My Role as a Writing Instructor: More Lessons from Student Papers

by admin on March 9, 2012

Last semester I posted a list of major issues that came up in my students’ essays. Despite my efforts, many of these have recurred this time around. I can’t blame my students for not trying hard enough. After all, these are not the same students, and they might not have been aware of my (some would say intense) method of grading. As one of them told me: “I’ve never had a professor outside the English departments pay so much attention to how I wrote.”  I believed that student. My sense – based on sheer feeling and little evidence – is that most professors in the humanities and social sciences don’t pay enough, or any, attention to writing. As long as the author gets the facts right, he or she is good. In that system, real atrocious writing receives a B or B+.

Then these students take my course, and the same level of mediocre writing gets them a C-range grade. For some, this is a first. And it is disappointing, and at times even shocking. Yet the C grade is not there to tell them they can’t do it. I give it to show them they can do a lot better. By the end of the semester, most of them do. Students put more effort into their writing, because they come to understand the power of words, the need to choose them carefully, and the relationship between good style and correct grammar, and a solid argument.

So, in the spirit of helping my students (and others) who want to improve, here’s an updated list of common writing problems that can be easily fixed:

1. Style: word repetitions – still the most widespread problem and the easiest to eliminate. Repeating words in proximity or in the same sentence is bad style, and it diminishes the strength of the argument. In the last essays, which were about the Israeli and American political systems, some of the words used most excessively were: politics, government, system, parties, power, institution, and leaders.

I suspect very few students know what Roget’s Thesaurus is, but there are many decent (though still not as good) options online. My favorite is, but there are many others. Using a thesaurus is the best way to find synonyms and avoid redundancies, though having a rich vocabulary to begin with might be useful too.

2. Style: long sentences – English prefers short sentences. The rule I tell my students to follow is: if your sentence is longer than 2 typed lines in a Word document, you probably need to revise or divide it. Long sentences are confusing, arduous, and are a terrific way to undermine one’s argument.

3. Style: redundancies – I’ve mentioned this many times here, and my Style section has a part dedicated to this issue. The principal idea is to keep one’s language simple and concise, so there’s no need to convey a message or an argument more than once. In student essays, it is usually the little annoying redundancies that bother me the most. A long period of time was my favorite this time around, although it is theoretically possible that was also a good one.

4. Style: clumsy and awkward expressions – these are ultimately the result of too little reading and familiarity with academic and other sophisticated texts. The need to connect sentence elements or present an idea without having the language skills to do so results in funny (or not so funny) structures that one would (maybe) say, but should definitely not write. This time, is so that, it is more of a, adds onto the idea, farfetched elections, coalition process, the system implies, a shortcoming with,  in terms of, and in order to (when there’s no real need for in order) led the list.

5. Grammar: pronouns. No matter how many times I emphasize this in class and in my comments, students continue to make this mistake. So, here it is again: a state, a city, a government, a society, a company, a parliament, and essentially any entity that isn’t human, is an it, not they or he or she. The same goes for animals. Some students are aware of this, but still make the mistake of writing they or their instead of he or she when needed.

6. Structure: opening paragraph. One of the serious predicaments of young writers today is their inability to introduce a topic, an argument, or a question. In the last stash of essays, only one student actually wrote an introductory paragraph that explained what the paper will be about, what the argument will be, and how he or she planned to reach that conclusion. Even though that paragraph isn’t devoid of problems, I’m quoting it here word for word, so my other students could benefit from a good example of an introductory paragraph. The question in this case asked students to compare the Israeli and American political systems and argue which one is better. For more on writing introductions, see Structure and Tutorials.

There is a tendency in America to assume that since we are a dominant global superpower, our political system is the world’s best.  Unfortunately, this line-of-thinking precludes other advantages that have contributed to our rise, such as weak neighbors in the Western hemisphere, plentiful resources, and sheer luck.  While our political system is progressive and innovative relative to its date of inception, its many flaws and drawbacks have been exposed over the past two hundred and thirty years.  An excellent foil for our constitutional republic is Israel’s parliamentary democracy.  Israel provides an excellent comparison because its system of governance is an outstanding example of an alternative form of democracy that has been largely successful.  In this essay, I will attempt to demonstrate that Israel’s parliamentary democracy is a better system of government than America’s by comparing the legislative, judicial, and executive branch in the two aforementioned countries.

Essay quoted with permission from the author.



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