How long does my paper have to be?

Hand to heart, the honest answer to this question is “as long as it needs to be.”

I know that isn’t the answer that you wanted. But it’s the truth. If you’ve been given a page length or word count, that’s because, in your teacher’s experience, that’s how much space it takes to make a decent response to the writing prompt they’re giving you. It’s never a magic number, let alone a guaranteed grade.

Let’s stop for a minute and talk about what your teacher hears when students ask that perennial question: “how long does it have to be.”

For your teacher, that translates into:

“What’s the bare minimum I can turn in so that you give me a passing grade?”

Sometimes, that really is what the student is asking. Most of the time, however, in my experience, here’s what the student really means:

“I’m terrified that I won’t do well on this assignment. What are you really looking for, so that I can do my best to give it to you, so that I can pass this class/get an A?”

So let’s start with that question—“what are you really looking for?”—because answering it will help us get closer to the page length answer.

As I pointed out in Yes, your teacher DOES owe you a grade. BUT., the paper you are being asked to write is an assessment of your learning in the course. Your number 1 job in this paper is to prove to your teacher that you are learning. Additional goals might include showing off your writing and research skills—your written communication skills—particularly if this is a GenEd class. So one of the first, and best things that you can do for yourself from the outset is to stop thinking about this assignment as “writing a paper” and think about it instead as “proving that I’m learning something.” Like I said, it may be doing both, but learning something in the class is likely the most important part, and it’s also the part that the Writing Center or research librarian is less likely to be able to help you with.

Now, with that mindset, let’s go through some steps that will help you arrive at some realistic expectations for how long your paper should be.

(Some of these steps may not apply – it depends on what kind of paper you’re writing.)

Step 1: Look for any clues your teacher has given you about their expectations. Check out Before You Begin and How to read an assignment sheet and rubric for help with figuring out what your teacher expects from you. Go ahead and ask your teacher, if you must, but think about your phrasing. “How long do you expect a passing paper to be” is much better than “how long does it HAVE to be.”

Step 2: Dissect the writing prompt on the assignment sheet. Make a list for yourself of what question is actually being asked, as well as any other hints the assignment sheet gives you. You will want to look for hints. For example, “formal essay” or “paper” means that you will be writing an introduction and conclusion, and will most likely be using formal language. Check out Writing Prompts: Understanding what the teacher wants (1/3) for examples of how to dissect writing prompts.

Step 3: What terms or concepts will you be using from course material to answer the question being asked? At minimum, you will need to define those terms or concepts. In your own words is best, but if you don’t feel comfortable with that, then you need to find the place in your book or notes where that definition lives. When you find it, make sure you make yourself a note about where that came from. We will talk about how to do citations in a later post, but the more information you keep for yourself now, the happier you will be later.

So now you have a definition for each term or concept you’ll be using to write your paper. Now write a sentence that explains what the heck that means, using your own words. Then, write at least one sentence that explains how the term or concept relates to the answer you’re about to construct. You should have at least three sentences per term/concept now.

Step 4: Identify the proof you need to use to connect the terms/concepts to your paper. If you’re writing a paper for a literature class, for example, then you need to find, for example, the lines in the poem where the author used metaphor to make a point. If you are writing a scientific paper, then you might here identify the specific data on tolerances or sheer strength, etc, of the thing you are discussing. If you are making an argument in a sociology class, you might jot down the connections you are making between the theory and the social “thing” you are applying it to. Taken together, the definition and interpretation from Step 3 and your proof in Step 4 construct your basic argument/paper.

Step 5: Review what you’ve just sketched out. Assuming a paper that is double-spaced, with 1” margins all around, and 10 or 12 point font, you should expect the following:

  • Introduction and conclusion, together = 2/3 – 1 page
  • Term/concept + definition + interpretation + proof = ½ page each, minimum

You can see that we are already at 2 ½ pages, and this is before you flesh out your writing, add external sources, describe an event, etc as might be required in some forms of writing. Let’s say, for example, you are asked to introduce your reader to the poem or short story you’re writing about. You could expect to spend at least ½ page on that overview, depending on the length and complexity of what you’re being asked to do.

In my experience, a 3-page paper is generally the bare minimum for a paper that’s going to pass, and it’s rare for a paper that short to get a good grade unless the assignment is very simple. If you are being asked to make an argument and use outside sources, it’s likely that a good response to the writing prompt will be five pages or more. But don’t focus on filling those pages – focus instead on chunking up the assignment like we did above, and writing in pieces. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you get significant length if you aren’t focused on the length.

Balancing the sections of your paper

Page length isn’t the only thing to consider – you should also think about the length of your sections as well. Would you write a paper that’s 2/3 introduction and 1/3 the actual answer to your writing prompt? Well, I suppose you could, but don’t expect a decent grade.

Let me give you an example of where I’ve seen students go wrong with this. I have an assignment that asks students to apply what they’ve been learning in my sociological theory class to a current event, art, etc. Sometimes, students choose a movie, which is fine. But very often, they get caught up in explaining what happened in the movie, and so their paper turns out to be 3 pages of move plot and 1 page of application. That paper is so out of balance that they don’t have a chance at a good grade and generally end up having to revise. My guess is that instead of taking the time to break the writing task apart like I recommended above, they just sat down and started writing until they thought they were done. The result was not good.

Is there such a thing as too long?

Absolutely! Your goal (after actually answering the assignment) should always be clear and concise writing. If you write 50 pages for a 10 page assignment, there’s a good chance that you are including way too much material or are too wordy/rambling. That’s one of my biggest problems, personally – being wordy and rambling. The only way to fix it is to edit, and that’s something a lot of students don’t leave themselves time for.

I’ve also seen papers that were fairly short, but the student was desperately trying to hit a page length, so they included sentences or sometimes even entire paragraphs that said nothing. I don’t enjoy reading and grading hot air, and I’m sure your teachers don’t, either. Here’s where it gets tricky, though – you need to know your teacher’s policy on short papers if you are given a page length requirement. I tell students that I’d rather have 4 ½ page of focused writing instead of 5 pages where a lot of it is hot air, but that’s me. However that falls out, though, make sure that what you are saying is substantive. Here’s a tip: we’ve been students, ourselves, and for a long time. We’ve probably all written BS sections in our papers in order to make page length. We’ve been graded down for them, and so will you be.

Does the title page and reference list count as part of the page length?

Unless the assignment sheet or your teacher explicitly say that they do count, they don’t. Sorry. Students are ever hopeful, but if you are asked for 10 sources and 5 page of text with a cover page, then the paper you turn in is likely to have up to 8 sheets of paper.

Sometimes students try to pad their word count or page length with meaningless phrases. Check out the series of blog posts beginning with Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing (Part 1) to see why you should not do this, and what to do instead.

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