Three things you should never say to college instructors (because it makes us think you’re, you know, dumb):
1. Where’s your office?
2. When are your office hours?
3. Can I have an extension on that paper that’s been on the syllabus all semester and is due next week? I have another one due the same day!
1. Work materials only in your workspace.
2. Lose the music, radio, TV. Politely ask your friends to beat it outta your room or suite.
3. Do email last. Make it be desert!
3. Don’t “binge-write”!!!
4. Work steadily and with power.
Keep a notebook and pencil by your computer. When you catch yourself daydreaming, look back at the computer screen and try to remember the last “real” thing you were working on before you spaced out. Then make a note to yourself about what happened. After only two or three sessions, you’ll have a list of three or four things, usually grammatical issues or other technical issues with production, that have gotten in your way and kept you sitting there wasting time. This works. Honest!
5. Learn to love words. That’s how you’ll start to love thinking and will get your own ideas.
6. Love Words even more:
What you can think is always a function of what you can say. There are some thoughts that you can’t have if you can’t put 40 or 50 words together in a sentence. Elegant writing will enable elegant thinking. Form IS content!
You are not a juke-box or a vending machine. College writing is not about pumping out the right answers; rather, it is about learning lots of new ways of coming at intellectual issues and problems. If you are trying to expand your basic sentence from 8-12 words to 35-40 words you will initially write a few run-on sentences. That’s okay. Learn by doing – you’ll get better as you go. The important thing is to be working on ways to expand your vocabulary and the power and expressiveness of what you write.
8. Use your spell checker to find repetitions.
Repetition is inelegant and weighs down your prose line. It compromises the effectiveness and dignity of your argument.
Write through clunky formulations like these:
In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet is looking for the murderer of his father.
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Shakespeare deals with the themes of violence and ambition.
If you’re writing a paper about Hamlet and Ambition, you might produce some draft writing that looks like this:
Ambition is Hamlet’s biggest problem, although he does not seem to know it. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, almost all characters are plagued by hidden ambitions. Ambitions are bad things and all good people should get rid of them. Hamlet fears the ambitions of Claudius and Claudius fears that Hamlet is doing what he does because of ambition. Ambition is thus the central problem of Hamlet.
Your spell checker will tell you that “ambition” appears above six times in four sentences. That’s too much. You need to write more – find more words to do the work that “Ambition” is doing in the graph. Get out a paper and pencil and begin a “Lexicon,” a list of “key words” that you’ll use in the paper. If you know you’ll be talking about ambition, find ten other words that will do the work that ambition does. (Greed, aspiration, covetousness, longing for advancement, intriguing, etc.)
9. Passive voice sentences should not be written!
Passive voice: “In Hamlet it was shown that. . .” hides agency and weakens your prose. It makes your reader feel like you’re trying to “look smart.” Use transitive and active verbs in your writing.
You’ve seen or heard sentences like this from authority figures:
“Students who miss forum will be given a grade of F.”
Who gives the grade? The teacher does! Who writes the sentence? The teacher! Don’t hide the presence of the agent in your sentences.
10. Don’t start a sentence or a graph with the word “This.”
“This” is a repetition. It reflects laziness and lack of control of the paper. When your reader sees “This” on the line, he or she immediately asks “What is ‘this’”? The eye stops its linear movement across the page (a movement you want, because you want your ideas to come across naturally and convincingly), and goes back up the page looking for the “What” to the “This.” Every time you find yourself writing “This” in a paper, stop and find ten words to do the job you mean it to be doing.
11. Control your metaphors.
All language is metaphoric in that it never says the thing you want it to. Instead, you have to bend it, and make it do what you want. Heidegger says “Language speaks. Man speaks only in so far as he artfully complies with language.” (!!!) So, be aware of and responsible for every word that you put onto the page! Control the selection of your terms of expression.
The favored student last gasp metaphors are about movement into the visual: “This shows that. . .” “In Hamlet, Shakespeare depicts. . .” Okay. These are visual metaphors. That greatly delimits what can come next in the sentence: “. . . Shakespeare depicts that you can’t be ambitious and a lover at the same time.” Every metaphor you choose costs you, because you’ve limited what you can say. So control the process of selection.
12. Front-load your sentences and graphs.
Every sentence says only ONE THING! No matter how long or elegant it is. Make sure that the “weight” of the sentence – its chief intellectual content – is where the verb is. Don’t bury the most important part of the sentence at the end of a dependent clause. Control the process of writing every sentence: What is the ONE THING this sentence wants to say? Where does it say it?
The way to generate sentences in a graph is to look at the verb of the sentence you just wrote. What is the ONE THING you just said in the last sentence? (Find your key words.) Generate the next sentence out of what you wrote in the sentence right before it. Build the paper one sentence at a time.
13. Don’t lead the graph with plot summary.
The most important thing about the paper you’re writing is that You’re writing it! So, lead with your material. Don’t retell what happens in Hamlet. Shakespeare tells the story just fine. Lead off instead with the problems you find in the play and the argument you want to make about it. Subordinate any plot summary to your analysis.
Know the difference between analysis and plot summary. One breaks down elements of the story and isolates problems and issues, while the other just retells the story.
14. Focus! Focus! Focus!
Every sentence says only one thing. Every graph is about one thing. Every paper is about one thing. Know and control your “one thing,” and build the paper around it. Most often students add junk to their papers because they’re afraid to write short of a paged assignment. But if you can pick up the habits I’ve been talking about here, generating words and pages won’t be your biggest problem any more. There is a track through your paper, from sentence to sentence, of “key words” clustered around your verbs. Let these tell you how the paper is going, where it should go next, and when it is done.
15. Have a support group. Ask people to read your work. Do this in time to revise.
Nobody writes worth a damn alone. Even great novelists and poets have readers and editors who comment on their work and push it through the final stages. Create a group of readers and editors. Get a thick skin about your writing: it isn’t any longer a communication from your magical inner soul to a teacher; now its a public utterance in a community of scholars and intellectuals. Be proud of your work.