Writing FAQ

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Writing FAQ
Common Mistakes

  1. What can I do to improve my grammar?
  2. What can I do to improve my writing?
  3. What is the most common mistake made by college writers?
  4. What should I do when I can’t come up with an idea for the assignment?
  5. What should I do when I can’t find any research for my topic?
  6. How many Internet sources can I use on my paper?
  7. Can I work on this project with another student in the class?
  8. Can I use research I did for another class for this project?
  9. Can I use a paper I did for another class for this assignment? 

 

I. What can I do to improve my grammar?

The most obvious answer here is to take LSSU’s grammar course, English 222: English Grammar.  The not-so-obvious answer is to learn a foreign language in the Indo-Germanic language group.  Indeed, research has shown that learning a foreign language is one of the most effective (if not the most effective) methods of learning grammar.  This is one of the reasons why I’m such a great advocate of requiring foreign language training in primary and secondary schools, starting in Kindergarten—but let’s not go there.

Of course, your schedule or budget may not allow you to take these extra courses.  In that case, the most effective thing you can do to improve your grammar (and style) as a writer is one of the oldest methods used to teach writing by writing teachers: copy good writing by professional writers.  Copy, copy, copy.  I don’t mean imitate it, I mean COPY it.  Buy yourself one of those composition books that you used in seventh grade, buy a copy of a novel or non-fiction book that interests you, and buy a good supply of pens.  Then COPY the book by hand.  One-page a day is usually enough.  If you’ve picked a book by an author who uses good grammar and style, you’ll notice a marked improvement in your writing by the time you’ve copied a couple hundred pages.  Really.  (If you need help picking a book to copy, drop me an email and I’ll be happy to help you pick something out.)

 

II. What can I do to improve my writing?

Assuming that by “writing” you do not mean “grammar” (in which case, see the previous question) there are things you can do outside of taking a course to improve your writing.

First and foremost, of course, you have to write.  You have to write a lot.  BUT, you don’t have to practice writing essays or research papers in order for your writing to improve.  Eliminating email and going back to writing real letters, for example, will help.  So will writing poetry, short stories, or even a novel.  Even keeping a daily journal will help here.  (Making lots of notes about things like what to buy at the grocery store may even help your spelling and organizational skills!)  So write.

Equally important as writing is publishing your writing.  I don’t mean getting it printed in a magazine or having a book published (although trying it once in a while will sometimes get you feedback from editors that can be enormously helpful).  I do mean you have to share your writing with others.  One of the most common problems facing people who want to improve their writing is that they automatically assume that their writing means precisely what they want it to mean.  One of the most common discoveries made by the same people is that it doesn’t.

See, it’s important to remember that writing is communication.  If you’re not sharing your writing with other people, the only person you’re communicating with is yourself.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but then it’s really not important whether you improve your writing or not—you understand what you’re saying and that’s really all that matters. 

Now, here’s the trick: don’t ask other people how you can improve your writing.  Ask instead how they read your writing.  What does it make them think about?  How does it make them feel?  What do they think it means, or is about?  Understanding how other people are reading your text is crucial to understanding what your writing actually accomplishes—and if you know that, then you’ll have a better understanding of the changes you may want to make.

This is, of course, a brief overview of a much more complicated approach to improving your ability as a writer.  If you need more details, I heartily recommend Peter Elbow’s books Writing without Teachers and Writing with Power.

 

III. What is the most common mistake made by college writers?

I don’t think it’s so much as a mistake as it is an attitude: many students think reading and writing are things done for assignments and not part of the “real world”, and certainly not things that can be fun and enjoyable.  Frequently, this isn’t their fault, since the educational system in the United States (and possibly Canada, but I can’t speak from experience there) reinforces this attitude as frequently as possible.  Changing this attitude is an enormously difficult task, but it can be done if the student is willing to try.  (Explaining how to change it would require more space than I’ve got here, so if you’re interested, see me.)

If, on the other hand, by “mistake” you are referring to “grammar error” read:

Connors, Robert J. and Andrea A. Lunsford. "Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research." College Composition and Communication 39 (1988): 395-409.

 

IV. What should I do when I can’t come up with an idea for the assignment?

SEE YOUR INSTRUCTOR IMMEDIATELY!  I cannot stress this one enough.

 

V. What should I do when I can’t find any research for my topic?

Your first line of defense is to snag a librarian (not a student worker, but one of the reference librarians who have degrees in “how-to-find-things”) to make certain that you’re looking in all the right places.  If you are still having problems after that, you need to SEE YOUR INSTRUCTOR IMMEDIATELY!

 

VI. How many Internet sources can I use on my paper?

If by “Internet sources” you mean “web pages”, that is websites that are not article databases or online journals, the answer is none.  If, on the other hand, you mean things like “findarticles.com or FirstSearch”, then it depends on the assignment.  There are exceptions, of course, so see me if you have questions. 

 

VII. Can I work on this project with another student in the class?

Unless the assignment handout specifically says otherwise, yes.  But do let me know that you want to work with another student so we can make sure that your final project meets the requirements necessary for a passing grade.  (Adjustments in the grading criteria and submission guidelines will have to be made.)

 

VIII. Can I use research I did for another class for this project?

Maybe.  If you are in English 111  the answer is no, since learning how to do in-depth research is part of the course’s focus.  Otherwise, it depends on the “other” class in question, and the writing course in which you are enrolled.  In any case, you absolutely must have my permission to use research from another course for one of my courses before you begin work on the project, otherwise you run the risk of an “F” for plagiarism (see the Plagiarism FAQ).

 

IX. Can I use a paper I did for another class for this assignment? 

Under no circumstances may you use a paper you have already completed for another course to fulfill an assignment in one of my writing courses.  This is self-plagiarism.  (See the Plagiarism FAQ.)

However, it may be possible for you to write a paper for one of my classes in conjunction with another class you are taking, that is, if you are working on both projects at the same time.  You absolutely must have my permission in writing to undertake such a project, however, or you run the risk of an “F” for plagiarism and Academic Dishonesty (see the Plagiarism FAQ).

Obtaining my permission to work on papers for non-writing courses in order to complete a writing assignment in one of my courses isn’t a particularly difficult task.  However, there are a couple of criteria you need to be aware of:

  1. The project must be adaptable to the purposes of the assignment given in your writing course (usually not a problem);

  2. The other course must be a course within your major area of study;

  3. If your paper is of a highly technical, or discipline specific nature, the instructor of the other course must agree to be responsible for grading the content of the essay, and to notify me of your grade in this regard;

  4. The instructor of the other course must agree that you can receive professional help from me in writing this paper;

  5. The project does not violate any of the topic requirements for the assignment in your writing course.

If you think your project meets these guidelines, see me and I’ll give you copies of the necessary paperwork needed for approval of the project.