What’s that? You have to write a 10 page paper, you say? And you have to come up with 8 pages of fluff because you can make your point in two? Well, today’s show is just for you!
More than once, I have found myself on the receiving end tirades about how English classes are all about fluff and turning simple statements into drawn-out papers. Oh, I just don’t understand it, people say, I can make my point in a paragraph, why do I have to write pages and pages of fluff? What’s the point?
Well, I don’t want to start a fight, but the people who complain the loudest are usually engineering students… So, you know, maybe (and this is just me being crazy) writing teachers know something about writing that engineers don’t. Maybe, again just maybe, there’s a good reason for length requirements—and it’s actually about keeping things short instead of making them unnecessarily long.
So before we talk about fluff itself, let’s just agree that no writing teacher is ever going to ask you to create fluff just for the sake of creating fluff. You see, every page you write is a page that your teacher has to grade. If you can make your point in a paragraph, there isn’t a teacher in the world who is going to ask for 16 pages because that’s 16 more pages of fluff that they’re going to have to grade—and who wants to create that much more work for themselves? Let me tell you who doesn’t, anyone who’s making a writing teacher’s salary.
But I’m going off on a tangent—today, we’re going to talk about fluff in writing, the purpose of academic writing, and the real reason your assignments have length requirements. Whether you’re an engineering student or not, the things we talk about today will help you to write longer, stronger papers. And, of course, if you’re interested in more writing advice like this, don’t forget to subscribe for all the latest from the channel.
Cutting the Fluff
So, before we go much further, I suppose we should define the concept of fluff. What is fluff? Fluff is stuff that doesn’t belong in your paper. I guess, if you’re a structural engineer, you might say that fluff is anything that doesn’t contribute to the structural integrity of your project—it’s just extra stuff, filler, unnecessary noise.
So, given that definition, do you really think creating fluff is ever going to be the point of any assignment? Of course not.
But we can talk about the idea of fluff all day without ever really understanding it. So let’s take a look at a very fluffy paragraph to see what fluff looks like in the wild:
Since the dawn of human civilization, people from all over the world have been locked in an unending war about the permissibility of putting pineapple—a fruit—on pizza. At this momentous occasion, I write this paper to offer my opinion that, without any question, I believe that pineapple does belong on a pizza for a long list of good reasons that I will share in the following paper.
It sounds kind of impressive, doesn’t it? But how much is it actually saying? If you were reading this paper and the author was trying to get you on the same page or to persuade you that pineapple does in fact belong on pizza, how much of this paragraph is actually doing anything to get you on the same page?
Fluff is anything that doesn’t help the author accomplish their rhetorical goal. So let’s take a closer look at the paragraph, this time cutting out all of the fluffy bits.
Yes, we did talk earlier about how introductions should set the stage and give readers context—but this isn’t really context. It’s the author just getting started before they really know what they want to say. Pro tip: anything that reaches back to the dawn of time is probably fluff—you can’t know about what was happening that long ago—and pizza was definitely not at the heart of things, so you don’t need to say that it was.
Now, do we really need to call pineapple a fruit? What does that actually add? Don’t tell us you’re writing a paper—we already know you are—and don’t bother announcing that you’ll be offering your opinion. Again, we’re reading your paper, so we already know it’s happening. Of course you have a long list of good reasons—and of course you think they’re good—or you wouldn’t be sharing them.
With a little reordering, we end up with something much shorter and much more to-the-point:
Despite ongoing debate, pineapple really does belong on pizza.
Rather than write a whole paragraph that says you’re going to say something, just say it. I now I can imagine in my head all my past engineering students saying— Yes, exactly, this is why it’s insane to ask for a four page paper.
Hold your horses, friends. Let’s take a minute to talk about the real goals of academic writing.
Showing Your Work
So maybe it’s hard to understand why your essay assignment needs to be so long. But maybe it’s easier to think in terms of math homework? How many times have you heard a math teacher say “Show your work?” Did that ever annoy you?
Why would your math teacher ask you to show your work? Isn’t the whole point just whether you got the right answer or not?
Now, I’m kind of asking a leading question. And the answer is no—your math teacher doesn’t just want to see that you got the right answer—they want to see that you know how to get the right answer because, if you’re doing to do more complex math problems in the future, you have to understand you have to understand where the right answers come from. When you don’t show your work, all you have is an answer, and what your teacher wants is to see that you know how to do math, and that’s why they ask you to show your work..
Now, the same principle applies to academic writing. When it comes to the work that scholars, scientists, and other researchers do, the point of their writing is not just to say what they know but to show how they know what they know—to show where their knowledge comes from.
Scientific papers, for example, don’t include analysis and methods sections so that their authors can “get straight to the point.” Really, these sections serve the purpose of helping readers to understand where the scientific findings came from so that then they can determine whether or not those findings are valid. Anyone can write a short paragraph that says, We’ve just discovered a way to create limitless amounts of clean energy. But, of course, readers are only going to believe them if the authors can show how they do it.
When you’re writing in a college-level class, then, the real goal of your paper is not just to say what you know. Really, your job is to say how you know what you know—to show your readers where your knowledge comes from. So, when you say that you want to “get to the point,” what you’re really doing is missing the whole point of academic writing.
Everywhere, probably, but especially in the academic world, knowledge is judged by the methods used to obtain it. If you don’t show your work, so to speak, you don’t give you readers a chance to see why your position is worth paying attention to.
So let’s go back to our pineapple pizza paragraph:
In its current state, this little sentence does a good job of saying what the author believes—but it doesn’t give us any sense of why that author believes it or why we should believe it too. All it does is state an opinion—but we’re looking for an academic argument, not a tweet.
So let’s see what happens when the author shows their work:
Despite ongoing debate, pineapple really does belong on pizza. The most important reason why pineapple belongs on pizza is that it creates contrast. People like contrasts in their food—sweet and salty in chocolate covered pretzels, hot and cold in a hot fudge sundae, crispy and smooth in a crème brulee. These foods are more interesting and more enjoyable because they offer eaters a high degree of contrast in each bite, preventing boredom from monotonous eating. Pineapple on pizza accomplishes the same thing: because pizza is often fatty and salty—even more so when it has cured meat toppings—pineapple provides a contrasting sweetness and acidity that help to balance the heavy monotony of the pizza. So, to make the dogmatic assertion that pineapple “simply does not go on pizza” is to reject the good culinary technique of combining contrasting flavors to create a more enjoyable eating experience.
A paragraph like this one will get you way closer to a 10-page limit than the single sentence of “getting to the point ever would.” And, notice that this paragraph says a lot more than the fluffy version we saw first: while the first one just took a long time to say one thing, this version not only adds much more meaningful information but also explains why the author believes what they do—it shows where the claim comes from and shows the reader why they should believe it too.
Of course, there’s some fluff in this version, too, but that’s not a problem. We can always cut that out.
Despite ongoing debate, pineapple really does belong on pizza because it creates contrast. High-contrast foods like chocolate-covered pretzels (taste), hot fudge sundaes (temperature), and crème brûlée (texture) are popular because they provide more interesting eating experiences that keep eaters from getting bored. When it comes to pizza, pineapple’s sweetness and acidity contrast the fatty and salty cheese and cured meats, thereby balancing the eating experience and making it more enjoyable. Thus, to assert that pineapple “simply does not go on pizza” is to reject the good culinary technique of creating bites with high contrast.
With the fluff trimmed out of this version, we have a pargraph that says meaningful things and is almost twice as long as the pure-fluff paragraph that we started out with. So how about that? We got rid of fluff and got you closer to your assigned paper length.
To wrap up, I think a lot of the complaints about length requirements comes from misunderstanding the goals of academic writing. When you write a paper in an academic setting, your real job is to show your work, to demonstrate where your knowledge comes from.
If you’re going to put in the effort to really show your work, you should have no trouble getting to the required length of your assignment because showing your work takes up space—no need to mess with margins, make your commas a few font sizes bigger, or anything like that.
In fact, when you really do show your work in your writing, you’ll probably discover that the length requirement is more of a limit than a minimum. Fluff is unavoidable in a first draft because you’re figuring out what you want to say. But if you have a fluffy draft that legitimately shows your work—you’ll probably blow right past the required page count. Then, in order to meet the requirement, you’ll only have to worry about cutting out the fluff instead of padding out your paper to hit some arbitrary minimum. Remember, the more you write, the more your teacher has to grade: page counts are there to put a limit on how much of their life your teacher has to spend grading—not to create more work for you and your teachers.
So, yes, definitely avoid writing fluff. But don’t forget to show your work because that’s the real goal of the academic essay.
And with that, I’ll leave you to get back to writing your paper. As always, if this video was helpful, thumbs it up and share it with a friend. Leave your questions and comments below, and I’ll see you again soon.