Independent Writing

An end-of semester look at the most common areas students work on with their writing

I’ve been teaching writing with portfolios a long time now—since my days as a grad student at Bowling Green State University’s GSW—General Studies Writing. That was twenty years ago now, but some things remain the same. As a writing instructor, my goal is to create independent writers. In every portfolio’s holistic comment, some variation of the phrase “In future, independent writing, you…” was used and still is. That looking forward is a primary reason for a portfolio. Gathering together a semester’s worth of work shows growth and trends in a way that is very difficult otherwise. It can also show a lack, and that too is helpful. Portfolios pinpoint what to look for or work on in future, independent writing. 

Doing this over time, I have found common areas that students work on through the semester, no matter which writing course. Chances are, one or more of them apply to you. I know at least one is something I will always have to work on and if I ask fellow faculty (which I have), they too have things they watch out for in their writing. I bring this up so that students do not think that receiving feedback means they are bad writers. No—good writers have a heightened awareness of how they write and the ability to deal with their particular issues. Here are the most common ones for academic writing, numbered in no particular order.

  1. Second-person and POV shifts.Watch out for second person point-of-view (the “you” or the “we”). It is extremely uncommon in academic writing and is usually seen as a problematic POV shift. Instead of second person, use third person. If you think about it, practically every time the topic/issue IS the subject, not the audience or the writer. That means third person. Avoiding second person also helps avoid overly-directive instructions to the reader such as your “Now let’s shift to when we are grown up…” and the dreaded I/You point-of-view shift, which is seen as a structural fault and tends to leave readers silently saying “not me.” Now there are some scholarly areas that encourage the “we” in extremely formal writing and they will say so. Another exception is the one I have in this document, when I use a specific you. The youin the instructions part of this document is a specific one—you, my student in one of my classes at this time. The instructions are addressed to that particular yourather than a general readership you. This usage can be tricky, and I try to avoid it for anything but instructions. In general, avoid second person in academic writing.
  2. Warm-up writing. Many writers have writing at the beginning of their papers that served to get them started, but is extremely general or perhaps is a tangent compared to the paper as it developed. If your paper begins with that ancient phrase “In today’s society,” it’s a sure thing that you have warm-up writing and it needs to be cut. Why? Starting so general is a mismatch between paper and audience. The audience for academic writing does not need an explanation of the issue beginning in the primeval mud. For example, they do not need you to explain what the internet is. Cut when you find it and do not worry about trying to avoid this. It gets you started and that is a good thing. You simply need to recognize it later and cut it.
  3. Thesis and points. Some writers gather up evidence in the form of sources and get it all in the paper first. If you think about it, that means they also have some idea why these sources are important but haven’t put it on the page yet. Sometimes they do get it in later, but more often they don’t and end up with a data dump that has no purpose. Have a thesis and points that connect to the thesis. Consider sketching them out first, not last. This does not mean making a formal outline, which can stunt a paper’s growth. You can even start this process with the title for the paper. A good title summarizes the thesis. There are different kinds and different structures for argumentation, but know this—a central claim is the heart of academic writing, to the point that there is a textbook called Everything’s an Argument. It’s true. Even a grocery list is an argument for what to buy at the store.
  4. Use the expected style/format. Every academic area has a writing format that they use. My scholarly area uses MLA, APA, and CMS End Notes, with an occasional foray into CMS with footnotes (ouch). This means expecting to learn a style once and be done is not going to work. There are too many of them. Just to make it even more complex, styles get updated over time and the MLA style you learned in high school is almost certainly outdated, especially if your teacher taught you MLA based on his/her undergrad experience. So, what should you do? Be sure you know which style to use and if it is not stated in the assignment sheet, ask. Be sure you pin down which version (I use the latest MLA—8thEdition). The point here is that no one can memorize all of this, but everyone can double-check their paper against the sample one at the OWL at Purdue.
  5. Tone. If you are doing writing for a class, the assignment sheet should give some expectation for what tone is expected. If it does not, the class syllabus may. If writing a paper for a class outside English, you may have to ask. If so, give examples for different tones. Some instructors know their own conventions and don’t realize they are not universal. They may think that formality always means no contractions and no “I,” not noticing that is virtually every scholarly area, both happen. So, the ultimate rule is to ask the instructor or editor what they expect. In general, academic writing aims for a calm, reasoned tone. It does not usually cross the line to “conversational.” Slang, clichés, hackneyed language, proverbs—avoid these.
  6. Transitions and bridging text. Many people work on this through all their undergraduate years. If they don’t, they, like some English graduate students whose writing was otherwise polished, catch up in graduate school or in the workplace. Writing textbooks and the OWL at Purdue site have transition lists where the most common ones are sorted by function. Do not feel that using transitions is repetitious in a bad way. Repetition in the case of transitions is the breadcrumb trail readers need to find the path through your paper. 
  7. Surface error/Proofreading.The bad thing about proofreading issues is finding them. It is very difficult to get clean copy by yourself. After all, if you had been able to see the errors, you would have avoided them already, right? Get a proofreading partner, someone you know has a keen eye and go over the draft together, perhaps with each of you holding a copy and the partner reading it aloud, including punctuation. That is how presses copyedit and it works. In general. If you have more than one or two typos, that is too much. If you have any typos at all in the first few sentences, readers then think you are careless and see that carelessness as an indication that they don’t need to take what you wrote very seriously. Take the time to proofread. Once you get a system in place, correcting surface error should be the easy part.
  8. Authoritative Sources.Sources aren’t always used in academic writing, but when they are, they need to lend authority to the argument. In other words, an About page, WebMD, a commercial medical practice site, advice from Ask Jeeves or Yahoo—none of these add anything to your paper’s argument. Sure, they may say what you want to say, but without authority, that does not matter. Here’s n extreme example. Early in my teaching career, I had several students who used a web article that made a claim (I don’t remember what now), one that the student was supporting. The student made it the primary source support since there literally were no others with that position. I had to explain first that The Onion was a parody site and second, what it meant that it was a parody site. The student was operating from the idea that if it was finable, it was usable, and weighing how reliable or authoritative it was did not factor in. Of course, authority and reliability do need to factor in. Academic writing on the university level and beyond has a hierarchy of what is authoritative, one that I detail in my blog entry, Evaluating Sources Part Two: The Hierarchy of Cheese.

I was going to call this the lucky seven, but it ended up being the prosperous eight. Get all of these right, and chances are that your future, independent writing will shine.

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