Friday, September 13, 2013

Academia Sells Students Short by Demanding They Write Long

“A term paper, eight double-spaced pages in length, is due in one month; your exam responses must be four or five sentences long or you will be penalized; the more you write, the better your grade will be.” This is the messaging that most college students face at some point in their academic careers.

Perhaps this scenario doesn’t bother you, but I find it troublesome that the majority of college professors make such demands on their students, and I believe our academic system promotes student compositions showing telltale signs of “quantity over quality.” Thus, I propose that the existing academic paradigm be replaced with an approach that more closely resembles the business norm of “less is more.”

Readers in general don’t have time to scour rambling stories searching for nuggets of information, and these preferences are even more relevant in business. Readers want it fast and accurate, and they want it now. Let’s prepare our college students to service those needs.

So where did the system go wrong?

A case can be made that a “legacy of length” has been handed down from generation to generation of college professors as they write their compulsory doctoral theses and eventually grade the theses of their protégés who face similar trials later on. I call this “trickle-down verbosity.”

The importance of writing at length is also revered in the field of scientific research. Maybe it’s because researchers maintain close ties with higher education. After all, many of them are faculty or former faculty, or they work on college campuses, and thus, have not drifted far from the mindset and traditions of their undergraduate and postgraduate days.

As a public relations and marketing consultant, I am frequently asked to write pieces that are 250 to 1,500 words in length. Trust me, a lot can be said in 575 words (the length of this op-ed piece), and I can cover an entire newsletter in 1,750 words. Furthermore, precise writing is even more valuable in new media where short writings of 450 words or less are generally preferred.

Since my thesis is quality over quantity, I focus on the world of shorter writings to make a point — the challenge of professional writing isn’t about how to make it long, but rather, how to make it concise. If you don’t believe this, try to clearly describe any entity in 100 words down to 25 words in 25-word increments. It’s quite an undertaking. When you make the final cut down, you will discover that every word, even every character, must earn its place on paper.

If the business world expects its copywriters to tell their stories in as few words as possible, why do college instructors demand long writings from their students? It seems as though they are training them to perform an exercise they will never repeat outside the classroom, and setting them up for a rude awakening upon graduation.

If one of the main purposes of pursuing higher education in our capitalist society is to obtain gainful employment, why does academia insist on demanding long writings that have little relevance to the business world?

I challenge college professors to take a long look at their practice of requiring students to generate stories of specific lengths, and find a solution that better prepares students for their working careers. Shakespeare said it best in act two of Hamlet: “brevity is the soul of wit”.

Note: this story was written in October 2007, but edited and published in September 2013.