Length Requirement

There is a strange piece of reasoning that has made itself known in every area of human productivity. It has done so despite the fact this reasoning makes little sense when actually deconstructed and examined. It is the rare person that has never done something poorly and thought, “I can make up for this lack of quality with an increase in quantity.” In other words, it is common for people to think they can balance out bad work by simply doing more of it.

Why do people tend to think this when it’s obviously not true? If something is bad, why would anyone want more of it? I suppose it’s because we think we did poorly ourselves, and rather than face the shame of creating such a monstrosity we can say, “but it took me a really long time,” in a pathetic effort to siphon away some of the guilt. Or maybe there is no guilt at all, and people genuinely believe that quantity is a substitute for quality. Either way, it is flawed logic, but can nevertheless be seen across many fields of work.

It is a way of thinking that is perhaps most apparent in the world of academia. From kindergarten to the post-grad level, students commonly try to make up for lousy work by exceeding the minimum length requirement. How many coloring books are full of scribbles, but are at least completely full of scribbles? How many science fair boards are filled with text and surrounded by props to explain a project that is either not science, or has already been done before many times and better? How many college students come up with a bad research project, then spend the wee hours of the morning padding their sub-par paper with redundant sentences and long quotations in an attempt to exceed the coveted page limit?

“I was up till three in the morning and now my paper is seventeen pages with 2.2 line spacing. Oh, and I made the punctuation size 14 font. Do you think it will hide that nowhere in those seventeen pages is there a decent thesis statement?”

Sure, these are moderately clever ways of expanding your paper, but if you feel you have to do them to get a good grade, chances are you won’t be getting a good grade anyway. Save yourself some work.

This, “more bad is better than just bad,” way of thinking is also prominent in the creative fields. It is not uncommon for the worst novels to also be agonizingly long. I have read a lot of books over 500 pages. Some of them were really good. Most of them could have stood to lose a couple hundred pages. The same goes for movies. There are some fantastic films that are very long, but more very long films that are fantastically bad.

It seems like the creators are throwing everything they can at the audience in a last-ditch effort to not get completely negative reviews. For these people to read opinions of their work that say, “Overall it was a waste of time, but I really liked the one part where something interesting happened,” would be an uproarious success. It is like shooting at a target and missing, but instead of improving your archery skills, you simply make the target bigger. That way it will be easier to hit.

But this belief is not limited to the hoighty-toighty realms of academia and creativity. It is persistent right down to the most simple, salt-of-the-Earth, and noble occupations. When a pastor has written an uninspiring sermon, I bet the though crosses his mind to spend two uninspiring hours delivering it. A mechanic who doesn’t know how to solve a problem might try to get around this by taking a long time to finally admit he doesn’t know what to do. A janitor who doesn’t get every toilet spotlessly clean will claim that he is in his right, because he still spent a lot of time scrubbing them.

Of course, these attempts to shift blame are all counter-intuitive when you stop to think about them. (If you spend a long time doing something, shouldn’t it be better?)

Unfortunately, the reverse of this logic doesn’t appear to be as popular. People try to make bad work better my making it longer, but they don’t try to make good work better by making it shorter. Things are best said when they are said concisely, but efficiency is not often rewarded as it should be. The brilliant school paper that does not meet the page requirement has a good chance of receiving the same grade as a bad paper that exceeds it. A good book or movie that is not as long as its lesser competitors will probably not retrieve as much praise as it should. And nobody ever notices their gardener finish pulling weeds in record time without checking to make sure he actually did a good job.

As quality goes down, people expect quantity to go up, but this expectation is not inversely proportional. I can’t explain why this is the case, but I know I fall victim to the same perceptions. I could have said all I wanted to in a few sentences. Instead, I droned on for nearly 900 words. Somehow I thought it would be better that way.