I’m sharing some excerpts of a blog post I wrote for my Fall 2015 RCL students after I graded their Paradigm Shift papers. It was a way for me to point out some of the common errors I was seeing. I’d recommend looking through this post when you’re doing your final revisions. Here’s some of what I wrote:
First, citation. Lots of you did far fewer in-text citations than you should have if you did them at all. An in-text citation is where you indicate in the body of your paper that you’ve used outside research (or someone else’s ideas, etc.) in a particular place. This shouldn’t be new to you as you’ve certainly seen your sources citing their sources. Any academic article or book is generally littered with in-text citations. Even Wikipedia requires in-text citations. Wikipedia’s in-text citations come in the form of end notes (note the clickable numbers at the end of some sentences–they designate that an outside source was used). The Purdue Owl (a resource which I have adamantly endorsed throughout the semester) has a reasonably thorough explanation of in-text citations in MLA style (standard style for English papers). In the world outside of this class, a lack of citations would mean that you’ve unintentionally plagiarized. I can see the difference between taking someone’s work with the intention of passing it off as your own and not knowing exactly how to do your citations, but it’s my job to teach writing. Another professor whose job is to worry about other things might not care about the distinction between unintentional and intentional and I do not want you to get into trouble down the line.
Second, style. I’ve seen your blogs and know that your writing is, almost without exception, clear and readable. I think what happens when students write a Very Serious Academic Paper is a lapse into Very Important Serious Language. This makes sense, of course. Why wouldn’t you write in a way that suits the assignment? You guys are trying on college-level writing for the first time, regardless of your high school experiences. Some of you have had great writing training, but you haven’t been writing papers at Penn State and it’s not easy work. What I often see happening for new college writers is a kind of writing that gets a bit tangled and confused as it tries on fancier clothing. Clarity is sometimes lost in favor of “sounding smart.” If you think I never struggled with that exact writing problem…ha! I know lots of people who have PhD’s and still haven’t mastered the art of clarity because they’re lost in tangled jargon. The master of everything you are doing should be clarity. If your writing isn’t clear, you might as well whistle your paper to me–that’s how well I’ll understand it. I’ve found a fantastic, thorough overview of common style issues from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Please read every word of it. It’s all worth looking at even if you’re already a brilliant writer.
Hopefully this is helpful stuff. I have two other recommendations that students usually toss aside, but they’re absolutely brilliant ideas (if I do say so myself).
- Use your classmates’ skills. You are working in a group of very smart, articulate students. Have them (ruthlessly) read through your writing. Ask them to read each sentence separately to see if it makes sense. Often when we’re writing, the stuff in our heads makes perfect sense and we think it will make perfect sense when we plop it out onto the paper. But as you know, sometimes our brains aren’t the clearest. Have your pals tell you when your thoughts are jumbled and ask if they’ll help you clear them up.
- Talk it out. There are two pieces to this suggestion, both of which I’ve actually done with students and they seem to work immediately. A) Tell a classmate what you want to say. Try this for a piece of your paper that you just can’t get right or (even better) for your thesis. I love to ask students to tell me what their paper is about without looking at their paper. It’s amazing how often students will articulate something different than what’s written as their thesis. Trust what comes out of your mouth in those moments and don’t get so attached to what you’ve written that you can’t revise and make your thoughts clearer. B) Read each sentence aloud. Each. One. And pause in between. The idea is that your ears may catch something weird in the writing that your eyes may not have picked up. Even better, have a pal read each of your sentences to you. Someone else’s voice may highlight even more strongly what you didn’t see the first time around.
Finally, all of these tasks require giving yourself time and space with a piece of writing. You may not feel like you have a ton of it right now, but do your best and save these tips for the writing you’ll surely be doing in the future. Good luck!