Keeping it Short

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Paul Krugman writes today about one of the difficulties of being a columnist:

One of the hardest things about writing the column, as opposed to blogging, is the length constraint. It’s really, really hard to say something meaningful in a limited space. And yet, that constraint has its virtues: it forces you to be concise, to figure out what you really need to say and skip the rest, to find turns of phrase that are shorter and usually plainer. And my experience is that the process of doing all that almost always makes the thing read better.

If I had my way, we’d require students to write 800-word essays, just for writing and reasoning practice. And at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, this is something we’ll lose when dead-tree newspapers go the way of vinyl records.

Maybe. But keep in mind that for most high school kids, 800 words is a lot. For someone like Krugman, who has a tremendous store of knowledge, the challenge is picking and choosing what to say, and then figuring out how to say it cogently in a small space. For most students, whose store of knowledge is small, it would be just the opposite: tell them to write 800 words and the challenge would be padding it enough to fill up the space.

When I write for the magazine, I routinely underestimate how much space I need. Back in December, I told my editor that I planned for my piece in the upcoming issue to be about 2,000 words, “not some sort of long, definitive take on things.” And it wasn’t! But it still ran 4,000 words or so because I couldn’t shut myself up. But back when I was in high school, 4,000 words would have been a pretty massive undertaking. With a 2,000 word target I probably would have ended up at 1,500 words, desperately searching around for something extra to toss in to bring it up to snuff.

On the other hand, maybe you could solve this by having kids write about stuff they know a tremendous amount about. If the assignment were to write about “Call of Duty” strategies, maybe boiling things down to 800 words really would be a challenge.

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