Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Paper Length and Word Count

University instructors almost always will give written assignments in terms of page length.

Most high school boys and girls (remember that you are not high school boys and girls any more!) know all the immature tricks to use up more sheets of paper without doing any more thinking or writing: huge margins, oversize type, huge paragraph indents, and all the rest. I have even seen really desperate Internet pages giving instructions for increasing the size of your commas and periods (like that's going to help).

When University instructors assign papers by page count, they are thinking of a standard MLA format paper:
  • 12-point Times New Roman type
  • Line-spacing set to "double-space"
  • One inch margins all around
  • First line of the paragraph indented half an inch
  • No extra line skipped between paragraphs
  • First page will not have a huge amount of white space at the top
  • Last page will be more than a line or two.
In our course, all of our papers will be submitted as electronic copies through Blackboard, so the page-length issue becomes much easier to discuss. All the immature tricks fade away because I can easily do a word count.

Word counts are a little tricky because a mature writer will probably use longer words than a beginner, so a beginner's thousand words will be a lot fewer sheets than a more mature writer would produce.

To get around this, I took a very simple freshman paper and figured how many words per page the writer was getting. Then I took a fairly intricate Wikipedia article and did the same. After I had these numbers, I averaged them. This is what I got for the body of the paper (not counting the header with your name, etc.):
  • Two-page paper = 560-680 words (average 620)
  • Three-page paper = 880-1060 words (average 970)
  • Four-page paper = 1200-1440 words (average 1320)
I don't plan on being incredibly hard-edged about these page counts, but if you cannot hit at least 80% of the minimum, you should expect your grade to suffer.