Word Counts: Don't Count on Them!

Dear Dr. D,
I have students stating that they struggle to reach the minimum word count while following the Jane Schaffer structure. For example, if the essay is to be 600-800 words, they may have only 450 words but state that they are following the formula. Any advice as to what you would do?
                                                                        - Julianna K, Grades 7-12
Dear Julianna,
The "formula" does not have word counts, and we must address several issues here with regard to grades 7-12, which I have been wanting to address. You've given me a great opportunity! Thank you.
  1. One misconception about the JSWP® is that students must write only five paragraphs. Remember, Jane was taught in the 1960s to implement the five paragraph essay, and she recommended it as a way to begin with new or struggling writers. It is a solid essay that has three body paragraphs. However, she never insisted upon it. Essays may be anywhere from three paragraphs (intro, body, conclusion) to infinity! (Well, hopefully not infinity, but you understand!) The length of a multi-paragraph essay should be based on and determined by the prompt and the resources available to the student. Certainly, teachers make recommendations, but to think that "all" essays should be five paragraphs is incorrect and a misreading of the program. I don't know if that is the issue, but if it is, I'd start there.
  2. In an expository essay, for example, the ratio of CD:CM is 2+:1. Are the students writing only two sentences of concrete details? Or are they writing two or more sentences of concrete details (hence, the plus [+])? In my class, if they write only two simple sentences of concrete detail, that’s a “C.” With the ratio at 2+:1, they could write five or six sentences of CDs and two or three sentences of CMs. Don't allow them to write the minimum -- push them. 
  3. Are they writing a solid topic sentence and a reflective, thoughtful concluding sentence?
  4. Look at the students' thesis statements. Sharon Kingston, one of my mentors and a valued friend of Jane's, used to say, "A thesis statement should be a compound-complex thought; therefore, it should be written as a compound-complex sentence."
  5. Are the students' introductions and conclusions 10% of the length of their essays? For example, if the essay is 600-800 words, then the introduction and conclusion might be somewhere between 60 and 80+ words each. That's a good guideline for students that I use.
  6. Are the students varying their sentence types and sentence lengths? They should be writing simple sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, and compound-complex sentences of varying lengths. That’s simply good writing and has nothing to do with the formula.
  7. For the upper level students and more sophisticated students, are you working with syntax? Are they ready for practicing parallelism? Style?
  8. Are they writing only one-chunk paragraphs? Or are they writing two chunks per paragraph? Sounds like they need to increase the chunks.
  9. Move each student beyond the formula when s/he is ready. Jane expects teachers to move on-level students beyond the formula.
Keep reading and writing!
Happy Holidays,
Dr. D'