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Essay Writing Tactics: Stock Essay Lengths

Updated on August 1, 2014
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When I switched my major to English, I faced a number of new types of papers, the names of which confused me. It took me a while to figure out what I had to do for a short response paper, an expository essay, a conference paper, and a seminar paper. I eventually worked it out, but it would have been much easier had someone simply explained to me what I needed to do. It is in the hope of making things thus easier for people who are new to writing at the levels college and the world beyond require that I offer this brief overview of some of the more commonly requested types of paper I have seen as a student and professor of the academic humanities. It is by no means comprehensive, but it does cover a few of the more usual forms I have seen.

The 500-Word Paper, or the Two- to Three-Page Piece

Traditional Western education moves from small parts to increasingly bigger parts. This is largely true of writing instruction, as well, which tends to move from the letter to the word to the sentence--a series of words that collectively express an idea--to the paragraph--a series of sentences that expresses and supports an idea--to the essay, the nature of which I have discussed. This hub will work similarly, beginning with small pieces and working up to larger, in no small part because the smaller pieces can sometimes be the beginnings of and sections in the larger pieces.

My experiences in the classroom, both as a student and as a teacher, have told me that the shortest format of essay routinely requested is that framed as either a five hundred word piece or as a (somewhat longer) two- to three-page paper (when the pages are formatted as double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman with one-inch margins). The two serve much the same functions in academic writing and as writerly exercises, so that they can be discussed in tandem, and those functions are worth exploring.

Features

As the name implies, the 500-word or two- to three-page paper is of the indicated length. Typically, it will deploy a brief introductory paragraph which offers context for discussion, topic, thesis to be tested, and possibly an outline of the means of testing. Following that will come a few paragraphs, usually two to four, that conduct the testing in brief. A short concluding paragraph will end the piece, hopefully working toward some statement of the thesis's relevance.

Generally, so short a paper will make only limited use of external reference, although it does well as a response to a summarized piece. It will likely identify a single source, such as a chapter in a book or an article in a newspaper or magazine, and operate in response to it, so citation will be of limited importance. (It does remain necessary to cite appropriately those sources which are used!)

Uses

500-word essays are mainstays of essay examinations, which I discuss in more detail in these two hubs. They allow sufficient length for examinees to demonstrate their expertise in a short time while remaining brief enough that evaluators can effectively assess large groups of them.

More publicly, short pieces serve well as blog posts (which, through embedded links, allow more external reference) or professional letters. Again, they offer enough length to be able to be taken seriously while being short enough to not strain the attention spans of general audiences, most of which will rarely take the time to read for long. (Readers of HubPages are, of course, among the exceptions, being interested and involved in what they do.)

In addition, they are useful writing exercises on their own. They require sufficient attention and involvement to do well at awakening the critical thinking faculties while not being so involved that they crack heads upon doing them. They are, in essence, good warm-up exercises for writers or others who must look at things and make sense of them to other people; I make a point of writing one nearly every morning before setting about my day, whether I am teaching on that day or not.

They also serve well as short sections of larger papers, being long enough to state a point and to develop it. Indeed, I have found that many people are better able to work on larger projects by thinking of them as series of such shorter pieces. Five hundred words or two to three pages is a manageable amount of writing, and working in sections of that length adds up quickly if it is diligently done.

The Thousand-Word Paper,or the Four- to Five-Page Piece

The next largest size of paper that gets requested frequently is that of the thousand-word essay or the perhaps larger four- to five-page essay. Often, it will come as a later step in a single composition cycle, one which begins to engage with larger and more complex discourses. Sometimes, however, it will be the initial step in putting together a longer work, serving as an extended proving-ground for a tentative idea before it is moved into more detailed work.

Features

The thousand-word paper will follow the same broad format as the 500-word: introduction, body, and conclusion. The body will tend to be larger, offering five to seven paragraphs testing the thesis idea rather than two to four. It will also tend to make more use of outside reference in carrying out that testing; writers of longer pieces are expected to move beyond themselves in supporting the ideas they have, although their own expertise remains valuable and necessary.

The increased use of external materials will necessitate formal citation in almost all cases, meaning that the four- to five-page paper will have an addendum of a citations page. This is not always regarded as belonging within the counted words or pages of the paper, although it sometimes is. Submission guidelines should be reviewed thoroughly in such cases.

Uses

As noted above, a thousand-word paper can be a useful outgrowth of a 500-word piece, taking the idea originally developed in the latter and adding to it to continue testing the thesis it articulates. (My classes have called for such things.) This is useful, as an idea can pass one round of testing and fail another; such ideas need to be set aside in favor of others that can sustain the increased assessment. This does not make the exercise a failure, however; it still represents an expansion of inquiry and a better determination of the limits of knowledge.

As is also noted above, sometimes a four- to five-page piece is an initial goal. Opening with more extended work invites deeper initial contemplation and consideration, making better treatment more likely. Too, it invites a deeper initial investigation of already-existing knowledge, making it an excellent teaching device; it forces students and other writers to learn more before setting about their work.

Of particular note is the academic journal The Explicator, which explicitly calls for pieces of 1200 words or less. Thousand-word, four- to five-page papers are therefore ideally suited to the journal, and publication in it is worth seeking.

The Conference-Length Paper

The conference-length paper is the shortest that usually sees the academic public, and its public dissemination is one of the more important things about it. While it does in that sense represent a polished product, rarely should a paper be allowed to remain at the conference length; it will need to serve another purpose, discussed below. Scholarly convention and usage dictate what a conference paper is and does, which simultaneously imposes significant demands and allows a fairly stable structure in which to work with little worry.

Features

Conference-length work will typically add one or both of two features to the thousand-word essay in addition to expanding upon the already-existing testing of the thesis idea (eight to ten paragraphs of support rather than five to seven): literature survey and counter/rebuttal. The former offers an overview of the work that has been done with the paper's topic prior to the paper itself. In making the offer, writers establish themselves as having greater authority to discuss the topic (they demonstrate knowledge of the field) and offer context for their own theses (there is always a gap in preexisting knowledge, and the conference paper can work to fill it).

The counter/rebuttal setup works similarly to establish context and demonstrate writerly expertise. In a conference-length paper, it is typically a two-paragraph construction in which one paragraph (usually that immediately following the thesis) presents some counter-argument which would serve to undermine the thesis, either by rejecting it or its premises. The challenge in offering one is that it must be a reasonable argument; if it is obviously bad, it comes off as a straw-man fallacy and the audience of the paper will reject it as badly constructed. The rebuttal, which should be the next paragraph after the counter-argument, demonstrates that the counter-argument is in some way inadequate, usually through being inapplicable to the specific thesis of the paper or having insufficient available data. It serves to clear ground in which to place the thesis for testing by demonstrating that other, reasonable ideas have been considered and rejected for cause.

When I have taught counter/rebuttal to my students, I have situated it as follows: the introduction articulates what I want to say, the counter what other people have said, the rebuttal why those people are wrong, and the body why I am right. It has worked well for most of my pupils (although admittedly not all), and it offers a paradigm of writing that is largely consistent with the research carried out in most fields of inquiry. I discuss it in more detail here.

Uses

The primary use of the conference paper is implied by the name: presentation at conferences. In such circumstances, conference papers are meant to be read aloud to audiences and to go on for fifteen to twenty minutes of talk time. This allows ideas to be offered and questions to be asked about them so that writer/speaker and audience are all able to benefit from the ideas and consideration of them. It remains one of the fundamental means of transmission of scholarly knowledge even in the days of online discourse and hypertextual media; there is something about the face-to-face presentation that no software can capture, a benefit it still cannot provide.

Conference-length work can also be used as a section of a book-length treatment. Just as two- to three-page pieces can be gathered together to compose larger works, so can conference-length papers. They are useful in that context for providing exposition of major ideas before applying them in detail in longer sections, or for providing contextual information that informs the larger sections and broader discussion.

A shorter version of the conference paper, some two thousand words (usually some six to seven pages in my experience), is occasionally used as a feature article, particularly in online discourse. For example, Cracked.com notes on its writers forum that prospective writers must observe a 2000-word limit. For another instance, my earlier Essay Writing Tactics hub, "Bringing in Outside Sources," is close to 2100 words, and many of my other hubs are not far below 2000 words (this one, by contrast, approaches 2500). Online, the length strikes a good balance between enough length to go into good detail while remaining short enough to ease the kind of reading that online work facilitates.

The Seminar Paper, or the Article-Length Paper

The seminar paper, or an article-length piece, is an essay of variable length, usually somewhere between fifteen and thirty pages (which may or may not include references). It is often, but not always, the culmination of a scholarly writing process. It is also the kind of thing that intellectual professionals tend to write for one another.

Features

In essence, a seminar paper is an extension of the conference-length paper, although its intended delivery in text rather than orally means that its sentences will tend to be longer and more complex. Too, its sectional divisions are more likely to be formal and explicit, with clear labels to guide the reader along. It will use a literature review--a more detailed survey--rather than a counter/rebuttal structure, and it will work more to give context in introducing its topic and thesis.

Article-length papers are meant to be more or less permanent additions to the sum of human knowledge. As such, attention to the details of testing and to the details of phrasing and presentation are singularly important. A two- to three-page piece will likely be revised and expanded; a conference-length paper is read aloud, so its spelling does not matter; but an article will be read quietly and with great focus. Any errors in it will show up clearly, damaging the reliability of the piece and its writer, and they are therefore much to be avoided.

Uses

The names of the paper indicate two of its major uses: seminars and articles. College seminars often ask for extended papers as final projects, offering students the opportunity to demonstrate their construction of knowledge from the course. Articles for publication in many journals are of similar length, as that length allows for extended discussion and consideration of the idea in the thesis. It is a benchmark for scholarly argument that it can be sustained effectively over that length, and the discussion with which it does so often leads other scholars to their own new ideas.

Journal articles are the major means through which scholars advance the states of their disciplines. Their less complex publication process means that they tend to represent newer developments than books, while their extension and greater detail mean they are likely to be better-vetted and more authoritative than conference-length work. This makes them particularly valuable in themselves and as embodiments of the very edge of human knowledge. They are well worth reading therefore, and so they must be written.

Article-length papers can also often serve as book chapters, such as those requested here by Dr. Helen Young of the University of Sydney. In such instances, they contribute to larger scholarly projects that, as a whole, do more to increase human knowledge than any one component of them could hope to do. By participating in the group discussion represented by the larger book, they respond to and engage with the ideas of others not only internally as their content itself obliges, but externally in ways likely to be productive to readers in the future who will hopefully conduct investigations of their own and increase the scope of human knowledge thereby.

© 2014 Folgha

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