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. 

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