The Magic Ten Thousand

(like the Magic Roundabout, only with fewer distortedly terrifying childhood memories)

This post is inspired by a friend who’s writing up their EPQ, next to me right now (the EPQ is basically a task given as an extra-curricular activity in British schools that consists of writing the Bible in about an eighth the time it took to write the actual Bible), who mentioned reaching ‘the magic ten thousand’ words, the supposed word limit for the task. This quantification of this, ultimately, creative writing and research task made me think about that old thing of objective success, and why it’s so attractive – it’s bloody easy to see when you have ‘succeeded’.

I don’t want to have a go at people wasting their life with the EPQ, as they know they’re fools, so I don’t need to remind them. But I want to, so they’re fools.

I can see, however, why it is important to have a numerical milestone to reach in doing a piece of writing, in that it shows you when you are ‘finished’; obviously you can go above and beyond any word limits like the literary equivalent of Rocky, but having a defined goal line helps you judge what there is to do, and how much you have left to do it.

Also, the judgement of writing is almost entirely subjective – questions like ‘Is your argument logical?’ and ‘Is this point going too far?’ can only really be judged by someone with both knowledge of the subject you’re writing about, and enough time on their hands to accurately assess it; I’m not saying that maths is easier to do, but it’s more objective success criteria mean it Is easier to assess. If you rationalise the subjective wasteland that is a piece of prose into a word goal, you can at least have ‘done well’ in that you’ve hit that goal.

Focusing on word limits can also make life easier for the assessor, as they can quickly get an idea of what is likely to be ‘enough’, a good trait, or ‘too much’ and ‘too little’, more negative qualities; although basing an entire assessment on a glance at a word count is flawed and judgemental, it does help to give a first impression, which is sadly all most people care about these days.

However, word counts can be more misleading and confusing than this metaphor; people can obviously make snap decisions about the quality of one’s work by looking at the quantity, two totally independent variables. Also, pieces that are too long or too short can discourage people from reading them; my own friends have told me that some of these posts are too long, or that the shorter ones are of a lower quality – I trust my friends’ judgements of course, as I trust them as people, but it does get a little frustrating when the only feedback I get is “tldr”.

The writers of these works can also get caught up on trying to hit a word limit, falling back on the old argument that if it’s long enough, something in there’s gotta be good right? Wrong, you lazy peasant; if your argument in fundamentally flawed, the piece will be poorly received, and so putting in little effort to get it just over the word limit means that you prevent yourself from clawing back a few brownie points in basic things, like solid explanations or good structural things, like linking to other points.

I’ve always been of the mindset that ‘more is better’ (guys in my English class, remember my Sailing To Byzantium guide?), especially when critiquing another’s work, as at least something you say must be right. However, in producing your own content, keeping it concise is incredibly important as it encourages people to read it, and lets you express your point clearly, which is the purpose of all language.

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