A direct and practical approach drawn from the experience of PhD. holders and oriented to the college student who wants to succeed in his/her work without the strain of Intellectual Overkill


Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Sirrah, (deo gratia) Emeritus

Writing is the key to success in college, just as college is the key to success in life. Success means money and lack of success means poverty, the way things are shaping up, even Homelessness. Keep this is mind as your write each paper for your college courses, it will keep you on the right track.

Blunt as this may seem, it is the truth, and whether you like the written word, respect it, or possibly detest it, really makes little difference. To succeed you are going to have to write to a certain minimum standard, and you might as well accept this as one of the unpleasant facts of life.

It is easy to become discouraged at something which you are not very good at. But never fear: We often think of Creative Writing as the intellectual gift of masters, of a Shakespeare, a Tennyson. But talent is not a requisite in this any more than in any other walk of life. In the American system, we know that anyone who applies himself can succeed, that education is the sure way of learning to do something, even in cases when ability is totally lacking. It is Will which wins its way, while talent often fritters itself away, lacking purpose and dogged American drive.

Style is a necessary part of writing, a decoration which makes the pill more acceptable, a syrup which makes the angry child swallow the medicine. The fortunate thing for most of us is that style is simple, it is learnable, and for the effort involved in mastering it, it is cheap. Good written style can turn a D paper into a B minus, time and time again. Style, simply put, separates the acceptable from the unacceptable.

Now let us look carefully at that critical experience:: The written term paper, and starting from some very simple observations, proceed in an orderly way to lay out the bricks which pave the path to success:

1)      The success of a paper is based, first and foremost, on choice of a TOPIC. It is natural to think that a topic should be interesting to the student, but a word of caution is in order. NEVER CHOOSE AN INTERESTING TOPIC. Statistical analysis shows that interesting topics fail to get finished in 40% of cases, in a recent college wide study, and when finished more than half get a grade of C or lower.

The same might be said of Ideas. Ideas are the sure road to confusion, and confusion is anathema to the professorial mind. What then, one might remark, can I write about?

You write the paper which is in the teacher's mind. Your ideas are his ideas, your prejudices are his prejudices, your outlook is his outlook. In this way you achieve the congruence between your paper and the teacher's perusal of that paper, which will denote intelligence to him and a hence good grade for you.

Organization is the supreme virtue, not for any abstruse reason, but because professors are usually very careless readers, and easily become inpatient. They must not be allowed to miss your points. The only way to hold their attention is by the most rigorous organization, including topic sentences at the beginning AND at the end of each paragraph. Summaries are mandatory to capture the attention of dozing academic noggins. Don't forget: If they miss it, it's you who lose.

2)       Now coming to STYLISTICS proper, we must take note of words and what they can mean in varying contexts. Words can be quite plain, in which condition they denote sincerity, or that can be fancied up a bit to infer higher intelligence. This second route is always dangerous for two reasons: First you may say something smarter than you can explain, and subsequent discussion may give the professor the feeling that he has been fooled. Academics do hate this situation. Second, fine writing may suggest to the teacher that you are plagiarizing, and whether you did or not, there is surely some passage in some book which may infer that you did. A determined professor with an axe to grind is a formidable hangman, even with a mixed metaphor.

3)       Sentence structure must be attuned to a realistic estimate of the professor's span of attention. It is short, keep your sentences short, if you see he likes involved ideas, spin few out, on the premise that he will react favorably to extended verbiage. But never outstrip him or exceed his syntactic capabilities. That could easily damage his ego and of course your grade.

4)       Under the heading of mechanics of the paper, then are many possibilities for succeeding and likewise for going astray. It would seem best to use good computer font, clean and easy to read but not fancy (New Yorker is proven best for tired eyes). Put on a nicely fonted cover sheet, and set the whole thing in a bookstore binder which does not look cheap.

Note however some of the implications: The neat cover sheet has little writing and much space and is a natural encouragement for the teacher to indulge in handwritten comments. Teachers usually have bad handwriting, and the more the professor writes, the crabbier he gets. This doesn't help the grade at all, so on second thought it would seem best not to use a cover sheet at ail.nif you can get away with it.

Wide margins have the same danger, they invite comment. Some students have been successful in writing the paper from top to bottom and edge to edge, with no room left for comment.. The net effect is to inhibit comment, and avoid the tragic moment at which the professors decides that the work is sheer junk. Any deferring of judgment at this point will pay off handsomely later.

Always append a bibliography, even if it refers to books to have only looked at once. It denotes hard work in the library stacks and seriousness of purpose. Mainly consider the bibliography as something like the Christmas stocking. No one cares so long as it looks full., that's what matters.

5)       Never forget to estimate the enemy correctly. Psyche out the teacher's mind, and write your paper from that vantage point. If there is nothing much in his lectures, give him back nothing, if he seem involved in trying to project something important, give him something which looks important. Never vie with him, never confront. He has something which you need, and you want to have him give you, your B minus. An hour in his office, and a canny estimate of what goes on under that balding pate will pay off well. If this seems too subservient or insincere, remember that when you have finished the course with a passing grade, you can walk by him next term on campus as if you had never seen him. You can afford to be independent, but later.

6)       What weapons does the student have against his academic judge and critic? Does he have things which can help him through? Of course, there are many useful devices, but they must be used with care:

Find words which have a variant spelling, and use the less common one. When corrected, point out the definition in the dictionary, of course with a smile. Choose words from a discipline which you think the teacher does not know well. Imagine the amused surprise of a professor of English learning that New Criticism is basically saprophytic...... Try myxochiorotic, hyperbobatium, polyphiotabic.....

Remember that in a world which has no real ideas, there are thousands of legitimate POSSIBLE PAINTS OF VIEW. Many Ph..D. theses are structured out of these, and they are dear, from. convenience as well as nostalgia, to the academic heart. A survey of what others have thought is better than an idea of your own, because it is a statement of fact, and as such it cannot be refuted. When facing a new-learning type teacher who wants YOUR point of view, give him several of them, all being equally possible. But this type of professor may be troublesome and it might be better to drop the course.

7)       If you get a lower grade that you needed, whether it be fair or not, there are things which you can do. Have a heart-to-heart talk in the office, discuss your family's expectations and the pressures on you, your need to graduate. Your girlfriend may be pregnant if necessary, mention a job offered by a prominent banking firm.. You are not seeking sympathy, you are merely trying to embarrass the professor, and to survive.. When you register this effect successfully, thank him for listening to you, be sure to shake hands warmly, and leave directly. Embarrassment is a powerful factor working for you, and you may well get a grade change. Of course, keep track, and never try twice with the same professor.

Another approach: I know, Sir, that you don't like me, but I didn't feel that was reason for me to have to drop the course. My work is not strong, but I try hard, and that's no reason to put me lower than X (the smartest student in the class, and the professor's favorite)

Leave the office abruptly, and be sure to be at the next class in the front row with a pencil poised over your notebook. Time will right the rest of the situation for you, automatically.

Some students have seeded into papers the appearance of plagiarism, specifically by using extended vocabulary, writing long sentences with plenty of subordination, and waiting to be called into the office. An immediate complaint to the Student Grievance Committee will usually get the desired result, an apology and a cautious attitude toward the student for the future.

Now let us take a brief look at some special areas of study, and outline what methods the college student can best use to his advantage:

Social Sciences:       Here quantification, or simply using numbers in a mysterious way, is still the rage, so if you don't know what you are doing, QUANTIFY. Lists of data, however undigested, will intimate to the professor, who after all holds the critical whip, signs of a kindred spirit. But be sure to get things in on time, since a mind long attuned to number values can easily take off five points per diem late, and you know what that can do to marginal work.

Science Courses:       In writing papers in this general area, use nouns mainly, and only such verbs as "is", "seems to be", "is related to" or "is questionable". No fine writing here (such as you might find in the New Yorker, or good Science Fiction) which must be avoided at all costs.. The word "I" must never occur, since it connotes a cult of the ego which is not compatible with dispassionate scientific observation. In this area dull writing is a virtue, since dullness is a virtue connoting seriousness of purpose and agrees with the scientist's dislike of frills. Humanists have a great way of criticizing the scientists "language", but remember that a good paying job in Science is how the bread gets buttered, and in the last analysis that's what counts.

Literature and the Humanities:       In this area the name of the game is sounding good and this does not have to involve anything abstruse or deep. The Humanities have a fine name, but no method, no formal core, and few standards. They work with literature and great ideas, but have no more need to understand meaning than mushrooms have need to "understand" manure. Since what counts is the way it looks, get a good computer format , use plenty of quotes in paragraphs (but single space these to avoid the appearance of padding). Some have found good layout with margins and even an outline frame to be an advantage, perhaps because it suggests legal briefs and the tone of success to the impoverished English teacher, of course subliminally. Never ask the forbidden question: What is Poetry, or the Art of Writing?....because there is no answer and asking the questions makes the professor nervous. If the teacher has kinky interests, like Freudian psychology as the mainspring of art, or sexuality everywhere, or homosexuals in art, or the other sex as equals, go with it. It can't do any harm, and you'll probably find a few books in the library which haven't been taken out recently. Capitalize on these, obviously. One-upman-ship is a game to be played only with certain teachers, never try it on an insecure Assistant Professor who may react in an unpredictable manner.

Mathematics:       Find out right away if the teacher is interested in the thought processes, or in the right answer. If this last, drop the course immediately. Math is first and last pure thought, and who knows but that you may be a closet Gauss? Really,what is a mathematician with a closed mind? Great mathematicians have done most of their important work before the age of twenty five, a good point to mention to your balding, worried instructor.....

Religion is a wonderful area for a quickie. Your unclear thought comes from the difficulties of dealing with your personal religious background, your early religious training. (Best keep that private, of course., so you can't be quizzed on it...). After all, why should I be clear, Sir? I'm nineteen, and facing the most prodigious problems Man has ever confronted? If I said something positive, I'd be a fraud or a fool, I do believe......(No response, usually.) Because of numerous bad chapters in the history of religion, teachers. of the subject avoid bigotry like the plague, so the least hint of the professor leaning in this tabu direction (bigotry) will probably give you carte blanche for the furthest out lucubrations which your sick little mind can dream up. If you are too normal, look through a Hy-Marx outline ~Introductory Philosophy" or "Religion" for a handful of weird suggestion to work with.


Never write as you talk. Most people talk like fools, so you must cultivate to art of writing as you DON'T talk. This is basic.

As a replacement for the above, write as you think the professor would like to hear you talk.

"Great ideas" is wonderful filler material for high-school seniors facing college admissions officers, but once in, forget them. Great ideas are the sure road to academic failure. College is a battle. The professor has the grade, you've got to get is away from him, and this can be done only by little ideas, things which will appeal to his kind of mind.

When you write a paper, you are really writing the paper which is already imprinted in the professor mind. If it an a near match, you get an A, and so forth.

College is a game which is played only by people who are still in the running. Your work may be uninspired, it may have little meaning to you as a person. But if it keeps you in college, it's great, and after all that's what really matters. Many a brilliant mind is poking quarters into a pinball machine or playing pool late in the evening, while the pedestrian intellect is balancing his overflowing checkbooks at the very same moment. The choice is yours, by and large. Never be ashamed of being dumb, some of the dumbest people in the world are the most successful, as in politics, and the richest. If you have trouble swallowing this pill, talk to the college shrink, who as a professional member of a Ed.Biz. institution, will probably straighten you out fairly quickly.

In America, education is your birthright. We have never knuckled under to the elite rich, to the well-connected, the politically powerful, or to the intelligent.. The philosophy of the melting pot mans that everything must go into the academic kettle, by definition. Things which have no meaning, vacuous phraseology, in short all sorts of intellectual garbage must be included, because by the standards of American jurisprudence we are all equal, and have equal right to representation. Education is where the representation of all the elements which go. onto our societal stew are averaged up, it is this averageness which makes education so appealing to our society as a whole. Education is real, it actually works for you,because it reflects the very essence of "middleness" which makes society itself work. Geniuses can be disregarded as a sport on the landscape, fools can be ignored or institutionalized, but it Is the triumphal march of averageness and ordinariness which society loves, and which education as a function of society must embrace.

Plato long ago detected a difference between "being" and "seeming to be", and expressed his preference, inexplicably, for the state of "being". In the course of two thousand years we have learned that it is the "seeming to be" which really works, in advertising and marketing, in manufacturing, medicine and science, and above all in education.

We are things of a day, as the ancient Greek poet says, here today and gone tomorrow, and it is only the continuity of this "seeming " which persists through the present time and promises to lead us into a bright and profitable future.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College