A MANUAL OF STYLE FOR COLLEGE WRITING
Survival Techniques in Today's Academe
Please note that this is Satire, not advice to the simple and gullible student for his personal advancement in the college world, although this has occasionally happened. It was first written in 1980, edited several times on paper and then for the web, and it describes the part of the college population whose tuition, aims and attention span were secondary to having fraternal fun in a pleasant four years atmosphere. Of course there has been much attention given to advancing Education in recent years, but I must note that in those old days student-writing on typewriters did range from acceptable to outstanding. A student read a handful of books carefully before writing, the footnotes were clearly referenced and properly typed at the bottom of each page in immaculate order.
But things are quite different now in our computer and Internet Age, where students scan rather than read books. They have a wide reach but cannot give an author's name to a document or idea since the Internet is largely anonymous; also professors usually will not admit web-found materials which seem questionable and cheaply copied. Writing skills have gone down terribly, a term paper may be only seven pages, references are thin partly out of the fear of plagiarism, which can not be automatically checked from web files everywhere. The constant preference since childhood for TV and visual imagery has weakened the sense and the flow of words. A very different Satire would be needed for the year 2010 but it would be an indictment of a world in which nobody reads, and in which nobody seems to able to write well anymore. But now go back to the Satire of 1980, which should ring a bell for anyone who was in the academic world in that remote time:
Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Sirrah, now dei gratia
Here is a direct and practical approach drawn from the experience of Ph.D. holders
and oriented to the college student who wants to succeed in his/her work
without the strain of Intellectual Overkill.
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, 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, and 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 have to 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 impatient readers. They
must not be allowed to miss your paper's points. The only way to hold their attention
is by the most rigorous organization, including topic sentences at the
beginning AND by necessity 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 careful note of words and what they
can mean in varying contexts. Words can be quite plain, in which condition they
denote sincerity, or they 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, but if you
see he likes involved ideas, spin a 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 a good
computer font, clean and easy to read but not fancy, with its serifs and familiarity, New Yorker is proven best
for tired eyes. Put on a nicely fonted cover sheet, and set the whole thing in good
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 a crescendo of
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 if you
can get away with it.
Wide margins have the same danger, they will invite comment. Some students have been
successful in writing the paper from top to bottom and edge to edge, with no
room left for marginal annotations. The purpose of this device 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 in the grading process.
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 aa general 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. Psych 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 whatever that may be, give him something which looks important. But never vie with
him, you must never confront. He has something which you need, something you want to have him
give you, it is your passage to graduation, your C plus. An visit at his office-hours, and a canny estimate of what
goes on under that balding pate will sooner or later 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 insouciantly, as if you had never
seen him. You can afford to be independent, but let that come 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 great care:
You can ind 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 friendly 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
the art of criticism is basically saprophytic.Maybe try myxochiorotic, hyperbobatium, or
Remember that in a world which has no real ideas, there are thousands of
legitimate POSSIBLE PAINTS OF VIEW. Many Ph.D. theses are constructed out of
this dictum, and they are acceptable as well as nostalgic from back in grad-school, 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 from an open-minded point of view. But this type of professor may be troublesome and out-do you with his own roster of potential possibilities, so beware 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, especially your need to graduate.
Your girlfriend may be noted as pregnant if necessary, or mention a job offered by a
prominent banking firm. You are not seeking sympathy, you are merely trying to
embarrass the professor, and thereby to survive in a hostile environment. If you can 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. Rememeber that vanishing for a week for grandmother's funeral does not permit a repeat performance.
Or there is aanother 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, who is the
smartest student in the class, and the professor's favorite. When done 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 on a Plagiarism Charge can be brought in writing to the professor as if about to go to the Student Grievance Committee and will usually get
the desired result, since no evidence of plagiarism can be found. An apology and a cautious attitude on the part of the professor toward the student will be established
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
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, just go ahead and quantify quantify quantify. Lists of data, however undigested, will intimate the
professor in a non-statistic field, who after all holds the critical whip. 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 the 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 consonant with the scientist's dislike of frills. Humanists
have a great way of criticizing the scientist's "language", but remember
that a high 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 very 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 long paragraphs, but single space these to avoid the
appearance of padding. Some have found good layout with margins and even
an outlined box to be an advantage, perhaps because it suggests legal
briefs and the subliminal look of success to the impoverished English teacher. 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 something about sexuality in the Great American Novel, or homosexual art, or the other sex as domineering or as deprived equals, just go with it. It can't do
any harm, and you'll probably find a few related books in the library which
haven't been taken out recently. Capitalize on these, obviously.
But 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
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. We all know that Math is first and last the highest pure thought, so try to suggestm to the Prof. that aftr all, who knows but that
you may be a closet Einstein? Really, what is the value of 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 and academically worried
Religion is a wonderful area for a quickie. Your unclear thought in your written work comes
from the difficulties of dealing with a personal religious background,
your early academic training, or a troubled family atmosphere. (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......" There will usually be no response, nothing beyond a sympathetic smile. Because of numerous bad chapters in
the history of religion, teachers are caution of a subject like bigotry, which they handle 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 on "Introductory Philosophy and
Religion" for a handful of quizzical suggestions 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 variant for the above on style, write as you think the professor would
like to hear you talk.
"Great ideas" is wonderful filler material for seniors applying for admission, but once in, forget them. Great ideas
are the sure road to academic failure. College is a battle. The professor
has a grade which you've got to get is away from him, and this can be done
only by little ideas, things which will appeal to his academic kind of taste.
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 ten years later the student with a
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 also the richest. If you have trouble swallowing this pill,
talk to the college shrink, who as a professional member of the academic Ed.Biz.
profession, 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 the sorts of intellectual garbage
have to 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 go as our societal
stew analyses 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 so 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, we find it everywhere, 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-ness" which
persists through the present time and now promises to lead us into a bright
and a seemingly profitable future.
Prof. Em. Middlebury College