When less than the minimum is more than enough

Sometimes, it’s advantageous to do less than the minimum.

That’s the best lesson college taught me about writing. Professors would assign a paper with a 1,000-word minimum, and I would tempt fate by turning in just under 800 words. Usually, though, I would get it back with an “A” and a few illegible but probably positive comments scrawled across the last page.

The key, as a writer, is to pare down your word count without sacrificing content.

Think about it: professors are people. And people don’t like doing more work than they have to. If you can get your message across in 800 words instead of 1,000, you’ve saved them a couple minutes that they could spend chatting with other professors about literary journals or pipes or leather elbow patches for their blazers. Professors love that stuff.

Now that I’m a teacher, I appreciate the need to set a minimum. If I don’t, the student will skimp on content. I’ve tried to tell bewildered students, “Don’t ask me about the minimum. There is no A in minimum.” But they need some guidance about my expectations, so I need to give them a general goal. Still, when a student submits something shorter than what I asked for – but with an economy of well-chosen words that respects my time and still gives me something sharp, entertaining or insightful to read – that student has earned my respect, an “A,” and quite possibly some positive but poorly hand-written comments.

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