Page Limits: Balancing Quantity and Quality

A different kind of page limit, but still relevant: the number of pages you write determines the number of sheets you print. (Photo by Melissa Parnagian)
A different kind of page limit, but still relevant: the number of pages you write determines the number of sheets you print.

At times, the phrase “between x and y pages” seems tedious or even unnecessary, but there’s something inherently different about 5-7 pages of research versus 12-15.  And if we recognize that difference, it means page limits serve a purpose.  Think about how you react at either extreme of a page range: when your paper hasn’t met the minimum requirements, it’s easy to tell that you need more research; conversely, passing the maximum is an indication to scale back.

But not every issue is so easy to resolve.  What about finishing just below the maximum?  On a recent policy paper, I found myself barely squeaking below the maximum page limit… or, more accurately, using shorter synonyms to avoid hitting page z on an x-to-y assignment.

That remedy didn’t last long.

Rereading the synonyms, I could tell they didn’t fit right in context, because synonyms can’t capture the full connotations of the words they replace.  But perhaps more importantly, choosing words based on syllable count is a measure of quantity, which page limits are not supposed to measure.  In fact, page limits insist on the quality of your research.  Not reaching them means you haven’t considered enough context in your argument; exceeding them suggests you’ve already included the essentials to reach your point.

Not surprisingly, this idea fueled a different strategy as I continued editing my paper: when hovering close to the maximum page limit, eliminating non-essential examples is better than sacrificing word choice.  The trickiest part is deciding what to cut.  You might feel that each piece of evidence serves a genuine purpose, and/or be emotionally attached to an argument after spending time constructing it.  I’m guilty of both.  Yet both are good dilemmas to have.  As a researcher and writer, you know you’ve excelled when your relatively weakest example is so strong that you hesitate to remove it.  But if you’re over the page limit, ignore the hesitation and remove it anyway.  With your most engaging examples still included, readers won’t feel the absence – and you’ll improve the paper’s overall impact.

There are also potential remedies if you find yourself below the minimum page limit.  As you can probably guess, using longer synonyms is not one of those remedies.  A much better strategy is to critically analyze your assumptions — that is, to prove that your ideological starting point is an appropriate base for your argument.  Within this framework, you might consider various counterarguments or evaluate the real-world relevance of your thesis.

I’ve been writing about page limits as if they’re set in stone, and that’s not always the case.  If you’re particularly attached to your examples, it’s okay to ask the professor if you can exceed the limit – but only slightly.  While quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive, it’s always true that your research should emphasize the former.  Though page limits can seem tedious, landing safely between the x and y range reflects how carefully you considered your facts, figures, data, and analysis – and that might be the best way to define your independent work.

— Melissa Parnagian, Social Sciences Correspondent