© Damen, 2002

30. Length.

Finally, some students think I am impressed by miles and miles of writing. Our greedy society has trained them to equate quantity with quality. Frankly, vast tracts of writing—even good writing!—do not impress me. Indeed, past a certain point, expansiveness for its own sake irritates and depresses me. Instead, I think it's a worthy goal to use as few words as possible in saying what you mean. That means, be as thorough as possible in thought but as thrifty as possible in word.

I know it's maddening to say—and, honestly, as a student I hated when my professors said it, but unfortunately it's true—a paper should be "as long as it needs to be." That is, it should explore as fully yet concisely as possible the topic the writer has set out to explore. The body of the paper should provide a reasonable number of examples—three at the very least!—for every point made. All examples should pertain directly to the question at hand and their pertinence, especially in the introduction and conclusion, should be absolutely clear to the reader. With all that, it should be clear how long to make the paper.

As far I can tell, when students are uncertain about how long their papers ought to be, it's actually a sign of trouble on other fronts. If the theme of a paper is strong and there are sufficient data to support the writer's assertions, the paper writes itself. Conversely, if facts are lacking or weakly connected to the theme, or the theme itself is unmanageable because the evidence of the past simply doesn't support it, that's most often in my experience when questions begin to bubble up about a paper's length. The writer is looking with frustration and regret at how far he has to go, not where he's going.

So, the real question at hand is not how long the paper needs to be but what it's about, in other words, why it's being written. And if that's the case, the real problem is not the paper's length but the writer's preparation. A paper with no clear direction is indeed very hard to write. When you don't know why you're writing in the first place, you end up just wanting to get it over with, all along the way lamenting every word you have to add. Of course, it's painful to write that way.

So, if you find yourself in that position, stop and clear the decks. The problem is so serious it's best just to start all over again. Begin by doing more research. Review the data and see if there's something you missed which supports your ideas. If there isn't, search for another way of approaching the issue. Women's presence in history, for instance, is visible not only through their own activities but also in their influence on their families, their husbands and children. Can you broaden the scope of the theme in some way that will give you access to more data and make writing the paper easier?

If not, then you may have to face the fact that your theme is infeasible. There are some notions history just does not permit. In that case, it might be best to reconsider your position on the issue. If the historical data strongly suggest a different way of thinking, why not adopt that approach? Swimming against the current will only wear you out more quickly. So, consider changing your mind if that's the way the facts appear to dictate. Rethinking your ideas about life is not a sign of weakness but strength. Mature, healthy-minded people change their minds when the situation calls for it.

And now from this new vantage point, see if the theme and facts don't come into sharper focus more easily. If they do, adopt that approach. If not, keep looking for themes that write themselves. So, all in all, when the theme is strong and you understand clearly what you're trying to say and the data that underlie your case, how long your paper needs to be is rarely an issue. The paper itself will tell you.

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