My transition from public high school English teacher to university assistant professor overlapped with my university debating and then voting to change its core curriculum and academic calendar.
I sat in many contentious faculty meetings mostly listening as faculty held forth about the pros and cons of both the established core/calendar and the proposed core/calendar. One thing that I witnessed was that faculty are quite protective of their own disciplines—but are apt to step carelessly on disciplines outside their area of expertise.
For example, the faculty were considering dropping the traditional first-year composition approach that is taught exclusively by English faculty for a first-year seminar approach that allowed and required faculty across all disciplines to teach the writing-intensive seminars for first year students.
As someone who taught high school English for almost twenty years—most of that time spent learning the complex craft of teaching writing through trial-and-error and dedicating much of…
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Advice on Writing, Trish Roberts-Miller
Writing as a Young Scholar/Academic
Writing in an academic and/or scholarly setting, such as writing as a student, has some expectations that strongly impact how the young scholar is evaluated. Here are some key issues to consider when writing as a young scholar in a variety of academic settings:
• Submit work that has been carefully copyedited. A sloppy document is often viewed harshly. You should run the “Spelling and Grammar” tool in Word; you should have a peer proofread. But do not submit sloppy documents in any academic or scholarly setting—even if the work is a draft yet to be finalized.
• Some surface features of writing are judged strictly in academia—sentence formation, verb tense/form, paragraphing, and overall document and citation formatting. Be careful with the following:
(1) Sentences must be formed purposefully. Great care should be taken to punctuate and form complete sentences—with fragments and run-on sentence formations being rare and purposeful. Often, students are not allowed any deviation from complete sentence formation.
(2) Maintain control of your verb tense and forms. Verbs should be in present tense when discussing the action of a text (books, films), but in past tense when dealing with historical or contemporary real events. Again, students are expected to show control of verb tense and forms—using and shifting these tenses and forms with purpose.
(3) Conform to the citation requirements of the field—APA, MLA, or whatever citation style sheet the field requires. Documentation form, document margins, page breaks, headers/footers, headings/subheads, spacing—all of these surface details matter, and students should be diligent with them.
• Choose your words (diction) and tone carefully—making sure that the diction and tone match the level of your content. Students are often careless with diction/tone resulting in undermining their claims. “Get,” “fix,” “it,” “thing,” “there [to be],” “good,” “bad,” and similar common words are lifeless and beneath the emphasis you want to place on serious topics. Above all else, your diction and tone must match your purpose and topics.
• Academic writing must have a clear focus; often, the primary purpose of academic writing is to argue or promote a perspective. Students tend to write better when they see their essay as an argument of some kind. Can you answer this, “What is the central point you want your reader to understand or embrace after reading your essay?” Every word in an essay must in some way contribute to the central focus/purpose.
• All claims must be supported by evidence and elaboration. In fact, providing evidence and elaboration is the primary bulk of any essay. Claims are brief and have little weight; the evidence and elaborations/explanations are what convince a reader. When discussing a text directly, such as a novel, students must make direct textual references (quotes with citations). When quotes are included in a scholarly work, the writer must integrate those quotes grammatically with her/his original sentences. Here are some examples using APA citation (note the placement of punctuation, verb tense, title formatting, spacing, quote marks):
[First reference in a paragraph]
The Lacuna opens with a sentence that suggests foreboding for the story to come: “In the beginning were the howlers” (Kingsolver, 2009, p. 3).
[A second or subsequent reference in a paragraph]
Kingsolver pulls the reader further into the mysterious tone of the novel’s opening with “[a]s it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world” (p. 3).
[A quote of a quote (dialogue), second reference or after]
When the boy’s mother mentions his having a girl friend, the boy responds abruptly, “’I won’t have a girlfriend’” (Kingsolver, p. 9).
• Never simply use cut-and-paste quoting in an essay.
Kingsolver’s novel opens with a mother and son adjusting to life in Mexico. “It should have been like a storybook here” (p. 3). But they appear to be trapped in a life they don’t expect.
• Sophisticated writing doesn’t announce the claims and arguments to be made; simply make the claims or arguments.
Atwood’s novel is a perfect example of a novel taking a position on a topic.
Atwood’s novel forces the reader to look beyond the stereotype of a feminist by portraying June’s mother as a feminist participating in a book and video burning.
• Citation formatting must be followed fully and consistently. With some style sheets, the requirements are unusual and confusing (especially with the format of the bibliographies), but students and scholars must follow these guidelines. Note spacing, line spacing, and indentation requirements; capitalization guidelines; title formats; placement of punctuation; listing for page numbers; and proper citing in the flow of your essay. SEE SAMPLE ESSAYS AND LOOK CAREFULLY AT APA, MLA, ETC., EXPECTATIONS FOR IN-TEXT CITATIONS AND THE REFERENCES LIST.
Advice on Writing, Trish Roberts-Miller
Advice to Students and Authors: Submitting Your Work, P. L. Thomas
John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines (Cornell University)