A three thousand word essay:: an introduction of five hundred words, a main body of two thousand words, and a conclusion of five hundred words; a referenced appendix of eight hundred words is permitted. The three thousand word essay seems to have been the norm of student life since, at least, the 1970s. Why three thousand words, though? Somewhere there must be some authoritative piece of work showing that three thousand is an optimum number of words; it must fulfil some Goldilocks-like principle of being neither too short, nor too long, but just right. Three thousand words must be sufficient to test the knowledge and understanding of a student, whilst not being so much of a burden that it hinders learning in other areas. Presumably, it is also an appropriate number of words for those who have to sit down and read the submissions and provide appropriate comments and marks.
It is odd that over four decades the tradition of the three thousand word essay has persisted, the changes there have been being in terms of its presentation. Presumably, there is no longer the option of writing an essay with a black biro pen on sheets of ruled paper taken from a pad bought at the student union shop. Essays now must be typed using Microsoft Word, or presumably its Mac or Open Source equivalent; they must be written in a particular font; they must be spaced as specified. They must use a stipulated form of referencing and bibliography. They must specify the number of words they contain.
To be a tutor in the present times must be a rather dull and boring task. Essays now arrive in an email inbox. If they conform to the requirements presented to students, they will have a consistency, even a uniformity. No longer will a sheaf of crumpled sheets pushed into a tutor’s pigeon hole at the porter’s desk be considered an appropriate means of submitting work. Perhaps tutors dreaded receiving such work. Perhaps they had to struggle with differences in handwriting and idiosyncratic styles. Perhaps pages with creases and coffee mug stains were something to which they bade farewell with enthusiasm. No longer do tutors have to ponder passages and ask themselves if the words are not familiar from textbooks, if the student has not copied an author’s work. Plagiarism has become impossible where essays are submitted via a platform which assesses the originality of every sentence.
The three thousand word essay has persisted, but the changes in its presentation have made it a distant relative of its forebears.