Betsy Stoutmorril: Count Down to Improve Writing

Writing Challenges

When given a writing assignment, one of the first questions struggling writers often ask is “How long does it have to be?”   Focusing on length instead of content can be an indicator that adult learner are struggling to put words on a page or are not confident that they have anything to say.

Confidence and Proficiency

Recognizing and acknowledging that writing is difficult for many adult learners is the first step toward improving their writing.  Giving adult learners a specific and manageable structure for writing and gradually increasing the writing demand improves their chances of become confident and proficient writers.  Also perhaps, it helps them to fall in love with words and accept the challenge of crafting good writing.

Ask for 200 Words

Think about asking for word count on assignments.  Asking for a page or even a paragraph can be anxiety producing, because a blank page is hard to fill and how long is a paragraph anyway?  Asking for 200 words is much less threatening.  For example, this paragraph has been crafted to have exactly100 words. This may not look like much of a challenge, however to novice writers 200 words can be huge, but it’s concrete! Word count is an amazing tool that also allows us to gradually increase the demand by 25-50 words until the novice writes a full page!

Structure and Simplicity

Explain what word count means and how to use the “word count” function on MS Word under the “Review” tab.  This might encourage them to learn to type or word process, too!  Also let them know that the average person writes about 10 words and types about 15 words on a line—so you’re asking for 200 words or about 10 to15 lines.  Very concrete!

Here are simple structural things to do to help a struggling writer find success on your next writing assignment:

  • Create a sample passage
  • Offer specific “step-by-step” written, visual and oral directions
  • Provide a short list of topics, but also be willing to be flexible
  • Set the stage for pre-writing skills with lines for three ideas and five important words
  • Describe how proof reading and rewriting improves the final product

A Final Word about Word Count

Also, if you really want to see word count really work to your advantage as a teacher, try limiting the word count!  When I was trying to improve the content of writers who use a lot of words but don’t actually say very much, I would put strict parameters on word count.

When I taught intensive reading for at-risk high school students, I would limit summary sentences to 10 words or introductory paragraphs to 25 words.   This would result in the students working intensely (Just like I did crafting that 100-word paragraph!) to get the exact word count.  Some of my students would even complain that they needed more words!  Sure loved hearing that!