move on to a new prompt. The beauty is that some students write more, others less, but all end up developing a confidence in their own voice.

Jenny Kirsch teaches middle school English at The Hewitt School, a K-12 all-girls school in New York City. She is also an associate at Hewitt’s Center for Teaching & Learning Through Writing, where she works on developing Writing-to-Learn practices for students and faculty in Grades 5-12. She is interested in the intersection of reading and writing, and believes technology can enhance both of these pursuits. You can follow her on Twitter, where’s she known as @MsJennyKirsch.