Of course, bigger is not always better…or easier. Thinking back on my schooling, however, I always encountered a direct relationship between size and rigor. In order to make writing more challenging, my teachers made papers longer. The fifteen-page term paper is a mainstay of undergraduate and graduate years. While longer writing pieces have clear merit, they are not necessarily the most effective tools when helping apprentice writers.
Students can develop the critical writing skills they need by writing “smaller.” I have been using mini-essays to great success. The concept is simple.
Students respond to a prompt with a literary analysis essay that does not exceed 450 words. I still want original, critical analysis of the text, so students must get straight to the point.
My students still write longer essays, but I have found I can teach many of the same skills by limiting the word count. The students, too, often find the mini-essays more challenging than those without word limits.
There are several advantages to the mini-essay approach:
- My feedback is more immediate. Simple math…shorter essays are faster to grade, so I turn these pieces around in a few days. The faster feedback has more impact on students’ skills.
- Students must be concise. The artificial constraint of 450 words forces many students to edit each sentence, shaving away unnecessary words and phrases.
- The errors don’t change. Students typically make the same errors in 450 words or 4,500 words. I still give specific, effective feedback without reading five pages riddled with run-ons.
- The “practice” mindset leads to more effective revision. Most students are not daunted when asked to revise a mini-essay. It feels like practice. Revising longer essays feels more formidable.
- Each iteration “weighs” more. Rick Wormelli asserts if we really want to gauge a student’s ability to write a persuasive essay, we should assign at least three. The first is written with considerable support from the teacher. The second, written about two weeks later, is produced with fewer supporting activities. The third, written two months later, should receive minimal support. If a student truly knows how to write a persuasive essay, the third iteration will prove it. I follow a similar pattern with the mini-essays. The first time, I provide considerable support and examples. The second time, I purposefully back away. With the third attempt, I simply give the prompt, withholding the majority of support until the final revision process. This scaffolding approach gives me a clearer idea of students’ skills than if I assign one essay of 1,350 words.