Most of my professors when I asked them that question had a specific word count in mind. One professor had a different answer. He would say ‘as long as a piece of string’. Boy, did we hate him? How long is that?
The thing is, he is right of course. It’s all about what is in there and not how many words you need to say it. An essay that says what it’s supposed to in 500 words is better than one that says exactly the same thing in 600 words. After all, the effectiveness of an essay is the points made divided by the words needed to make them.
In other words, more arguments for fewer words means more bang for your buck.
Still, I understand how annoying that can be. I mean, now I sound like that professor that I used to have and I hated him. Ergo sum (Latin for ‘therefore’ – yes I’m a facetious prick) you don’t like me that much right now either.
So let me give you a bit more concrete advice.
Introduction and conclusion
Every essay needs these. The first introduces what you’re going to say and what you’re going to talk about. The last one in effect sums up what you’ve just said and rounded up the arguments. Having an essay without either of them is like having a bunch of books on a bookshelf without bookends. It’s not terribly effective.
These both require a few hundred words. So that’s about 200 to 400 words right there (depending on how self-explanatory everything is).
This is obviously the most variable part of the writing experience. Bodies can stretch only a few hundred words to thousands upon thousands (though if you’re going for the really long essay, you might want to create sub-intros and conclusions to keep yourself and your audience on track).
Here the best way to know how long the texts should be is based on how many arguments you’re going to make. Now, to be clear some arguments can be made in a hundred words or less, while others take a few thousand.
But even here you can figure things out. It simply depends on how much sub-arguments you need to introduce to explain the main argument. If you don’t have to introduce very many, then the argument will only stretch over a paragraph. If you need half a dozen or so sub-arguments to make your main argument, well then that argument can stretch over pages.
It’s all about nesting
In effect, your essay is one long argument. To make that argument, you need to make sub-arguments. And those might need arguments in them as well. The number of such nestled arguments you have will make it clear how long your essay needs to be.
So really, what you should be looking at is what you need to do to argue your argument. If you’ve done that and you’ve done it well, then you’ve got the right essay length. If you haven’t, well then you need to keep writing.
Yeah, ‘as long as a piece of string’ was more helpful, wasn’t it?