Writing Rules

In my view, one of the hallmarks of the undergraduate curriculum at William and Mary is the freshman seminar.  In sharp contrast to larger universities and even many small liberal arts colleges, all first-year students at W&M are required to complete a freshman seminar that features close supervision by a member of our faculty, intensive discussion of core texts, and several major writing assignments.  Typically, these seminars enroll about fifteen students and are taught by a full-time member of our faculty, rather than a graduate student.  Indeed, of all the courses that I teach at W&M, I find my freshmen seminars to be the most challenging and satisfying.

When I first arrived at the College in the late 1980s, we had a freshmen writing requirement that could be fulfilled by securing a high score on the relevant SAT applied test or an advance placement test, or through completion of an English Department course, “Writing 101.”  The overriding sense of the faculty, however, was that college-level writing could be best taught via substantive courses led by professors from across the entire institution, primarily focusing on their areas of special expertise and interest.  So rather than route large quantities of first-year students through multiple sections of Writing 101, all taught by members of the English Department, freshmen interested in urban issues might learn about writing through a seminar taught by a criminologist in our Sociology Department that focused on recidivism.  Freshmen with a deep commitment to environmental policy could take a seminar about global warming within the environmental sciences program.  Or students who enjoy noir fiction might hone their writing skills via a seminar about hard-boiled novels and films taught by a professor specializing in American Studies.

Of course, there are some features that all freshmen seminars have to include.  For instance, to fulfill the freshmen seminar requirement a class needs to provide ample opportunities for the instructor and students to discuss writing, regular writing assignments, instructor feedback on multiple drafts of these assignments, and an introduction to the research methods (library sources, archival materials, basic statistics, and so on) necessary for the writing assignments to be meaningful.  Still, there probably are as many different approaches to organizing these seminars and structuring the associated writing assignments as there are instructors who teach them.  Toward the beginning of my freshmen seminars, for example, I usually hand out a list of ten guidelines for the students to consider in crafting their papers.  Included on the list are the following points.

1. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are for middle school

Our students are generally very well prepared for college and highly intelligent.  And especially now that all word processing packages include tools for checking grammar, punctuation, and spelling, there is absolutely no excuse for deficiencies in any of these areas.  Students need to be sure that their papers are polished and grammatically correct before submitting them to me.  If there are any significant problems of this sort, I generally return the paper without a grade and invite a resubmission.  Fortunately, this does not happen very often.

2. Papers are arguments

Too often, there is a tendency for college students to view papers – especially longer research paper assignments – kind of like edifices or monuments to be constructed.  Their inclination is to ask, “How long does this thing have to be?  Is the professor looking for a lot of references or footnotes?  Does the paper have to include original analysis?  How the heck am I going to complete this before the deadline?”  But writing, it should be emphasized, primarily is a mode of communication.  The author should be trying to influence in some way the views or attitudes of the reader.  All papers – and I mean ALL papers – first and foremost should be viewed as arguments.

3. Arguments drive structure

Along those lines, the argumentation in a paper will be more effective and convincing if it is fully reflected in and reinforced by the basic structure of the paper.  The internal construction of each paragraph, the order of the paragraphs, the way that points are bundled and reinforced across paragraphs – All of these structural features of the paper should be based on the structure of the underlying argument.  So before students write their papers, I urge them to understand and think carefully about the essential logical underpinnings of their analysis.

4. Transitions, transitions, transitions

Many of the first drafts that college students produce read like the written equivalent of a drive by shooting.  After a brief introduction, the author splays the helpless reader with point after seemingly unrelated point.  Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!  Proper transitions are central to good writing.  Well-crafted transition sentences or phrases can help the reader keep track of the overarching analytical structure to the argument, and thus avoid the “drive by” effect.  Put differently, transitions help the reader comprehend the argument and follow the logical trajectory of the paper.  One easy way to improve the quality of the transitions in a paper, I think, is to make careful use of headings and subheadings.  For some reason, simply including these items forces students to think harder about how effectively they are transitioning from point to point.

5. Write down

A lot of college students, especially freshmen, tend to pitch their papers as if the only audience is the professor.  For the purposes of that particular assignment, the instructor probably will be the only reader.  But the goal of course writing assignments is to build skills at communicating through the written word.   As a result, course papers should be drafted as though there is a broader audience beyond the instructor.  And the student needs to provide sufficient background and context in the paper for this hypothetical audience to make sense of the contents.  When a student writes a paper about the Congress for me, for example, I expect that student to aim the paper at a lay audience of informed readers, not just me or another instructor.  Thus, I suggest that my students essentially “write down,” that is, that they draft their papers as if they are trying to reach an audience of smart high school seniors with an interest in politics.

6. Listen to the beat

Some students write beautifully from the day they arrive at W&M.  Their phrases and sentences seem to flow effortlessly across the page and I can follow the train of thought without effort.  Unfortunately, other students have writing styles that seem more stilted or awkward or difficult to follow.  Beyond the standard rules of grammar and sentence construction, good writing is probably more an art than it is a science.  I think I know excellent writing when I see it but occasionally have real difficulties describing the necessary ingredients comprehensively or with precision.  Still, for what it is worth, my sense is that students who did a lot of reading when they were very young or who had substantial musical training are especially likely to become highly effective writers.  I think this may have something to do with the rhythm and even melody that seems to be at the heart of a beautifully written manuscript.  For those of us without natural abilities in this area, sometimes it can help to read our draft sentences aloud, gauging whether the underlying rhythm is interesting and pleasing to the ear.

7. Don’t write like an academic

A lot of academic writing is really pretentious and vague, effectively obfuscating the obvious via jargon and stilted language.  Consider the following sentences, which are from a book I recently read by a distinguished academic:  “In this way the order-shattering and order-affirming impulses of the presidency in politics became mutually reinforcing. As the president’s initial political warrants dovetailed with the inherently disruptive exercise of presidential powers, the interplay of power and authority generated its own supports for independent action.”  Huh?  I guess that sounds really insightful, but what the heck does it mean?  The purpose of the written word, it should be emphasized, is to communicate with other people.  Personally, I have a strong preference for writing that is simple, clear, and direct.

8. End where you begin

In my view, the best course papers are generally structured like an hourglass and finish up basically where they start.  I advise freshmen to begin their papers with brief introductions that state the purpose or goal behind the paper, the main ingredients of the argument, and the basic structure of the pages to follow (e.g., the contents of the different sections).  In the conclusion, I expect them to restate what they have argued or demonstrated, fleshing out the broader implications of their work.  That’s where the “hourglass” analogy comes in.  Ideally, I think students should begin their papers by addressing broad goals and important questions, then go narrow in the main body of the paper, exploring these goals and questions via concrete evidence or examples, and then conclude by summarizing the implications of the analysis for the larger goals or questions that are motivating the exercise.  Just because students usually are time constrained in their research and writing, or may lack the background and skills necessary to do important original work, does not mean that they can’t at least address issues and questions that matter and have broader importance.

9. Good writing is rewriting

This is absolutely critical.  Over the years, I’ve written two books, around thirty scholarly articles and chapters in edited volumes, and several dozen conference papers.  But even as a relatively senior scholar now, my first drafts are still awkward and sloppy.  I would be deeply embarrassed if they ever saw the light of day.  My sentences and paragraphs don’t begin to resemble the work of an adult until at least the third or fourth draft, as I scrub away the bad writing and incrementally craft a manuscript that looks halfway professional.  The central ingredient to good writing, in other words, is rewriting.  When I was a college student back in the day, we actually wrote term papers on electric typewriters.  It was possible to erase and retype on these antiquated machines, but there still were a lot of constraints on revising term papers once the typing process began.  There never seemed to be enough time and the retyping process was really cumbersome and inconvenient.  The advent of word processing has transformed the production of good writing, greatly facilitating the process of rewriting and revision.  These days, there is simply no excuse for students not to engage in extensive revisions of their written work.  The purpose of the first draft should be to slop your thoughts down on paper.  Draft two makes the exposition readable.  Draft three begins to make it precise.

10. There are no hard and fast rules for writing freshman seminar papers

Although I have my aforementioned “writing rules,” and other instructors doubtlessly have their own thoughts about crafting good essays and research papers, in the end students need to follow the beat of their own drummer.  For the most part, W&M students are creative, hardworking, and a lot smarter than I am.  To some extent, then, they really do need to let their own interests and intuition guide their research and writing.  During my time at the College, I’ve read superb student papers that broke most of the rules mentioned in this blog post and still received solid “A’s.”  So my instructions about proper writing, both here and in my classes, should be viewed as suggestions rather than rigid requirements or constraints. 

In the end, all authors, even freshmen students at the College of William and Mary, should write papers aimed at pleasing themselves.  Consider for a few moments the insightful comments of Ian Kerwin, the preeminent historian of Nazi Germany, who recently remarked that, “The principal reason for writing for me has always been to explain something to myself….  Of course, that others have taken an interest in what I have written, and that it is adjudged to have contributed a little to the wider field of research, is extremely gratifying. But these were not the main reasons for writing in the first place. Every book or essay I have undertaken has taught me a great deal more about one of the most crucial periods in the whole of human history. And that has made it worthwhile.”

Of course, I know that most students primarily write papers because instructors like me require them to do so as part of class assignments.  Perhaps I am being a little naïve here, but my strong sense is that the best course papers are the ones that the students themselves come to view as worthwhile, above and beyond any grades or course credit they might receive.

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