One of the most common forms of schoolwork is the writing assignment. The idea is that, if a student understands the subject, they should be able to demonstrate that by writing about the subject. These kinds of assignments are widely considered to improve comprehension and writing skill in addition to measuring comprehension.

However, there is a problem with this approach: writing assignments involve writing for an audience which already understands the concepts being discussed. The goal is not to communicate an idea, but rather to prove that the author already grasps that idea.

Needless to say, this is not at all the goal when writing outside of school. Outside of school, the goal is nearly always to communicate an idea the audience is new to.

One of the most important ways this distinction appears is verbosity. In school, using many, fancy words signals to the teacher that you understand the material. Students who expend the effort to understand the material well are also more likely to spend time writing many words.

But crucially, correlation does not necessarily imply causation: the willingness to write a thousand words on a topic is not caused by understanding of that topic, only correlated with it. The idea that someone must understand a topic well to write at length on it is entirely wrong. In fact, the ability to communicate an idea succinctly is one of the strongest marks of understanding.

Grading on word count entirely misses the point: it only encourages students to add meaningless padding. This makes students worse writers, and it doesn’t even measure understanding well.

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I had several teachers in both high school and college ask for writing assignments that had maximum word counts. e.g. "Write an explanation of the significance of the Treaty of Westphalia, in no more than 1500 words." Those writing assignments were, to me, more difficult than the ones that had minimum word counts, because they required you to get to all the major elements of the response in a minimum of space, leaving space for explanation and implication.

And, for what it's worth, writing in the "real world" is far more like this. Journalists, for example, rarely have minimum word count limits, but very often have maximum word counts.

On the other hand, grading by word count, by incentivizing writing more, might lead to better outcomes through more practice.

It's probably not the most effective thing possible, but would the teachers actually be able to pull off a better method?

What are some others things that school teaches us about writing that aren't useful when we write in the "real world"? I know this depends on the type of writing: different techniques are useful for writing blog posts than books.

I'll start with another idea: it's fine to steal good wording. Sometimes inserting a quote or rewording a sentence isn't the best way to integrate an idea from another source into your writing, so you can just "steal" the wording that another writer uses and cite them.

In fiction, the rule of thumb is "first, you have to unlearn everything you learned at school". But that's mostly because most of what you write at school is not fiction, so different rules apply.

Specifically the "introduction, body, conclusion" pattern makes fiction boring. It makes sense when you teach things (introduction = what you should focus on; conclusion = reminder of the important points), but for some reason teachers insist to use it also for stories like "what did you do during summer holidays", which is just wrong (assuming that the purpose of storytelling is to entertain the listeners, not make them memorize your holiday schedule).

In contrast, cool stories often start "in medias res".

the willingness to write a thousand words on a topic is not caused by understanding of that topic


No, but writing about a topic in a way that will make sense to a reader is a really effective way of causing the writer to learn about the topic.

Ever tried to write a book chapter or article about a topic you thought you knew well? I bet you found out you didn't know it as well as you thought - but had to learn to finish the work.

I absolutely agree that writing assignments are effective. What I don't think is effective is grading longer submissions higher.