Sunday, June 23, 2013

I, You, We, He/She/They

You may use "I" when writing for me if you need to, but only if you need to. There is no need for the stuffy and convoluted "This author sees an important connection between war and cultural production." It's okay to write "I am convinced of an important connection between war and cultural production." What you don't want to do is weaken your statements with "I think" and "I feel" - "I think that Frodo is an anti-hero figure because he is small and inexperienced, and defies the norm of strength and skill in battle, but he has courage and compassion" sounds like you haven't made your mind up yet. Write it that way if it gets you where your going, but then go back and delete the weakening words "I think" so that you have "Frodo is an anti-hero figure because he is small and inexperienced, and defies the norm of strength and skill in battle, but he has courage and compassion." There. You're sure and you say so and now you can prove it.

Use "You" if you are directly addressing your reader, and in no other circumstances. Please, in formal writing, do not use "you" to mean "one." To write "When you first go visit the Dean of Students' office you will probably be nervous" is much too casual. Instead, put the noun you actually mean: "When students first go visit the Dean of Students' office they are probably nervous." If you are trying to find a general, inclusive pronoun, use "we."

If the audience for your essay could reasonably be included in a "we," then use "we." Instead of "When anybody reads The Great Gatsby they are struck by the charm of the main character," or "When you read The Great Gatsby," etc. etc., try "When we read The Great Gatsby we are struck by the charm of the main character." It helps to create inclusiveness, and helps dodge some awkward pronoun gymnastics: "It is important that we recycle because the world cannot continue to replenish our natural resources at the rate at which we are using them."

When speaking in hypotheticals, we are are first tempted to go for singular pronouns - perhaps this is a very human instinct to not overreach on something unproven. I don't know. I do know that using single pronouns for anything but determined, designated single nouns becomes tricky before you know it. Example: "When a student goes to visit the Dean's office he or she may find that he or she is nervous about the outcome of his or her visit."* Terrible. Clunky and awful. No one wants that. And so too often we avoid the he/she stuff by turning to a plural pronoun there - they. But this is WRONG because the original pronoun was singular. Our example becomes: "When a student goes to visit the Dean's office they may find that they are nervous about the outcome of their visit." Ew. Don't do it. Instead, make the original noun plural, and you're all set. Fixed example: "When students goes to visit the Dean's office they may find that they are nervous about the outcome." (The end got tricky, because I had to make it "their visit" which looks like they're all visiting at once, or make it "their visits" which could mean that they each visit multiple times, heaven forbid. So I just dropped it since it wasn't strictly necessary).

*A bit of history: There was a time, dear students, which you will not remember because it was approximately when you were born, when people in groups were referred to as male if there any men in the group at all. When I was in college, all students, in all brochures and handbooks, were referred to as he, him, his, etc. This was not if anyone was referring to a specific female student, of course, but when talking about a typical, hypothetical student, they would say or write male pronouns. It was this way in all Western communication (business, government, etc.) and had been that way for pretty much ever. A brochure from my college, or from a church or company or organization, would read something like this: "Any student wishing to consult with his advisor should contact his advisor directly" or "Any member wishing to upgrade his membership should consult the guidelines" or "If an employee must take extra sick days he should discuss this with his supervisor." That was just life. (I had friends at all-girls colleges like Agnes Scott, where this was not the case, who said it was a relief to finally hear themselves referred to as she, her, and hers). A cultural movement in the early 1990's, generally called "Political Correctness," worked to change this, along with eliminating official terminology that doubled as discriminatory slurs (all disabled people used to be labeled "retarded" - officially - and I'm not kidding about that). Political correctness was deeply hated at the time and still is by some, and it was a huge mess getting a cultural consensus around how to use language both effectively and respectfully. We went through some awkward times when we had to write "he or she" each time we used a hypothetical. It took us a while to get around to plurals. I say all this because it really is that important that we get our pronouns right, because in this case "right" means "respectful to the existence of other human beings." Political correctness accomplished wonderful things, not the least of which is college brochures that acknowledge female students along with male ones.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Works Cited Page

The Works Cited page is a page which lists, in MLA format, the works which were cited in the essay. I reiterate: the works WHICH WERE CITED IN THE ESSAY. All of them. And nothing else. In alphabetical order, because it's neat and tidy and because it's not hard to alphabetize things.

If you need help with MLA format and you can't figure out how to use your printed MLA guide, you can use the very helpful OWL site from Purdue's Writing Center:

Too often the Works Cited page does not match up with the works used in the essay, and this is frustrating for the teacher grading the essay and disappointing for the student when the essay comes back with huge points taken off.

Use the MLA guide to format your citations. RefWorks and OneNote and online formatting things which have you enter the ISBN number and then generate your citation for you are too often wrong. Best to do it yourself. If you are absolutely helpless at this, consider doing it yourself and then double checking using WorldCat's formatting (make sure you set it to MLA), which I have often found to be correctly done.

EVEN IF YOU ARE USING ONLY ONE OR TWO TEXTS (in, say, a critical analysis essay which is a close reading of a single text) YOU ALWAYS CITE ANY AND EVERYTHING YOU QUOTED IN THE ESSAY.

If all you have is a single source, and there is plenty of room at the end of the last page of your essay for it, you do not have to start a whole new page for just one citation, you can just hit Enter a few times to make some space and then tack the one citation on at the end. 

How to Use Quotations from the Text

Respond to Your Quotes!
Select a quote that you can respond to, not something that you think says everything that needs to be said. Those quotes are boring conversation stoppers. You want ideas that you can comment on. Even something that you think is the end all, be all is something you can comment on. Find a quote that says "The Tempest is Shakespeare's last play because it is his most definitive play," and you can follow that with a discussion of what "definitive" could mean in the canon of a prolific writer and what about the play may or may not be definitive.



Chivalry was a standard of behavior for all of life but was connected to warfare. John Lynn states in Battle: A History of Combat and Culture that "In combat between aristocratic knights, the code of chivalry could very much apply" (101). Music was also very important in this culture, as was weaving. 


Instead, respond to every single quote, always and forever, by doing the following three things:

1. Restate the quote in your own words, because it's dangerous to assume that your reader is getting the same thing out of it that you are. This is an opportunity to explain terminology or vocabulary being used by your source that your reader might not know, as well as any context from the source that isn't in the part of the text you chose to quote.. Use at least one sentence for this.

2. Discuss the quote - respond to it with your own thoughts. What is interesting in the wording, or the details? Unpack the quote. Use at least one sentence.
3. Tie what you've now discussed back to your thesis from your introductory paragraph, which in this example, we'll say was an argument that while Beowulf is a Germanic tribe story from a pre-chivalric medieval culture, it was transcribed by someone in a chivalric culture and so was reshaped to fit that culture's preferences.

new example: 

Chivalry was a standard of behavior for all of life but was connected to warfare. John Lynn states in Battle: A History of Combat and Culture that "In combat between aristocratic knights, the code of chivalry could very much apply" (101). What Lynn is pointing out here is that the tenets of the chivalric code, like a respect for the honor of one's opponent, existed beyond tournaments and could also be found in battle. It is interesting to note that this was between "aristocratic knights," indicating that fighters from other social classes may not have felt held to the same standards, or at least could not expect to find them extended to themselves. This may explain differences in Beowulf's treatment of fellow knights when compared to the monsters he fights - he does not perceive Grendel or the dragon to be honorable opponents, and so does not perceive himself bound to a chivalric code when fighting them.  

The second use of the quote actually puts the quote to work for the argument, whereas the first lets the quote just sit there, lazy and unhelpful. And besides, the first use has 52 words; the second has 157. Any time students come to me and says they are having trouble reaching the word count minimum, I can just about go to the bank on the fact that they haven't fully discussed their quotes. Do this for every single quote and you can't help but have a rich, developed, complete essay.

Introduce Your Quotes!

Always, always, always. Failing to do so sends me into a frenzy, and it's so easy to do it correctly.

Instead of this:

Chivalry was a standard of behavior for all of life but was connected to warfare. "In combat between aristocratic knights, the code of chivalry could very much apply" (101).

Do this:

Chivalry was a standard of behavior for all of life but was connected to warfare. John Lynn states in Battle: A History of Combat and Culture that "In combat between aristocratic knights, the code of chivalry could very much apply" (101).

It is, after all, polite to introduce people to each other. "Reader, meet John Lynn, author of a book about battle and combat."

After the first introduction, we're all on a chummy, last-name-basis, so you can just call him Lynn. 

Lynn goes on to argue that "Claims that an enemy army displayed cowardice in the field can be an insult or a misperception more than a careful evaluation" (287). 

Cite Your Quotes Correctly!

Use MLA style parenthetical citation.

Prose, like novels or non-fiction, get page numbers, as do modern plays, and any journal article. Just make sure you're very specific later on your Works Cited page about which edition you used, since page numbers can be different from edition to edition. If you used a Kindle, see MLA for how to cite sections. Just put the page number(s) from your quote in parentheses, and you're done. See the John Lynn quote above for an example. Simple.

Poetry gets line numbers. If your edition doesn't give you line numbers in the margin, I'm afraid you'll just have to count them for yourself. Then put the line numbers in parentheses at the end of the quote. Also for poetry, you must separate lines with / marks, unless you have 4 or more lines in a row, in which case you should block quote. This is also true for plays that are in poetic form, like early modern plays by Shakespeare and others. The illustration below shows both: first, a block quote, and then, in the discussion of that quote, lines separated by a mark:

Note that the block quote is double indented, and that it is introduced by "In Cymbeline, the lines are:".

Note also that, for Shakespeare, as for any 5 act play, we do not give page numbers, we give act, scene, and line numbers, and we give them in Arabic numerals. There once was a time when this was done thus (Act V, scene V, lines 559-565), but then MLA realized that was cumbersome and unnecessary, and shortened it to (V.V.559-565), and then realized Roman numerals were not necessary, and so it is now the nice, easy-to-write-and-read (5.5.559-565)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

General DO's and DON'Ts

Keep checking back, as this page will no doubt be updated constantly
(last updated 2 February, 2014)


1. sound like yourself. You want your writing to be standard American English grammar and spelling, and of a vocabulary and word-usage level appropriate to college writing. But you also want your writing to be noticeably your own. Ideally, anyone reading your paper who knows you should recognize that it's your writing.

Work to find the kind of writing that is correct and readable by anyone at the college level, but which also still sounds like you - your favorite words, your cadence and rhythm. Some people are more likely to use the word "constructed" instead of "built," for example, or like using sports metaphors ("hit it out of the ballpark"), or tend to use one or two short sentences followed by a long sentence -- or a long, detailed paragraph followed by a short one that restates and sums it up. Write in a way that is natural to you, but then go through and standardize all the grammar.

2. have a sense of humor. There is no reason in the world why college writing has to be dry and humorless. Not only is it okay to be witty, it is wonderful! You don't want to be snarky or inappropriate, but it's okay to have some fun with what you're writing - it makes reading it more fun, too.

3. speak passionately about the things you feel passionately about. While you don't want to overdo it, of course, and you don't want to exaggerate, you should feel comfortable speaking strongly about important things. "We must address current problems in early childhood education if we are to  reach our most treasured goals in child development as our students grow up" is much stronger than "Early childhood education is important and will make a difference later."

4. write about what matters to you, not about what you think matters to the teacher. English teachers read thousands and thousands of essays - sometimes entire stacks of essays about whatever we seemed to emphasize most in class. The gems in the stack of essays are the ones about topics we know less about. Teachers love learning new things, so there is great joy in reading an essay on a topic that we get to learn about while reading. I didn't know anything about the BCS until I started teaching composition, but now that I've read some well-researched and developed essays about it, I understand and appreciate the frustrations of college football fans that led to changing the system. I am not a gender studies scholar, so when my Shakespeare students use gender studies in their Shakespeare papers, I learn something new every time.

5. expand your vocabulary. The English language offers you many options for each word you want in a sentence. I'm not impressed with the biggest, fanciest, word, but I am impressed with the best possible word. You can dig, or you can excavate; you can travel or you can explore; you can figure out, or you can calculate. Take a minute and think about the synonyms for the words you're using - is that word the best possible one of all your choices?


1. ever use the following phrases: "In today's society," "Throughout history," or "People today." These are  lame, general abstractions and do nothing in a sentence. It's highly unlikely that whatever went in the rest of the sentence following that phrase is useful either, so just cut it.

2. begin a sentence with "Meaning that." (Ex: Romeo loved Juliet. Meaning that he was willing to do anything for her.) This is just wrong. What you're trying to do is add a dependent clause to the sentence before it (Romeo loved Juliet, meaning that he was willing to do anything for her). But that's still a clunky sentence. Try this: Romeo loved Juliet and so he was willing to do anything for her.

3. EVER use a dictionary definition as filler.  Do Not drop a Merriam-Webster definition into your paper unless you plan to explain at length the purpose and use of the definition in better understanding the argument of the essay. When I read "According to, love is 'a romantic feeling between two people.' Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is about love" I want to throw that paper into a fire and watch it burn. If you feel like your intro is hazy and you are trying to establish something concrete - possibly from an outside source - as you make your way through your intro to your thesis, consider using a quote from a literary critic that can help you direct your discussion - ex: "According to David Bevington, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a play in which Romeo learns the true nature of love from Juliet." If you are trying to define some literary term, like "post-modernism" or "anti-hero" or "epic," use a literary glossary like the Bedford Glossary of Literary Terms. If you need to point out that a word in the text you're interpreting no longer means today what it meant when the text was written, use the Oxford English Dictionary. And since you'll need to discuss the definition and its implications for your argument, you should give it is own paragraph later in the essay - never in the intro. It can't do anything for you there. 

4. use opening clauses if you don't know how. Confusion abounds as students spice up their sentences with opening clauses, failing as they do so to make sure the clause is actually about the subject of the sentence. (Ex: Having grown up in Columbus, Atlanta became Joseph's home once he graduated college.) Atlanta is the subject of the sentence here, so Atlanta grew up in Columbus? And you might think "But that is silly and no one could get that confused - I was close enough and she'll figure it out." The details of every confused sentence are not so easily sorted, and you want me blissfully taking in your sentences, not having to unravel them just to get at what you're saying. Just create a compound sentence that puts the information in the order you mean: Joseph grew up in Columbus and then moved to Atlanta after graduating college.

If you still aren't sure that mistakes in opening clauses can cause confusion, I present to you a quote from Pema Levy's January 17, 2013 article in the widely-read Talking Points Memo: 

But despite the joking tone, most women on the panel expressed exasperation that despite being 53 percent of voters in the last election, the Republican Party was failing to reach out to women.

What?? The Republican Party was 53 percent of the voters in the last presidential election? Then how did a Democrat win the presidency 51.1% to 47.2%? That's crazy! 

Because that's not what the sentence is trying to say. Unfortunately, in its fancy structure, the sentence gets its opening clause and subject confused. WOMEN were 53% of voters in the last election. And the Republican party failed to reach out to them. I suggest to Pema Levy and the Talking Points Memo the following revision possibilities :

But despite the joking tone, most women on the panel expressed exasperation that the Republican Party was failing to reach out to women, despite women being 53 percent of voters in the last election.

Or, if we must have an opening clause:

But despite the joking tone, most women on the panel expressed exasperation that despite being 53 percent of voters in the last election, women were not being courted politically by the Republican Party. 

(The second one has passive voice, which I don't love, but it's the lesser of evils here).

Putting the subject of your opening clause anywhere but as the subject of the sentence can completely, totally ruin everything you're tying to do in that sentence, and not just by a little bit. It can totally reverse what you're actually trying to convey, and then everything following that will be confusing for your reader because they got the wrong information. 

5. be sloppy. Language requires precision. Imagine what would happen if you misspelled the web address you were typing in - you wouldn't get where you wanted to go, would you? Well, treat what you type into your Word document the same way. If you have grammatical errors or spelling errors that go uncaught by spellcheck because you honestly don't know any better, that is one thing (although you should go back and have a conversation with your high school English teacher about why you got to college without being able to use your own language appropriately). But if you know better and can't be bothered, why should I take your work seriously? With all that is a crapshoot about writing, grammar and spelling are the things that you have honest-to-God control over, so why let them slip through your fingers like they don't even matter? It's like showing up for a job interview in sloppy clothing, ... with similar results for you. 

Introduction to the Blog

This blog is for students of Dr. Robin Bates at Lynchburg College, and contains advice for writing for her classes. Everything on here regarding format is based on the MLA style guide, but also has information tailored to specific assignments for Composition, Literature & Culture, and 300 and 400 level classes like The Golden Age and Shakespeare.This is not intended as a replacement for an MLA guide, so get your MLA off the shelf and use it along with this.

In the comments below, please suggest page topics you would like answers to, or that you think might be helpful. I'm happy for any suggestions you can offer!