Uncategorized, Writing Basics

The importance of style in college writing

Once upon a time, a young high school graduate signed up for two courses at her local community college extension center. She was eager to be the first person in her family to go to college, while also not wanting to commit too fully to something she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to do. She also wasn’t quite sure it was something she was even capable of finishing.

Typewriter image made using Sandbox app in Android.
Typewriter image made using Sandbox app in Android.

So, the young woman took a computer class, which she enjoyed, where she learned all about a new phenomenon called the internet, and chat rooms, and all manner of exciting new things. And she also took an English class, which she thought she would enjoy because she loved to write, but instead she ended up in an unwinnable argument with an ignorant instructor and soon dropped out of college altogether.

You see, this young student (let’s be honest, it was me) had been raised on a steady diet of the Oxford comma, and the English instructor insisted that her use of it was not only wrong, but completely unacceptable. The student refused to believe that everything she’d ever been taught about comma usage throughout her entire eighteen years of life could possibly be wrong. The only possible explanation was that the instructor was an idiot, and how could the student ever learn to succeed at writing college papers when her instructor was so completely incompetent at teaching this vital skill?

The student had already barely passed her high school rhetoric class whose teacher had led her to believe that she would never be able to write a college paper. The teacher had all but told her she would never amount to anything. And somehow, this ridiculous argument with an actual college English instructor confirmed the student’s suspicion that college just wasn’t something she could ever succeed at. So, she quit.

Today, I have a master’s degree in English, and I can tell you exactly where that college English instructor went wrong. You see, that particular English teacher had been schooled in only one type of academic writing, and she had also somehow come by the impression that it was the only “correct” way to write. Somehow, she never learned about writing styles or the fact that there are many of them, and each is appropriate in its own setting. This seems to me to be a concept that is completely overlooked by many higher ed instructors, much to the detriment of their students. Because of this, I have developed my own teaching lecture on writing styles that I think should clear up this confusion for the students and help them succeed in writing a paper for any instructor, regardless of which writing style the instructor has been indoctrinated in.

First of all, it is essential for students to understand that different writing styles exist. Had my first college English teacher understood this basic concept, she could have explained to me what the Oxford comma was (I doubt she even understood this basic concept herself) and then explain to me that she did not want me to use it in her class. Rather than telling me that everything I knew was wrong, she could have explained to me that what I knew wasn’t all there was to know and that it was simply not appropriate for this particular writing setting.

I like to encourage my first-year college writing students to develop their own personal checklists of questions to ask each new professor prior to submitting a paper to him or her. This checklist should include questions like, “What writing style should we use?” “Oxford comma: yay or nea?” and “Is it okay to write this paper in first person, or must it be in third?” Some students might also wish to ask if they are required to include a Works Cited or References page. Of course, I tell them this might be a question with a trick answer: regardless of what their instructor tells them, if they are using outside sources, they’d damn well better cite them.

The question should not be, “Do I have to cite my references?” but rather, “In which style would you prefer that I cite my references?” In some cases, the student may be safe in assuming that an English instructor wants an MLA (Modern Language Association) style Works Cited section, while a psychology professor wants an APA (American Psychological Association) style References page. However, this isn’t always the case.

Most instructors prefer to see whichever style they have the most familiarity with, which sometimes is an outdated version of whatever they were told was “the” style when they themselves were undergraduates muddling their way through writing papers with little understanding that other styles even existed. Meanwhile, instructors who have published research in their fields will know the writing style of that field inside out and will expect their students to write that way too. And if a student has any ideas about writing for the school newspaper, then he’d better start saving up to buy his own copy of the AP (Associate Press) style guide, because it is about to become his most faithful companion.

Even those aren’t the only writing styles in existence. There’s the Chicago Manual of Style, which is often the preferred style for novel writing. There’s Business Writing (as opposed to Academic Writing,) in which one might be surprised to learn that there are situations in which passive language is not only acceptable but is also the preferred method. And let’s not forget about the fully personalized version of MLA that one of my own past instructors, who had a master’s degree in library science, spent hours of class time lecturing on to make sure that we formatted our papers in the very specific manner which she and she alone would ever expect us to write.

The bottom line is, students must prepare themselves to analyze what each individual instructor wants and flex their writing style to meet that instructor’s expectations. Sadly, not all instructors make their expectations clear, which is why students need to be taught early on how to ask the right questions to help their teachers clarify their expectations. This is one of the most important lessons I teach my undergraduate writing students. That and consistency. If an instructor refuses to supply you with a preference regarding writing styles, then you pick the style. And stick with it through the end of the course.

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