Executive Function and Writing: What Does It Mean for Writing Centres? – An Open Discussion

Amanda M Marshall, CTESL, M.Ed., is the Writing Centre Project Coordinator for the Nova Scotia Community College.

I have often joked that I have three fantasy careers: an astronaut, a neuroscientist, and a brew-master. While my career trajectory has not led me in those directions, I do have a keen interest in brain-based learning and in how to help students. When thinking about my role as Writing Centre Project Coordinator one evening, possibly over a pint, my inner neuroscientist and prior learning got me thinking, and I started to do some research into Executive Function (EF) skills. EF skills, which include “cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, and judgement” (Bradley-Ruder, 2008), reside in the frontal lobe/prefrontal cortex of the brain. Interestingly, “the prefrontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to reach maturation…[and] is not complete until near the age of 25” (Arain et al., 2013, p. 435). Whilst delving more into EF skills, I began to see a significant connection between EF skills development and the development and deployment of writing skills. I would like to explore more of these connections in this blog, as well as make room for discussion on the topic. I hope you will all join in on the conversation.

Amanda Marshall

First, let’s explore Executive Function a bit more. As mentioned, EF includes the ability to develop and reach goals, process and evaluate information, understand cause and effect, and make reasonable inferences (Bradley-Ruder 2008). Residing in the frontal lobe, we also know that this part of the brain is responsible for logic, strategy, working memory, planning, problem-solving, and reasoning skills (Schwaighofer, Buhner, & Fischer, 2017). When a learner faces difficulty in these areas and with these skills, they will likely encounter challenges parsing, sequencing, remembering, evaluating, organizing, manipulating, planning, self-regulating, and with general task follow-through (Zumbrunn, Tadlock, & Roberts, 2011). This can affect both the learner’s interaction within their learning environment(s), as well as with specific program expectations and activities/tasks.

Understanding that the frontal lobe/prefrontal cortex takes a significant amount of time to fully develop, and knowing that EF skills are not innate, post-secondary education is faced with some unique challenges. Much of what we require of our students depends on their ability to organize, critique, remember, reflect, evaluate, plan, and reason (Graham, Karris, & Olinghouse, 2007). If students are coming to us beginning at the age of 18, for example, not only are they still approximately 7 years from having a fully, physiologically-developed frontal lobe, they may also not have had enough exposure and EF training to be fully successful on their own. “Poor executive functioning leads to difficulty with planning, attention, using feedback, and mental inflexibility” (Johnson, Blum, Geidd, 2009, p. 219), which are all critical skills for post-secondary success and employability. With this in mind, it seems increasingly incumbent on adult educators to direct focus, time, and specific practice to help our students engage in and strengthen their EF skills. When discussing EF skills as they relate to adolescents and young adults, Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child states that “…executive function skills are not yet at adult levels, but the demands placed on these skills often are” (Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child, 2017). Further, Weinberger, Elvevåg, and Geidd (2005) remind us that while adolescents and young adults are “full of promise, often energetic and caring, capable of making many contributions to their communities, and able to make remarkable spurts in intellectual development and learning…neurologically, they are not [yet] adults. They are…a work in progress” (2005, p. 19) and require support to continue learning and developing the skills required for post-secondary success. Continue reading “Executive Function and Writing: What Does It Mean for Writing Centres? – An Open Discussion”

Humble Brag: How Seriously Should We Take National Student Survey Results? || Mclean’s University Rankings Canada

Linnet Humble is the Writing Centre Coordinator at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

In April, a Maclean’s article shared by a colleague on Facebook caught my eye. This colleague noticed our university ranked first in a particular category on Maclean’s second annual Student Survey. When asked if their university was helping them write clearly and concisely, 55% of St. Thomas University students strongly agreed and 31% somewhat agreed, placing our university at the top of the list for that performance indicator—ahead of other similar schools in the region, like Acadia and Mount Allison, as well as much larger schools from Ontario, such as Queen’s.

When I saw our university ranked first in an infographic related to writing, I let out a whoop and immediately reposted the article. Just as I was wearily approaching my year-end reports, here was some external validation—from a prominent national publication, no less! It was a shot in the arm for me as the Writing Centre Coordinator. Friends and colleagues offered their congratulations; I walked around for half a day feeling quite chuffed.

But I soon began to second-guess this good news. Did these results actually mean anything? Is Maclean’s a reliable source of information? Can surveys like this accurately measure our students’ writing abilities in their own right, or in comparison to those at other Canadian universities? And how much credit could the Writing Centre reasonably take for such scores?

To learn more, I contacted Garry Hansen, Director of Institutional Research at St. Thomas University. Hansen is responsible for collecting, analyzing, and ensuring effective use of university data both internally (by informing strategic decision-making at the university), and externally, by providing data to agencies like Statistics Canada and Maclean’s.

Image source

Hansen cautioned me against placing too much stock in these survey results. In addition to lending his critical perspective on this particular publication, he was able to suggest other tools and organizations that can provide a more accurate perspective on our students’ writing skills and how they fare in comparison to others’.

First, though: a word on Maclean’s.

Continue reading “Humble Brag: How Seriously Should We Take National Student Survey Results? || Mclean’s University Rankings Canada”

Announcement | #wcchat 9/14/17 | Join our bi-weekly chats!

Join our bi-weekly chats!

South Haven Writing Center

The start of the academic year is one of the most important times for institutions, including writing centers. Training, routines, and center management become focal points; effective practices in these areas helps foster growth and efficient operations for the center. It’s an important, and sometimes stressful, time for centers, making it a vital topic for discussion for writing center professionals. For this week’s chat, we’ll focus on the role that training takes in starting our academic years, discussing specifically what we do, why we do those things, and what we struggle with in training. Through discussion, we will be able to share ideas for what works for our own centers, as well as offer ideas for others.

~ Kyle Boswell @boskm

Chat norms:

  • Follow the moderator (@boskm).
  • Questions are tweeted out with “Q” and question number.
  • Respond with “A” and corresponding question number at the front of your tweet.
  • Don’t forget the hashtag! #wcchat
  • Use an app that allows you to follow more than one stream. Set a column for #wcchat
  • Favorite tools include Tweetdeck and HootSuite
  • Follow those you connected with and/or learned from to grow your PLN.
  • Be respectful of others.
  • Focus on quality responses and questions that generate discussions that focus on our writing center practices.

Questions:

  • Q1: Describe the training consultants go through at the beginning of the year.
  • Q2: If you use journal articles for training, what articles do you find most useful? If you don’t, why don’t you use journal articles for training?
  • Q3: What are your biggest concerns during the initial training process? Why?
  • Q4: Describe your strategies for teaching consultation basics.
  • Q5: What initial struggles are most typical for consultants in your center? Why?
  • Q6: What is your favorite training activity? Why is it necessary?
  • Q7: What is your least favorite aspect of training? (Comment ideas for others that might spice up their training methods.)

File cards of bravery: First-year writing anxiety

Brian Hotson

Brian Hotson is editor-in-chief of the WLNBlog and Director of Academic Learning Services at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS.

Each August, our centre holds a two-day Summer Writing Workshop. Its main purpose is to provide incoming, first-year students an opportunity to experience writing at a university level prior to September. It’s also a chance for students to make friends and meet professors. There is a lecture from which students use as a means to write a short paper, the instruction of the two days focussed on this paper. Usually 70-75 students—of an incoming class of 900-1200 students—register. The program is voluntary with a fee of $200, which includes materials and meals.

As an icebreaker on day one, I give each student two file cards. On one card, I asked them to write their name and something they’d like others to know about themselves. On a second card, I ask them to write a question they like to ask a professor (we have a Q&A with professors at the end of day two), and what they are most afraid of in coming to university. Many of our students are first generation students. Their expectations of themselves are very high, without any experience of how such expectations might be met.

I have kept these cards over the years. Each is a personal account of a young person on the threshold. The anonymity of the cards provides a startlingly frank openness into these students’ emotion. For me, it’s not the fear that is insightful, but the bravery of their openness and their willingness to use this openness to try something new.

 

(2016)

University is a chance to learn from mistakes. Drafting is an ongoing second chance, a means to understanding the process of thinking, as well as thinking about thinking. I read these cards before my opening talk of the workshop. I try to insert into the talk words from the cards, and let the other staff presenting during the workshop know of the contents of the cards. This one I keep pinned to my bulletin board.

Continue reading “File cards of bravery: First-year writing anxiety”

Lessons We Learn: 10 Years of Cologne Centre for Writing Competency

Editor’s note: What do writing centers look like in other parts of the world? In this blog post we get a glimpse into how things are done in Germany at the University of Cologne’s Centre for Writing Competency. Today’s post comes from Esther Breuer, the Director of the Kompetenzzentrum Schreiben at the Universität zu Köln in Germany. She founded the center in 2007.

The Centre for Writing Competency of the University of Cologne was founded in 2007 and is going to celebrate its tenth anniversary this October. Our university is one of the largest state universities in Germany with nearly 50,000 students in six faculties or schools. In the beginning, it was funded by the students’ fees of those at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. After students’ fees were abolished, the Centre remained under this faculty and is supported by a fund set up by our federal state for balancing the budget. We now form a team of eight: one director, one specialist on teaching academic writing, the head of our classes on tutoring, an L1 English tutor, and four students for the coaching. As a result, most of its offers are exclusively for students of the Humanities, or for those students who major or minor in at least one subject at our faculty.

The main objective of the Centre is to coach and support students in the process of writing term papers, Bachelor, Master theses, as well as PhD dissertations. We work with the concept of peer-tutoring. At the beginning, our clients often had difficulties with this concept as they expected to come into an office where a lecturer was going to correct their papers. They expected this lecturer to be an ‘older’ person (from the students’ perspective) who knew how everything was to be done. They did not assume that they had to cooperate (or do the main work) in enhancing their papers, finding the weaknesses as well as workable solutions for coping with these. This passive attitude towards feedback might be the effect of a widely-accepted attitude in Germany that writing is a gift and that one cannot learn how to write well. In former times – and sometimes this is still the case today – professors made students believe that they were not apt for studying if they did not know how to write academic papers. This belief is still implanted in some of the students’ heads, and for them it is hard to understand that writing is a learnable competency that simply needs knowledge of concepts and methods, as well as training.

Continue reading “Lessons We Learn: 10 Years of Cologne Centre for Writing Competency”

Crossing Borders: Bilingual and Multilingual Writing Centers

Melanie Doyle is a writing tutor at the Writing House in the College of Nursing and Heath Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She also teaches composition in UMass Boston’s English department while completing her MA.

In 2000, John Trimbur wrote of the importance of bilingualism in writing and called for more writing centers to transform from English-only to multilingual (30). Though many writing centers embrace notions of multiliteracies, some even rebranding themselves as multiliteracy centers, this designation tends to emphasize digital literacies rather than multilingualism or translingualism in the more traditional sense. In other words, despite college campuses becoming increasingly linguistically diverse, the majority of writing centers still operate under a dominant discourse. Indeed, though most (if not all) American college writing centers serve students from diverse language backgrounds, few can serve students in their preferred language. Looking slightly north, Canadian writing centers offer a unique perspective into writing tutoring, bilingually. Though Canada’s contribution to writing center scholarship has been historically small, the field is growing, and the work produced from the Canadian Writing Centres

Melanie Doyle

Association’s (CWCA) annual conferences look to extend the borders of writing research. And with the continuing interest—and current utter importance—of understanding students’ use of language, Canadian institutions are available sites for inquiry.

While Canada as a nation is officially bilingual, each Canadian province chooses its official language: Quebec, for example, is unilingual French, while Ontario, Canada’s largest province, is unilingual English. Still, many of Canada’s higher ed institutions offer francophone writing tutoring or bilingual writing tutoring. Ontario’s University of Ottawa, situated in Canada’s national capital and on the border with Quebec, is currently the largest bilingual university (French-English) in the world, and is thus is an interesting case study to examine bilingual writing tutoring.

To help me understand tutoring practices, pedagogies, and dynamics at the University of Ottawa, I spoke with Amélie from the Academic Writing Help Centre (AWHC), otherwise known as Centre d’aide à la rédaction des travaux universitaires (CARTU). Housed in a bilingual university where courses are taught in French and English, AWHC/CARTU’s mandate is to offer writing support to all students in the official language of their choice in order to fulfill the University’s mission. Indeed, the University of Ottawa is committed to protecting the region’s francophone culture; so in 2015, it obtained designation[1] for its services in French, including student support services like tutoring. In other words, by offering writing tutoring in both French and English, the AWHC/CARTU is doing its part to protect student rights to their own language, using official statutes to ensure protection and access. Ultimately, by supporting francophone students in their studies, the AWHC plays an important role in helping the University of Ottawa achieve its goals regarding the promotion and safeguarding of francophonie. Continue reading “Crossing Borders: Bilingual and Multilingual Writing Centers”

WLN News Round-Up: March 28-April 10

Here’s some of what has been on the WLN news radar lately:

“Two-For-One Deal: Killing Boredom with Procrastination”- Lindsay Oden asserts that students are particularly susceptible to apathetic boredom, which he defines as “that feeling of helplessness or desperation produced by overwhelming circumstances when we procrastinate.” He outlines some specific strategies for avoiding apathetic boredom, such as organizing your workspace. [Inside Higher Ed]

From Inside Higher Ed
From Inside Higher Ed

“What counts as academic writing? #ACWri”- Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega discusses the focus within academic writing on creating “generative text” and asserts that we should place more value on “non-generative text,” such as emails to colleagues and handwritten notes. [Raul Pacheco]

“An Exercise in Bad Writing”- Dr. Amitava Kumar describes assigning “bad writing” to his students in both fiction and non-fiction writing classes. He explains that through the exercise, students have an opportunity to be creative and identify clichéd writing practices. [The Chronicle of Higher Education]

WLN News Round-Up: February 29-March 13

Here’s some of what has been on the WLN news radar lately:

Who does academic writing serve? In this blog post, Jackson Wright Schultz discusses the importance of making academic writing accessible outside of academia, especially when writing about marginalized groups such as the transgender community. [Inside Higher Ed]

From Utah Statesman
From Utah Statesman

Art in the Writing Center. At Utah State University, the writing center exhibits of the artwork of a different student each month. This article explains how the idea was conceived and the types of artwork the writing center has showcased so far. [The Utah Statesman]

Strategies to feel less busy. For students and instructors overwhelmed with the day-to-day work of academia, this article offers concrete tips on reducing the perpetual feeling of being busy. My personal favorite is capping to-do lists at 5 items. [The Guardian]

 

 

WLN News Round-Up December 21-January 3

Here’s some of what has been on the WLN news radar lately:

Purdue Writing Lab tutors gain digital badges. Using Purdue’s Passport program, consultants gain badges for accomplishments like completing the tutor training course and presenting at conferences. You can check out lead tutor John Bomkamp and Associate Director Tammy Conard Salvo’s article on using Passport in their Writing Lab in WLN! [Purdue]

Check out this video about Passport:

A reflection on singular ‘they.’ Dr. Anne Curzan reflects on the use of singular ‘they,’ especially after its approval in The Washington Post style guidelines and explains how she has advocated for its use in her own work. [The Chronicle of Higher Education]

A first-year writing instructor weighs in on student writing in various genres. John Warner comments on how first-year writing instructors cannot prepare students to comfortably write in every academic genre and offers advice on assigning writing in non-English courses. My question is: What initiatives do your writing centers offer to help student writers get acquainted with new types of writing? [Inside Higher Ed]

What kind of news would you like to see in the WLN News Round-Up in 2016? Let us know in the comments!

 

 

Making Pronouns Inclusive By Making Them Plural

Faculty members’ ideas vary on this, and our Writer’s Web page about pronoun usage provides the canny advice to ask a professor.

The author of this post is far from “politically correct” in many areas, but it has always made good rhetorical sense to avoid gendering language when an audience includes men and women.

In a pinch, I can rewrite any sentence to keep it both grammatically correct and inclusive. Every summer, we edit our handbook for Writing Consultants, and I am surprised that three female editors still kept in sentences like this one:

“Have the writer identify his main point by asking…” when it is easily broadened to “Have writers identify main points by asking.” This revision has the virtue of brevity. Using “his or her” seems awkward.

I invite readers to come up with a sentence that cannot be revised by making it plural, save when an obvious gender-specific reference must be made.

Spinning the Plates in a Writing Center

Like Spinning Plates

Image credit: used under rights permitted by Jameson Gagnepain at Flickr

This post began as a reply to Jared Odd, the Writing Center Director at Lindsey Wilson College. Professor Odd wrote to the national e-list for Writing Across the Curriculum, asking for advice about managing a Fellows-based program at small colleges. At times, such as our current semester, I feel like one of the performers who keeps about 30 fragile plates spinning on the ends of skinny poles.

Richmond’s program for what we now call “Writing Consultants” now enters its 21st year. How we have managed has become a little more daunting recently, with only 3,200 undergraduates and the need to staff 50+ sections with Writing Consultants while keeping a Writing Center open. My post covers a few bedrock principles and recent challenges.

  • The Training Class Must Be Strong: We don’t shortchange Consultant training at Richmond. All of them must complete a semester-long course, Eng. 383, that is by invitation of our faculty. I could rush through 100 new Consultants in a couple of weeks of basic training, but I fear they’d be unethical editors, fixing writers’ problems but not making them better writers. Faculty would consider the help intellectually lacking, and I’m not about to dumb-down our commitment to fundamental ideas of peer work, long established in the field and tested well in our program. I find that recruiting my 36 new Consultants each year, 18 trained each semester, can staff the program. This has worked well at the similar-sized program at Swarthmore, long a model for WAC at Richmond. Except…
  • The Busy Student Body Must Notice Us: It is hip to be stressed out and over-committed on this campus. Strike one for staying on student radar, as a program or potential employer. Study abroad, a wonderful opportunity that I want every student to experience, has gradually become nigh universal for our first-semester juniors. Strike Two. Then there are internships, independent study, summer research, the hum of non-academic but seemingly essential social obligations…Strike Three. For these reasons, over time, more and more students delayed taking Eng. 383 until their third or even fourth years. Having sown this wind for a few years, in May 2013 I reaped the whirlwind, finding about 20 of our trained Consultants walking across the stage in their caps and gowns. Then, this term, another 15 went abroad. Thus we are scrambling to staff 50+ sections and keep the Writing Center open with 37 Consultants. Usually, I employ 50.
  • The Director Must Appeal to Potential Consultants Early and in the Right Way: My doubling-down on recruitment began early this semester. I notified faculty teaching first-year seminars that a crisis was at hand; I would depend upon them to bring me more first-and-second-year recruits. So far, a few are drifting in, but I will appeal as well to the students directly. Paying Consultants well helps, but students want more than a job today. Students at Richmond want a path to a post-collegiate career or graduate school. Working as a Consultant here means a better chance of landing a graduate assistantship or job with a communications focus. I count EBSCO, Penguin, and The National Archives among the employers of recently graduated Consultants.
  • Faculty in all Fields Must Become Partners: I have never felt that putting a writing program in a “silo” works well. First of all, writing has historically been under-staffed and under-underfunded. Susan Miller’s “sad woman in the basement” was more than a brilliant metaphor in her book Textual Carnivals. It was the fact on the ground (and beneath the ground) for a long time. Now that the Humanities themselves are in national crisis, writing programs cannot necessarily count on English departments with diminishing institutional clout for support. Program directors will need to sit down with Mathematicians and Economists and Sociologists, too, to determine local needs, priorities, and resources. These faculty will also serve as recruiters for those new student employees to keep WAC efforts vital.

I remain convinced, after more than two decades doing this work (with some very pleasant side trips into educational technology, the design of simulations, and more) that writing programs will thrive because our colleagues and administrators share our concern, if not necessarily our values, about writing instruction. The Director’s job, as the public face of writing on campus, is to be certain that the “center remains in the Center,” or wherever else writing instruction is housed currently. My greatest fear is that other units of a college or university, hungry for influence and budget, could gobble up WAC and Writing Centers.

We should not let that happen, since with merger may come a pedagogy we have worked so hard to avoid in our teaching and tutoring.

Handbook for writing in the disciplines: Music

musicindex

Our Writing Consultants Lauren Oddo and Kelsey Shields prepared a handbook with the cooperation of music faculty and our music librarian. Have a look for advice to writers, a sample essay, as well as transcripts of interviews with faculty at this URL:

http://writing2.richmond.edu/writing/wweb/music/

Three Professors In English Discuss Effective Writing

We just uploaded interviews with three professors in our English Department:

http://writing2.richmond.edu/writing/wweb/english/  (see left hand menu for links to videos).

Our Writing Consultants conducted these interviews. They may load slowly, as they are locally hosted. We have about 30 more in various fields. See the handbooks linked from this page:

http://writing2.richmond.edu/writing/wweb/disciplines.html

Our long-term goal is to compile interviews for each handbook, as well as sample papers with commentary by the professors and writers (including some reflective “what if” remarks).

Writing in Psychology: New Additions to the Writer’s Web Handbook

I’m pleased that our university’s undergraduate Writing Consultants constantly are developing new materials from their majors, including sample writing with faculty commentary and video interviews. Our latest efforts add content to our handbook about writing in Psychology, including best practices on our campus for lab reports.

Writing in the disciplines proves tricky work at most writing centers, I’d wager, as tutors majoring in the discipline avoid giving writers content.

At Richmond, we achieve our balance by moving examples and advice onto the shoulders of our faculty, who appear to be more than happy about volunteering help. Often, they and their students will submit a paper or two with commentary written reflectively and after the fact. These models explore the “what ifs” of the roads not taken or that were taken incorrectly.

We hope readers here will enjoy browsing our latest update to Writer’s Web.

Update 2/27/13: Sorry for the broken link to the site! That has been mended.

News from the WAC Clearinghouse

Recently, Mike Palmquist published the following information on the WPA-list and I was thinking it might be of interest also to some of readers of this blog.  /Magnus

I am pleased to announce that two new books series supported by the WAC Clearinghouse are now accepting proposals for manuscripts. These series represent a great deal of generosity of time, effort, and intellectual leadership by their editors, and I hope you’ll join me in thanking them for the contributions to our community. I would also like to call your attention to the Sustainable Publishing Initiative, which the Clearinghouse has launched to explore new approaches to scholarly publishing. The Initiative invites participation, donations, and other forms of support. The two new series and the Initiative are described below.

International Studies of Writing
Series Editors: Terry Myers Zawacki, George Mason University; Magnus Gustafsson, Chalmers University of Technology; Joan Mullin, Illinois State University; and Susan Thomas, University of Sydney

The International Studies of Writing Series publishes book-length manuscripts that address worldwide perspectives on writing, writers, teaching with writing, and scholarly writing practices, specifically those that draw on scholarship across national and disciplinary borders to challenge parochial understandings of all of the above. The series aims to examine writing activities in 21st-century contexts, particularly how they are informed by globalization, national identity, social networking, and increased cross-cultural communication and awareness. As such, the series strives to investigate how both the local and the international inform writing research and the facilitation of writing development. To learn more, visit http://wac.colostate.edu/books/international.cfm.

Excellence in K-12 WAC
Series Editor: Pamela B. Childers, The McCallie School

The Excellence in K-12 WAC Series addresses cross-disciplinary writing studies in K-12. Consistent with the more general Perspectives on Writing Series in its wide-ranging approaches characteristic of teaching and scholarship in writing across the curriculum, this K-12 series will include works that focus on writing in a variety of disciplines, the teaching of writing at the primary, middle or secondary level across disciplines, WAC partnerships, the administration of a WAC program in K-12 schools, and the study of writing in relation to curriculum, ESL, writing/learning centers, NWP, other literacies, or standardized assessments. This recently announced series is now accepting proposals. To learn more, visit http://wac.colostate.edu/books/k12.cfm.

The Sustainable Publishing Initiative
The Initiative is an ambitious effort to study, develop, and assess sustainable alternatives to the scholarly publishing model that has long dominated the production of scholarly books and journals. The goal is of the Initiative to carry out demonstration projects, convene study groups, and consider and test potential new models for scholarly publishing. The first projects associated with the Initiative include the 25 Collective, a project that intends to publish 25 books for a total cash investment of $50,000 or less. To learn more, visit http://wac.colostate.edu/sustain/.

To learn more about these new books series and the Sustainable Publishing Initiative, please visit the WAC Clearinghouse at http://wac.colostate.edu.

 

Of “Gravy Spots” and Academic Writing

gravy spotImage courtesy of “Make your Own Bar-B-Q Sign

Note to readers: this post appeared originally at our Writing Center Blog at the University of Richmond. I’m re-posting here because, in part, I am curious about how such small errors vary by culture. My Writing Consultants in our training class will discuss this topic today!

Imagine an orator making a speech after a formal dinner, and imagine the speaker doing so very well. In the end, however, a large segment of the audience never recalls the content because of the large gravy spot on the speaker’s tie or blouse.

The speaker lost the audience. So what are the sorts of small errors that make otherwise sympathetic readers stop reading? A general list may be nigh impossible, but I will take a stab at what most perturbs academic readers of student prose. In doing so, I won’t focus on the fatal flaws of novice writing: sweeping generalizations, sentence fragments, lack of support for claims.

  • Confused words. One does not hear the difference, in speech, between the homonyms “here” and “hear,” but in writing, such gaffs make the writer look unprofessional, if not ignorant. See our Center’s list of “Commonly Confused Words.”
  • Overstatement. One study or source does not conclusive proof make, even if it is a valid source or study. Academics expect an abundance of supporting evidence, including admissions as to where more study may be needed or the limitations of a source. One might write “the 2011 study only considered effects on male students at private universities” as a way to present such data.
  • Names. Student writers often use both first and last names for sources. It may be appropriate to cite a full name on first reference or for clarity when, say, two Smiths have been cited. But in most cases, in-text sources need only a last-name reference. A graver (gravier?) spot is to misspell the name of a source. I once had a reader of an article stop on page one when I did this, back in grad school. He said “after that I did not trust your prose any longer.” Ouch.
  • Format errors. APA, MLA, Chicago, and similar are not systems of fiendish torture. Writers use them to get work into a format needed for a particular journal or conference proceeding. I frequently see errors with a misplaced parenthesis, italics and double quotations both used for titles of sources, and the like. A first cousin of this problem can be adding blank lines between paragraphs, odd indents, and other mechanical gaffs. When in doubt…ask the prof!

These “spots” come to mind right away. Got more? Let me know in the comments section.