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The Write Stuff

October 25, 2009

Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education: dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add, that one must also be able to dance with the pen?
• Friedrich Nietzsche

What should schools teach? I believe that being able to write with clarity and correctness about meaningful content is crucial, even if all you will ever need to write after you leave school is an email or a memo or a letter of complaint. For almost a decade, I’ve been collecting data about common errors my students make in their writing. Sometimes, these things are simple: spelling and punctuation and other mechanical glitches that can be corrected by editing and minimal rewriting. Those errors are easy to work with. The difficult ones are content-related. If a writer doesn’t have anything to say, there’s not much that can be done to improve her or his writing until significant additional work is done.

In no particular order, here are some of the writing challenges I see most often:

• Proofreading. This takes time. A paper is not done just because it has been printed. Do not rely on on-screen reading. Proofing would catch many of the problems listed here. I always read my writing aloud, and I catch many errors I would have missed otherwise.

Proofread carefully to see if you any words out. • Unknown

• Dullness. The reader should want to turn the page, drawn in by interesting things said in interesting ways. Writing should have a voice. Writers should have something to say.

• Editorializing. There is a danger of editorializing when other perspectives or “sides” of an issue are not considered. Be sure that you have considered multiple aspects of any issue you are writing about and that your writing makes it clear that you understand the “big picture.”

• Lack of support/evidence/research. Assertions need support, and evidence should be provided when appropriate. Phrases such as “experts say” or “research proves” or “the facts indicate” are not adequate. Which experts? What research? What facts? You must cite sources. Details and clarity help here also.

• Unnecessary words and phrases. These are things that sound good, but are meaningless like “I believe that I think” or “in my opinion, I am sure that I know” or, you get the picture. When you make a statement in your paper, you can make it without these qualifiers.

• Impoverished vocabulary. Do not rely on the thesaurus feature of your computer. It may suggest words that are not correct in the context of your writing. Work on improving your vocabulary and making sure you understand the full meaning of words you use. Awesome, cool, amazing, and similar overused words meant to be compelling modifers are not.

• Lack of context. Issues have histories and are situated in larger contexts. There should be evidence that you are aware of this. Related to this issue is the use of outdated sources. Some research can be used to provide historical context, but you should also find out what’s being said recently about an issue.

• Lack of thoughtfulness. Gaps in reasoning and a “whatever” attitude waste a reader’s time. When it is clear that you hope to create a blizzard of words that hides your lack of information, most readers will not be fooled. Vague generalities are sometimes used to mask a lack of thought and/or research: “We have read many wonderful essays this year, and I learned so much from the authors that I will be able to apply in the future.”

• Repetitiveness. When a writer says the same thing over and over, it appears that she or he doesn’t have much to say. This can also be related to a lack of organization.

• Spellcheck reliance. Awful example (also proofreading-related): an application for further graduate studies that said the person was getting a Master o Farts in Teaching.

• Grammar checker reliance. GCs do not always give correct advice. I tested this for a research project. Have a friend or relative or other trusted person read your work.

• Word choice. Again, be careful with the thesaurus feature on the computer. English has many shades of meaning, and sometimes the suggested substitutions don’t work in the context of the sentence.

• Apostrophes. Student’s grades (the grades of one). Students’ grades (the grades of many). Also: It’s = it is. Its = possessive pronoun.

• Colloquialisms, slang, and other choices related to audience. “I did it in the fact that,” for example, instead of “I did it because.” Learn to “codeswitch” and understand that the kind of writing that’s appropriate when texting your friends isn’t appropriate for other contexts, whether it’s a formal paper or an email to a professor. This includes things like using the ampersand (&) instead of the word and, as well as other abbreviations and acronyms (OMG, tht ws 1 awsum lectur!). In addition, etc. (etcetera, meaning “and other things” or “and so forth”) while handy for abbreviated thoughts should be avoided in formal writing–finish your thought instead).

• Parallel construction. “I like swimming, biking, and reading.” NOT, “I like swimming, biking, and to read.”

• Subject-pronoun agreement. The teacher/he or she/his or her. Teachers/they/their. Rewording can address possible awkwardness.

• Subject-verb agreement. The men go. The man goes.

• Unclear reference. Be sure the reader can tell to what or to whom your pronouns refer.

• Sexist language. No, please. Men/man is not representative of everyone, nor is he a universal pronoun.

• Incorrect use of myself. “Jim and myself are going” should be “Jim and I are going” (I am going) subject. “She gave it to Jim and myself” should be “She gave it to Jim and me” (She gave it to me) object.

• Sentence variety. Check the beginnings of sentences, and be sure that there are not too many that begin the same way (although sometimes you may do this deliberately for effect). Also, watch overuse of pet phrases or words.

• Unnecessary/inconsistent capitalization and exclamation points. And be consistent when you use capitalization (Don’t say Executive Director in one sentence and executive director in the next.)

• Semi-colon and colon use. I rarely see these used correctly. Be sure you know what you’re doing. Commas? Often reading aloud will help you see where to pause with a punctuation mark.

• Creative titles. Yes, please.

• Paragraphing. Question your writing if it is one long paragraph. This may also be related to lack of organization.

• Introductions, conclusions, transitions, clear purpose (thesis, topic, controlling thought, etc.). These things are necessary.

• Absolutes. Think carefully about the use of words like never, always, and everyone. When you use an absolute, you may send the reader off on a mindchase for exceptions. Consider using words like some, many, almost, and other qualifiers that indicate that your awareness of other possibilities.

• Other things that make me tired. Careless misuse of there/their/they’re, to/two/too, and all the others from long lists that I’m pretty sure were taught in elementary school. I suspect that you could catch these by proofreading. My hand hurts just thinking about how many of these I have to circle.

What three goals could you set to help improve your writing?

Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
 great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.
• William Safire, “Great Rules of Writing”

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