Did you know that your words not only explain the things you want to communicate, but that your words also tell people things about you personally?
When I began teaching almost 15 years ago, this time of year was often hectic for me and my students. Many of my nicest and brightest students could become querulous when their first essays were due. During office hours I would go over the assignment broadly, then, when this failed, go over it line by line, and still I was unable to assuage their concerns.
Then the student would sometimes ask the question that I always found particularly irksome: “Can’t you just tell me what you want in this essay?”
When I was a younger professor, I normally responded with the regular pedagogical truisms and cock-a-hoop that I learned in graduate school. But when a student would demand to know what I wanted after I’d written it down in the guidelines in the assignment, I probably turned blue in the face and made exasperated comments such as, “This isn’t high school anymore. You’re in college now. You can’t expect a professor to outline the smallest detail of a passing paper,” and so forth.
In my youth and inexperience, I think it felt like these students were asking me to think for them, outline their paper for them, give them a thesis statement, and so on. As a (hopefully) more seasoned professor today, I want to return to this question that I sometimes found annoying earlier in my career: What do I want from your college writing?
To start with, all of my writing assignments convey a strong sense of my expectations for your work. However, I also avoid being so explicit that the assignment allows no room for your interpretation and original creativity. With that said, I can offer a few characteristics that you should strive to have in your own writing.
Because of my background, I use literature as my paradigm, but the same is true for writing in most other academic disciplines.
An understanding of the assignment
When writing for college professors, you can avoid many pitfalls by making sure that you understand the broader arc of the assignment. While details can sometimes be included and developed later, if you fail to consider the pillars of the assignment, this can cause a lot of trouble.
Take for example an assignment that asks for an analysis. When a professor assigns a 3-page analysis on Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” you should make sure you have a clear conception of what an analysis is. Students sometimes treat the word like something esoteric, but it simply means “the separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements.”
Even if you are still unsure about how to do analysis, at least this definition can illustrate what an analysis is not. Words such as “separating,” “abstract,” and “elements” convey that your professor wants you to assay different aspects of Hemingway’s story and use them to burnish your own ideas on Hemingway’s vision of “man and nature,” the “meaning of death,” or whatever else you can squeeze from the story.
So, if you have already begun your essay analysis on “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” how do you know if you are doing it wrong? As you read over your paper, if you find that you are “telling a story about a story” (as one of my former students once ingeniously put it), then your essay sounds more like a summary, not an analysis. A summary is a retelling of the action within the story, which is probably not what your professor wanted.
Analysis verses summary is one among several examples that I could have used here to illustrate my point, but the overall rule is the same: never begin an essay before clarifying the nature of the assignment.
Choose your words and phrasing with care
After understanding the assignment, I would emphasize next that you be very attentive in the words and phrases you select for your essay. Did you know that your words not only explain the things you want to communicate, but that your words also tell people things about you personally?
Whether that is fair or not is not my concern here. It’s just a reality. Professors are often concerned with mechanics, style, phrasing, and originality in the papers that they assign, and professors can become annoyed when the conventions they uphold are violated. You should always make sure that your essay is not only correct but that it is well-written: there is a difference. You should start at the sentence level.
It is important that your sentences flow. Perhaps you have heard the jargon about words flowing, but this needs to be explained. The opposite of writing that flows is writing that is choppy. In their classic book The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White use this example to illustrate choppy writing:
Coleridge wrote Rime of the Ancient Mariner at Nether Stowey. Nether Stowey is a few miles from Bridgewater.
Notice how the writing is very stop and go, like driving on a downtown street choked with red lights at every block? Each sentence consists of a short, simple idea. Then it stops. Strunk and White advise us to revise these two choppy sentences into one flowing sentence:
Nether Stowey, where Coleridge wrote Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is a few miles from Bridgewater.
There are dozens of ways these two statements could be revised, but Strunk and White provide an apt illustration here. The words are mostly unchanged, but for most professors a flowing sentence is preferable, like cruising down an open interstate free of gridlock is preferable to a motorist.
You can also improve the appearance of your essays by not overusing the same words. One word that students tend to overuse is the verb to get. The most common use of ‘get’ is to acquire: ‘Mike got the mail,’ and so forth. However, it is common to use get for comprehension—’Did you get what the professor was saying’— and for to be—’I got my wallet stolen from me.’ Whenever possible, use different words. For example, for comprehension you can rewrite the sentence as, ‘Did you understand what the professor was saying?’ For to be you can rephrase the sentence as, ‘My wallet was stolen from me.’
Students often come to their professors when points are deducted from their essay’s grade. Most professors are happy to explain the nature of these deductions, but you need to also consider the professor’s point of view. Let’s look at a sentence that is a typical occurrence in college essays:
We all must die sooner or later, so live life while you can. Life is tough, but you win some and you lose some.
As a professor, I find this statement mystifying! Who does this disembodied “you” address? It does not seemed designed to address me the professor-reader, but who does the second person here refer to? In a formal essay, a student should use “you” only when addressing a specific or general reader, never for exposition. Otherwise, you might as well be addressing the cosmic wanderer.
Another problem with the statement is that it says absolutely nothing! “Live life while you can,” “life is tough,” and “win some, lose some” are all three well-known platitudes, but, as with most platitudes, they are also enigmatic from the standpoint of actual content. How is a professor to understand what you meant by these statements? After 12 years or more of college, graduate school, dissertation writing, and perhaps supporting a growing family on stipends and starving TA wages, most professors can grasp that “life is tough.” So what? What does this have to do with anything?
The cliché content of this sentence presents more questions than answers, and a good sentence, unless it is rhetorically intentional or has a question mark at the end, should always answer questions, not pose them. To do this is simple enough: just be sure that your meaning is clear. If it isn’t, then make it clear. Take this sentence:
In Lee Smith’s story “Me and My Baby View the Eclipse,” Sharon Shaw felt like she had no other choice but to commit adultery so she could feel like she was a woman.
Well, I think most female professors will agree that there is more than one type of “woman,” and they will probably tell you so in their comments on the rubric. To avoid such feedback, perhaps you need to provide a more precise explanation of your ideas concerning Sharon Shaw, adultery, and “feeling like a woman.”
So how do we fix this statement? Perhaps we should delete the entire “so she could feel like she was a woman” phrase because it really does not help or satisfy anything. Let’s try replacing it with something such as “because she was weary of what she felt was a monotonous existence as a suburban housewife.” Let’s read the sentence once more in its entirety.
In Lee Smith’s “Me and My Baby View the Eclipse,” Sharon Shaw felt like she had no other choice but to commit adultery because she was weary of what she felt was a monotonous existence as a suburban housewife.
The sentence that was once sexist and humorously equivocal is now clear, unequivocal, and cautiously avoids sexism. Now the professor can see that you were not only capable of reading and comprehending Smith’s story, but you were also able to express such human concepts and feelings in clear words.
Something else you should avoid in your college writing is the use of slang or other colloquialisms. Slang might be hip when spoken in the company of friends, but when written can often be the cause of unwarranted humor. Take this sentence for example:
My friend Joe and I like to hang out by my window. We’ve always stuck together since grade school.
The first sentence conjures humorous images of the writer and his friend hanging out of a window! In the second sentence, the phrase sticking together causes the reader to imagine the nature of the writer’s relationship to his friend as either amorous or Chang/Eng conjoint!
You might think of your professor as a boring, pedantic person who lacks a sense of style, and so forth. However, contrary to many student assertions, professors often have an ironic, voracious, and (at times) caustic sense of humor. If you are not careful (and I say this lovingly, not jeeringly), we profs will enjoy buckets of laughter…probably at your expense.
All generalizations are false, including…
Finally, avoid generalizations in your writing. While generalities at times might be difficult to eschew, you want to make an effort to use words that clearly illustrate your comprehension and intent. Here is an example of a generalization that I sometimes find in college essays:
In the story “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet,” Barry Hannah’s character Bobby Smith is troubled.
The problem with this sentence is that the writer has made a statement that conveys little to nothing. Also, if the statement is intended as the thesis for an essay, then it will fail because this argument puts the minimal onus on the writer to prove or support anything (which was the point of the assignment in the first place).
General statements might be unavoidable, but you should always strive to thresh out more meaning in order to demonstrate to the professor that you understand the intricacies of Barry Hannah’s story or his character. Let’s take the same sentence and add on more to the end.
In the story “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet,” Barry Hannah’s character Bobby Smith is troubled because his ideals about honor in battle contrast with the realities he faces in the Vietnam War.
From reading this sentence, your professor can now infer that you are aware of the complexities of Hannah’s story beyond the surface of the plot.
All these things I want, and more…
There are a plethora of books that touch on the topic of college-level writing, more than I can discuss here. You might also check out my “The Rhetoric of an Excellent Essay” for an overview of how the art of persuasion is effective with college professors.* However, this is a good start. Essentially, the answer to the question ‘what I want’ leads to another question: what are the qualities of the sort of writing that professors enjoy?
Whether in college or the professional world, I think the answer is the same: I enjoy writing that is more than just correct, but is stylistically smooth and considerate. I like writing that clarifies content and does not obfuscate it.
More than anything else, I like writing that treats me like a reader rather than a computer or calculating machine. When you write, treat me like a human being. If you do this, you will go far.
Republished with gracious permission from the Carolina Institute for Faith and Culture (September 2017).
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Painting of Russian Writer Evgeny Chirikov” (1904), by Ivan Koulikov (1875-1941), courtesy of Creative Commons.