Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tips from Beneath a Stack of Marking on Writing Academic Essays

Normally, I stick to blogging about writing, romance, books, and so forth. I don't talk a lot about my teaching work here, partially because it's exhausting work and so much more fun to talk about romance in my off-hours, but partially because I think fiction is what I know I have in common with the folks reading here. But, yes, in real life, I teach. This term, I have 125 first year university students. It's enjoyable teaching, but a lot of work. Especially this week, since I am currently struggling to finish marking 125 short essays. Golly, but that soaks up the time.

On Twitter today, as I marked, I was sort of Tweeting a few tips here and there, in case any university students were reading. I was kind of throwing out what I consider the most common freshman/junior essay writing errors or weaknesses, from my nearly ten years marking experience in classes at these levels. Frosh classes have their own personalities, of course, but it almost seems like the basic common issues never change.

Then I thought maybe these are use to more than just university students, as I saw more than a few reviewers, writers and editors re-Tweeting or agreeing. In actuality, these are tips that apply to fiction writers, as well, for the most part. Therefore, I have decided to post them here, along with a few new ones.

Likely the most common error is not editing and proofing adequately, of course, but that is something that comes with care and attention, and is easily fixed - just re-read the damn thing before hitting print! What I normally tell students to do is read it aloud, to avoid skimming. However, another common problem with frosh writing is that comes off as too conversational, which makes for difficult reading, so you can't always just rely on reading it aloud, either. For papers worth a hefty percentage, get another pair of eyes to check for clarity, if you can.

Another common flaw, especially seen in students fresh from high school, is the apparent desire to write like "a smart person." The sentences come out clunky, awkward and often unintelligible. This also leads to loss of content marks if your argument suffers or you end up saying things you didn't mean because you were using words you didn't full understand. Basically, don't use "big words" if you are hazy on their meaning. Communicating effectively is more important than "sounding smart." It usually has the exact opposite effect, and it misses the point of writing a paper. In academic writing, as in most writing, clarity and effective communication of thought/experience/knowledge/research is your central goal. Appearance means nothing if I can't understand you.

One of my personal pet peeves is overreaching generalizations. Firstly, generalizations just don't work in the humanities, because we try to question everything - thus, I am programmed not to buy them. Secondly, once you say things like "all humans..." or "never" your argument is immediately invalid, because assertions like that are almost never totally correct. (See how I softened that up there?) What I really hate is when a student starts a paper with one, as if that is the hook - a grand epic sweep of the subject: "For millions of years, ever since the first human walked the earth, questions of ethics have plagued him..." Really? Not only is that non-provable, it is also completely meaningless. Avoid windy rhetoric, and just get to the point - this is much more effective.

Further, word lengths are there for a reason. If you are unable to write a long enough paper, you have not done enough research, you didn't pick a strong enough thesis topic/question, or you haven't given yourself enough time to think about the topic - or you are just plain rushing the writing phase. Similarly, if you are unable to get the paper in under the maximum, you might need more editing or clearer thought - or, more likely, you have not picked a narrow enough thesis. It is far better to cover fewer things and do it very well than to try to cover everything and have to do it in shallow strokes. No paper can tell the prof everything you know in the world, so don't attempt it.

I do appreciate brevity and conciseness, but I also want to see the significance of the points you raise - give them time to gestate, stick to your strongest points, and cut away the fat as needed.

This relates to another tip for students - don't spend the first page or two wandering around the issue and talking yourself into an argument. This is very common for academic writers, and totally fine if that's what you need to do, but I, the reader, shouldn't see it. Do it if you must, and then cut ruthlessly if need be.

As to general content, try to sense what the educational purpose of the assignment is and do it. I don't recommend people rely on their ability to psyche out the prof, but it is central to (1) read the instructions, (2) consider the instructions, and (3) fulfill the instructions. And lead the prof through the stages carefully. Also, consider the instructions in the context of the class. What I mean is, consider the essay as if it were an exam question - the prof wants to see what you have learned, and what you know or have researched, so make sure that is the bulk of your paper. When using terms, show that you know what they mean. Use your research to display your prowess in the course focus. And make sure you are doing every part of the assignment. Never spend too much of your paper just regurgitating long quotes, but put them in your own words, and exhibit your own thought. Show us you have learned something, and we're much happier.

Finally, give each stage adequate time and attention. The conceptual stage, the research phase, the writing process and the editing work all need to be done well to produce a quality paper. Scrimp on one, or don't leave enough time to do all of them, and the paper will suffer. And don't crowd them - researching while writing at the same time, for example, can lead to accidental plagiarism, which is so not worth it. Trust me.

So, those are my learned tidbits from marking undergraduate papers, and maybe they will be useful for all writers - or not. There are other things, such as "if being a day late will produce a better paper, take the late penalty," or "provide a reference everywhere I might ask how did you know that?", but those things are idiosyncratic. In general, be clear, concise and do your job - whatever that is for that particular paper, along with the universal goal of communicating effectively.

In any case, back to marking... Sigh.

Have a good Wednesday, folks!

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