Any English teacher who has seniors this year or who had juniors last year or who ever gave useful feedback to any student at any grade knows the feeling of this time of year: It’s early-deadline-week in the college application season, which means most/many seniors are in the throes of essay anxiety. Much of their stress — and the stress of any of us called upon to assist in this process — arises from the arbitrary word-count limit which, depending on the school and the prompt, can range from 30 words to 650, the latter being the upper limit of the Common App essay.
If we stay true to the process theories of mentors like Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins, and Penny Kittle — among so many others too numerous to name — we tell students to address word count limitations only in the final stages of the process. Every year, we all hear the same concern, some version of the following:
“Thanks for the feedback, and it really makes a lot of sense, but I’m already past the word limit so there’s no way I can add anything.”
Students wish for us to tell them what to cut out before the essay has even been developed, before the central story has been identified and fleshed out to its most meaningful degree. Mariana and I brag to students about our 100% success rate in revising with students to pare down their college essays to within the word count: possibly the ONLY 100% success rate we can boast. Still, this critical skill of letting go what isn’t needed in the writing — which also, 100% of the time, results in a cleaner, more gratifying piece — is one students still struggle with.
Kristin Jeschke offers hands-on (and fun!) strategies for students to cut out the riff-raff in this post. For our senior writing classes, Mariana and I have found some other useful ways to develop this skill in our aspiring college freshmen, starting last quarter with the 100-word memoir.
Like all great lesson plans, the 100-word memoir was “borrowed” from Kittle & Gallagher. We didn’t even realize the value of adhering to this limited verbiage until we witnessed students engaging and (willingly) struggling with it. While this exercise doesn’t seem to have been quite enough to provide students with enough strategy to pare down their 1000+-word college essay drafts by almost half during revision, we found the concept of a limited word count so potentially instructive that we have decided to turn it on its head with our seniors in our second quarter fiction-writing unit.
Fiction is driven by conflict, but conflict arises mainly out of character, so we start with brief character sketches, using McSweeney’s satirical versions as mentor texts (warning: a few of these are R-rated for language and adult themes). Students took these short pieces and extrapolated the rest of the iceberg, so to speak, by imagining clothing, favorite media, relationship status, hopes and dreams, and potential conflicts that might arise in the lives of each of these fictional folks. Next, they will develop character sketches of their own, describing the main character of their budding short stories. (To give less fiction-confident students a grounding [and to require all students to build some foundation to a piece of writing that can remain dangerously nebulous throughout the entire process], we required all students to craft the world of the story first, through research and planning. I’m happy to elaborate on this for anyone interested).
I’ll also truncate the entire writing-of-the-short-story for the sake of staying focused on the topic of this post: boiling down the writing to its most essential elements. Rather than scaffolding toward longer, more developed pieces as we did in the narrative (ie “college essay”) unit of quarter one, our third writing endeavor (or “lap” in the language of 180 Days) will be to pare down their 1500+-word short story to, say, 250 or less.
To heighten the deletion and word-choice challenge — and, more importantly to encourage students to boil down prose (their own and others’) to its very essence — one might consider “hint fiction.” I plan to try the strategy with my AP students, asking them to boil down the essence of a complicated argument presented in a text, using limited words to still capture the nuance of a complex argument. In fact, in a late-Sunday-night-lesson-plan-panic, I think I’ll have them do just that this week with Arthur Miller’s article “Why I Wrote The Crucible.” So much of AP Language & Composition depends on seeing just how much depends on that red wheelbarrow of nuance, and this exercise can develop the skill of precision in identifying argument. We’ll see.
In the meantime, though, I can feel the value of requiring shorter work for both us and our students, on so many levels: precision in word choice, saying more with less (vocabulary development); eliminating redundancy (sentence variation / sentence combining); not to mention the refinement and clarity of ideas that is required to say what you mean with an extremely limited word count. Not to mention the exquisite beauty of conferring on 100 focused words as opposed to 1000+.