And getting pissed off, as I always do when I grade term papers, especially at the end of Fall Term. So I took time out before my grading deadline to write out what will now be my opening lecture every semester. As I've asked you people before, feel free to chime in with your thoughts. (Arch, I'm looking at you, dude.)
I have never read anything you’ve written before, so please accept the following comments as my tirade against the classes that have come before you. What I hope is that you will do better than they did.
You simply must learn how to write.
This is not a writing class, and therefore it is not my job to teach you how to write. But a significant part of the grade in this class comes from a research paper that you should already have started or you will do poorly on.
In other words, you have fallen behind already.
And you may stay up for 72 hours straight and do so much research and so much thinking about your paper that you could earn that rare A+ that I give about once every 3 semesters.
But even with A+ research and thinking, if every single paragraph of your term paper has numerous basic grammatical errors, has numerous usages that are too informal for college-level scholarly writing, the best you’ll get from me is a B-.
Most evenings this semester we will cover the topic at hand well before 8:30. That means you owe me some time. Spend that time learning to write.
Out here in the real world where I work and where you will work, there is no forgiveness.
Corporations are “its”, not “theys”. One does not use the word “you” in scholarly writing. One does not ask rhetorical questions.
Furthermore, one is specific. If you begin your paper by telling me “Lots of journalists have gone to jail for long periods of time refusing to identify their confidential sources,” you will put me in a bad mood. You do not want that. It will be six shopping days before Christmas, my grades will be due in mere hours, and your semester grade will be in my hands.
Learn how to write.
There are three ways to learn how to write.
The first: let good writers critique your writing. And grow a thick skin. I write for a living and have done so since the mid 1980s. [Notice that there is no apostrophe in “1980s.”] I tell my bosses and my clients, when I ask them to review my writing before it gets sent to a judge, “be brutal; I want everything fixed; I have no pride of authorship. Let’s make it perfect.” And I mean it.
The second way to learn how to write: read.
Compare your writing to the things that you read.
Third: speak out loud. Good writing is like clear water. It is transparent, plain, and simple. Don’t write on paper what you wouldn’t say to a friend in the laundromat. Don’t start talking about Chris Matthews before explaining who he is. Put your feet up and imagine yourself having a conversation, but one in which you use proper grammar.
The chances are near 100% that whatever career you manage to make for yourself when you leave here will require you to write, even if it’s only short emails to your colleagues telling them that you’ve put donuts next to the water cooler.
Realize right now that if that email is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, you will be marked as an idiot.
Realize right now that if your term paper in this class is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, I will have to labor under the burden of wondering what it means to give you a passing grade in college.
You may not realize it, but universities like this one are accredited to grant the degree that you’re here to get. That means that, every so often, I have to show some committee the papers you gave me, and the grades I gave you in return. You have to understand that I’m going to be called up and asked to defend giving a passing grade to writing that fails basic standards of literacy.
If your paper begins, “The year is 2008, and the Associated press is complaining that their copyrights have been broken,” I have a big problem. And you do, too. You should be able to instantly spot four errors (some of them repeated) in the quoted text.
Use the past tense for things that happened in the past. Be consistent with capitalization. As I said before, corporations are “its,” not “theirs.”
But the biggest one is the last one. Go back and review the sentence I quoted.
I want you to know that I am perfectly convinced that you wrote that sentence while sitting at a computer screen, looking at someone else’s work product. What you saw on your screen was:
“In 2008, the Associated Press complained that its copyrights had been infringed.”
And you thought that by changing a word here and there, you were putting it in your own words.
What you will find is that I am going to report you to the Dean for plagiarism.
Don’t do it.
Learn to write.