Seven Rules of College-Level Writing
By Holly Bailey-Hofmann, Language Arts Dept.
*Practice Exercises follow at the bottom of this page.*
College composition classes, such as English 28 or English 101, may be a big jump for some of you in terms of the quality of writing that will now be expected. Such courses are meant to prepare you not only to succeed in the four-year school that you transfer to, but also to succeed in the professional environment.
Over the years you probably learned what “the rules” were for punctuation, grammar, etc., but now maybe you can’t remember exactly what they were, or you remember them incorrectly. Perhaps you learned English as a second language mostly by listening and speaking (as opposed to learning it out of a textbook…and likely the Americans you were listening to were probably not speaking English correctly themselves.) All of these factors add up to the fact that few adults today (let alone teens or children) speak English correctly. Even magazines, billboards, and movies get things wrong.
Every language changes and evolves over time, and the English language is no exception. It may be that some of the rules we observe today in 2008 may not be the rules followed by our children's generation. Thus these seven rules are not hard and fast, but meant to serve as a guideline for community college students. They represent the major errors I find again and again in student writing.
Rule One: Everything Depends on the Thesis
There are many words for thesis: position, argument, stand, claim, premise.
In your English class, you will work on thesis creation and recognition. There is also a Powerpoint here available for your reference.
The thesis is the controlling idea of the essay, and cannot be too general or too specific. It cannot be a fact.
You cannot start writing and hope that a thesis will emerge; in order to be a successful writer, you must have your thesis in mind from the beginning.
That’s why Rule #2 is…
Rule Two: Write with Intention
Write with a plan. Perhaps in your high school English classes, your instructors were content to have you write more or less “freely,” based on how you felt about the topic, mainly as a way of warming you up to writing and disarming your negative inner voice. But now that you are sufficiently warmed up, it’s time to get serious. Few novels or screenplays are written that aren’t copiously planned out on anything from 3x5 cards to Excel spreadsheets. College-level writers should be able to make a list (a basic outline.) Conceivably, you can hold this list in your mind and work from it. But it's a better idea to make a written one.
In your college composition classes you will also learn and practice various means of brainstorming, which prepares you to write. To brainstorm a student can freewrite, list, cluster or map--really, just about any method to plan what you write before you start writing! This helps you bring lots of ideas to the surface so you can look through them and generate even better ideas that are waiting underneath!
While you may have survived high school English classes by writing whatever came to mind without any preparation--just sitting down and "thinking onto the page"--you are now pursuing a higher education to become a professional. It's helpful now to think of English class not as something to be "survived" but as a place where you are equipped to become an expert professional in your field. Strong reading and writing skills will enhance you in every profession.
Rule Three: Write in Formal (not Informal) Language
You can speak anyway you want to, or need to, to fit into your social or work environment, but in order to succeed in college and the professional environment, you’ll need to choose your words carefully according to established rules. This can seem like a drag, but it can also become a challenge, if you look at it that way. In effect, you can begin to play a game with yourself and others in which you mentally “translate” what you hear into correct grammar.
This rule also means you should avoid colloquialisms and abbreviations in writing.
|A colloquialism is a figure of speech, or slang term. For example: |
Dude, Where You At, Awesome, Off the Chain, Gonna, Gotcha, CYA, LOL
• Names and Numbers should be written out, not abbreviated.
• Do not refer to sources by their first names. For example, Dr. King is Dr. King, not Martin.
Rule Four: Be Specific
There are a number of words you should avoid using in college-level essays, and those include:
“they” (with no antecedent) “society” “nowadays” “these days”
All of these refer to specific groups/people/times that need to be specified. (Ex: doctors, baby boomers, students, the middle class, the 1990s, the late 20th century, etc.)
Now, before you have a heart attack, think about it: we speak in general terms because we don’t have the facts at hand. Or, because it takes an extra thirty seconds to be more specific. Consider this: in my online classes, I often have students in other countries like Germany and Japan. We can no longer assume, as either students or professionals, that our peers / classmates / coworkers share the same time zone, the same references, etc. We must be specific in order to make ourselves clear.
It’s amazing the way words can empower us. Making this change is a lot like developing a new muscle in your body that you haven’t worked with a lot before;
it’s going to be uncomfortable at first, but then it gets easier, and finally, it pays off.
A sub-category of Rule 4 is to use specific, appropriate pronouns. It might be that you’re using incorrect pronouns all the time and you have no idea, mainly because few people--even professors--speak in correct grammar!
Play along with me for a moment. Everyone loves their mother, right? Ok, this sounds reasonable. But it’s (grammatically) wrong.
“Everyone” is singular and “their” is a plural, possessive pronoun.
No doubt most people feel that “their” indicates that (whatever is said) is true of most people. But guess what? It doesn’t matter how we feel! The rules are the rules. To make it grammatically correct, we have two options: use a singular pronoun, or a plural subject.
Everyone loves his/her mother. (both singular)
All people love their mothers. (both plural)
Rule Five: Cite Your Sources
An important value in the professional world is accountability. Corporate CEOS are going to prison because they were not accountable to investors. They “overlooked” or even concealed important information in order to profit themselves.
One of the first and most fundamental ways you can establish yourself as a professional is to be accountable. Conceal nothing. Be open about what you do and how/why you do it. In the Humanities, as in many professions, we don’t leave accountability entirely to trust; we have guidelines. And the most important one for writers is that they declare their sources.
There are no new ideas, right? Maybe, maybe not. But this is why citation is so important. If you suddenly make the random claim in your latest paper that Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster are one and the same, the scientific community is going to want to see your sources. The world wants to know; where did you get your information? (…Especially before we give you a corner office and a book tour.)
Because if your information, original or not, isn’t documented, simply put, it isn’t credible, and you won’t be taken seriously.All this to say that all of the disciplines in the Humanities, including Science, Psychology, Philosophy, History, Languages, etc. have specific guidelines for citing (referencing) source materials.
The format used by English composition and literature professionals is called MLA format. Different classes may use different formats. Be sure to check with your professor.MLA stands for Modern Language Association, a professional organization that makes the rules for English grammar and citation. There are similar organizations in other countries that make the rules for their languages.
You are not expected to memorize all the citation formats. That’s why your English profs assign an MLA handbook every semester to guide you. It is a reference book in which you can look up the rules as you go. (And all the guidelines are also available on the internet, for free.) But the most important thing is for you to be aware of the necessary format, and be able to look it up, in order to show that you are accountable for what you write, and that your sources are reliable and traceable.
If a professor, on his/her syllabus, does not indicate what format students need to use in the class, ask. Remember, you are not simply trying to pass the class, you are trying to uphold standards of professionalism.
Rule Six: Be Concise!
Gosh, so many rules! But you’re going to be a better writer when you finish reading!
Let's say Mr. Boring, your high school English teacher, just got divorced, so he assigns a ten page paper to make the students all just as miserable as he is. Right? Sometimes that’s how it can feel, anyway. The point is, chances are that most of your writing life has been devoted to filling in the space, with whatever sounds important and educated until you have reached the page minimum. This is a habit you'll need to break!
Maybe you’ve gotten real good at saying absolutely nothing, to the point where you don’t even realize you’re doing it…you just sit down and start writing and it comes out!! But guess what…that’s not going to get you far in the workplace. If you give your boss fifteen pages of busy talk, there are 500 or more people (in L.A., anyway) just as qualified as you are—or more so—waiting to take your job. Does that inspire you to take Rule Six seriously?
It’s time to stop thinking about education as “student vs. teacher.” We’ve all had bad teachers, myself included, but that’s no reason to perpetuate bad writing habits that are only going to hinder you professionally. The English class is, admittedly, an artificial context for writing. But it is meant to prepare you for the job where you will know what you’re talking about and be ready to say it. Therefore, it’s time for you to stop looking at assigned work in terms of page minimums, and see it for what it is: a challenge. How can I fill five pages with well-researched, timely information that matters to the world, when at this moment I have no idea about the topic, and perhaps, little interest in it? Now that’s a challenge.
In short, whereas you’re used to saying more about less,
a college-level writer can say less about more.
Sit with that thought for a moment. Your essay may come back to you with entire sentences or paragraphs crossed out. The notes might say, “Redundant” or “Unnecessary.” Or even, “This adds nothing to your argument.” Ouch! Should you be insulted? On the contrary. Professors take their own time to correct your work so that your writing can grow. And just like working new muscles, it’s going to hurt. It’s like being told, Hey, you need to lose a few pounds. But if you can leave your ego out of it, in the end you’ll be glad. And your writing will start to sizzle!
Here's a quick example of using conciseness.
In this essay I am going to talk about the importance of drugs in our culture.
Why all the throat clearing? Just say it already!
Drugs are central to American culture.
And then I’m going to ask, illegal drugs? Legal drugs? Both? But now that you're
being concise, these issues become more obvious and can be addressed more quickly.
Rule Seven: Don't Use "I" (or "We" or "You")
To be a college-level writer, you must leave behind your reliance on personal experience and opinions to build your essays. Your essays must now be built by research, facts, authoritative sources, etc. To underscore this point, you must abandon the habit of using “I” based sentences. You don’t need to say “I think” to voice an opinion. Your name is on the essay, after all. It is enough to say, “Smoking is dangerous.” It sounds more formal and convincing than saying, “I think smoking is dangerous.”
When you talk with friends at a party or between classes, and people express opinions, do you ever mentally dismiss the opinions with which you disagree? Probably. Now, do you want your readers to do that to your essay? When we phrase things in the third person ("Smoking is dangerous") we separate the idea from ourselves and our opinions and it has more credibility and formality.
Remember, you’re training for a professional career, in which (to varying degrees) you will be trying to convince your readers, listeners, etc. You want to learn how to communicate with authority, so that even if you have no authority on which to stand, your writing/communication will still be powerful and effective.
“But,” you argue, “the only person reading my essay is the professor!"
The implication is that the professor has to read it, no matter how bad it is. And that may be true. But when’s the last time poor quality got you a good grade? So STOP WRITING FOR THE PROFESSOR OR THE CLASS, and write for its own sake. Don’t write what you think the professor wants to hear; support for an opinion is more important than what the opinion is.
It doesn’t matter what I think about what you think about an issue. It only matters that you try to convince your readers, by means of solid writing, support, and formal tone. Write for “readers”—meaning, any colleague, friend, or relative, who could read it. In your classes you will learn how to be mindful of who your audience is.
Hope these rules prove helpful to you!
Note: This content is copyright 2007-8 Holly Bailey-Hofmann. If you wish to reproduce this content, please ask permission: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks!