Word counts are so dead tree

I’m slowly getting back in to the blogging vibe as we approach the end of term – not there yet but on the home straight. The students are getting in to their assignments which include a number of stories for online.

I’ve found that over the last few days, as the students work through their assignments, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions along the lines of “what should a word count be for my online articles”. Reflecting on this I understand it’s a reasonable question but I’ve found it a frustrating one.

My reply has been that word counts are for essays, dead trees and lazy people.

Now, let me just say that I don’t think that any of the students who ask that question are lazy or stupid (or a dead tree!). The thing that frustrates me is that it seems to me an old media way of quantifying the value, weight or merit of an article – 150 words = NIB. 2000 words = feature etc.

On the web, unique in its capacity for breadth and depth, word counts should surely be a redundant measure of an article. Perhaps you can make sure your intro is a content management stripping, mobile/twitter friendly 140 characters, or your headline is less than 35 to fit the design.

Whatever the motivation it certainly shouldn’t be seen as a measure of when you have done enough.

And that’s the risk with quantifying things in education; setting time limits and word counts. Suddenly people become slavish to them.

Structure better than blue sky?

I raise it as I’ve just read Mindy’s post on quantifiable benchmarks for j-education:

Quit saying, “They need to learn how to be entrepreneurial,” and give me a measurable result. Then I can teach them — not to do only that one thing, but to employ the skills it requires.

And I couldn’t agree more. I sometimes feel that asking for entrepreneurial skills is bit like admitting the industry doesn’t have them. And never will. But you see a conflict here.

On the one hand I crave structure. Like Mindy I don’t want to teach entrepreneurial skills. I want to nurture and encourage them. But often that structure can be more trouble than it’s worth.

Of course, the reality is that structure helps quantify progress. We can’t all go around just doing our own thing if we, the industry (and the students) demand a measure of competency*. So I’m glad that Mindy raised the question and I know the results will help redefine what we do.

Anything is better than being slave to old media convention.

Later: Amy Gahran responds to Mindy

*on that note. Would an academically acceptable measure of entrepreneurial skills be the student realised they could create a start up that would crush the local media outfit and then did it?

7 thoughts on “Word counts are so dead tree”

  1. Would an academically acceptable measure of entrepreneurial skills be the student realised they could create a start up that would crush the local media outfit and then did it?

    It would be, but … I don’t think I can expect 20 out of 20 kids to do that every semester! The kind of “measure” I’m looking for is one you can require them to demonstrate! :)

  2. I give students word counts for stories, blog posts, and most other assignments.

    To me, it’s like saying a video must be 1 min. 30 sec. — if you don’t specify a length, it won’t be what you want. (Newspaper editors tell you in inches.)

    The very top students don’t need a picky word count, of course, but the other 90 percent certainly do.

  3. Mindy,

    I give students word counts on essays and time limits on media as well. You’re right, without limits we tend not to get what we want. But is a word limit on a report, especially one for online, the best mindset to get students in to?

    Chunking, effective sub-headings and othe page elements like pictures and video are all ways round ‘long’ article. These are more valuable skills to my mind. And given that multimedia in particular is a growing part of teh process, embeddeed in the page do we have to come up with equivilent word counts for that? (Actually I remeber being asked to do exactly that in a course validation but that’s the crazy world of academe)

    I also take your point about the class of 20 . But just imagine if you could even get 15 of them to do that. Why, with that kind of power Pinky, we could take over the world ….Bruhahahahahahahahahah…erm(cough) sorry.

  4. Interesting take on this Andy and top marks for the reference to probably the best cartoon ever made.

    I agree with Mindy here.

    As a former dead tree technologist, I wouldn’t dismiss the word count quite so quickly. Slavish and limiting – yes an accusation that is levelled on a regular basis.

    And you are right, it can lead to some trite work.

    But it can also force creativity, working within constraint can lead to much more interesting work than being allowed to bang on about everything you want – it is more focussed. We’ve all read articles on and offline that should have been much shorter.

    The question is, just because we can run as much as we like online – should we?

    Years of conditioning will play their part in my answer I guess, but working to a word count is a skill that shouldn’t be undervalued.

    And as Mindy says the difference between an experienced journalist and a newbie being told to let it run is massive.

    Brain: Pinky, are you pondering what I’m pondering?
    Pinky: I think so Brain, but where are we going to find an open tattoo parlour at this time of night?

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