“I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone”: Writers and Readers

Michael Amey

“I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.”  – John Cheever

The Readers
The Readers – Joseph Lorusso

I’m writing this post primarily for the college students taking my composition courses.  Because this is a public blog, people other than my students will undoubtedly read this – and they are very welcome to whatever lessons they can draw from this post – but I wanted to explicitly acknowledge that my students are my intended audience.  Who are my students?  They are a racially, ethnically and nationally diverse group of people, typically between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, who are taking community college courses so that they can transfer into four-year programs or so that they can earn professional credentials.  For many of these students, English is a second language.  Additionally, a majority of these students work or are taking care of families in addition to taking classes.  These students typically have limited experience as writers outside of the writing that has been required of them for high school and college classes.

Why am I belaboring this point?  Because one of the factors that differentiates a proficient writer from a novice writer is the proficient writer’s ability to envision his or her intended audience and to tailor his or her text accordingly. Like I’ve just done, adept writers will, on occasion, explicitly identify their intended audience.  Consider the following examples.

In his preface to The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, the historian, Eric Hobsbawn writes:

The object of this book is not detailed narrative, but interpretation and what the French call haute vulgarisation.  Its ideal reader is that theoretical construct, the intelligent and educated citizen, who is not merely curious about the past, but wishes to understand how and why the world has come to be what it is today and whither it is going.  Hence it would be pedantic and uncalled-for to load the text with as heavy an apparatus of scholarship as it ought to carry for a more learned public.  My notes therefore refer almost entirely to the sources of actual quotations and figures, or in some cases to the authority for statements which are particularly controversial or surprising. (ix)

Because Hobsbawm rather optimistically envisions his book being read by non-historians he consciously chooses to simplify his text.  His ideal readers don’t require the detailed scholarly apparatus that other historians would expect.  At the same time, Hobsbawm expects his reader to “intelligent and educated”.  Consequently, Hobsbawm feels no need to dumb down his writing.  He expects his reader to already be familiar with historical moments (“the fall of the Bastille,” for example) and with the important social theories of his time, the 1960s (Marxism, for example).

 

Compare Hobsbawm’s ideal reader with the ideal reader envisioned by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  Alexander writes in her preface:

This book is not for everyone.  I have a specific audience in mind—people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration….  I am also writing it for another audience—those who have been struggling to persuade their friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers, co-workers, or political representatives that something is eerily familiar about the way our criminal justice system operates, something that looks and feels a lot like an era we supposedly left behind, but who have lacked the facts and data to back up their claims.  It is my hope and prayer that this book empowers you and allows you to speak your truth with greater conviction, credibility, and courage.

Put bluntly, Alexander’s book is not for white supremacists, who are unlikely to believe her arguments or be moved by the stories she tells.  Nor is this a book for a much larger group of Americans who believe that there is no race problem or that the narratives of racial injustice have been exaggerated.  Alexander is writing for a sympathetic, informed audience that is passionate about social justice.  This book is also clearly intended for an educated readership that is willing to consider taking action on social justice issues; readers who are “struggling to persuade their friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers, co-workers, or political representatives” to make changes.

Eric Hobsbawm and Michelle Alexander name their intended audiences at the onset of their texts, and it is abundantly clear that they made important stylistic and structural choices based on the needs of those audiences, but even authors who are not as forthcoming about for whom they are writing write with their audiences constantly before them.  Consider, for example, the choices that J. K. Rowling made as she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  First of all, she chose to make her protagonist a boy rather than a girl.  Why? Because stories about boys are likely to be read in equal numbers by both boys and girls, whereas stories about girls, while popular among female readers, are less likely to be read by male readers.  Similarly, at the advice of her publisher, Rowling used initials for her first and middle name. Richard Savill notes that, “The use of the author’s initials instead of her full name was a marketing ploy designed to make her work acceptable to boys, who actively choose not to read books by women.”  Rowling’s original vocabulary, which underwent changes in the American editions of the novels, also makes clear the intended audience is British, and, more specifically, English.  Finally, the fact that Harry Potter turns eleven in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone suggests that Rowling envisioned readers who between the ages of eight and twelve.

Success as a writer requires attentiveness to one’s audience.  This truism applies equally to formal academic writing and to posting an informal response on a blog or online social forum.  The following example from a recent Facebook thread that I encountered neatly illustrates the dangers of misunderstanding your reader.  A friend of mine had written a post saying that he missed President Obama.  Another person, an army officer, responded by expressing his dislike for President Obama, and, within the matter of a few hours a full-pitched online shouting match between liberals and conservatives had commenced.  The officer who had spoken poorly of President Obama responded to a female supporter of the President thusly, “Spare me your emotional, thoughtless, uninformed comments.”  This writer had clearly lost sight of why he was writing.  If his intent was to convince his opponent to take his views seriously then he failed miserably.  In particular, he lost credibility by writing an emotional sentence demanding that she “spare [him her] emotional, thoughtless, uninformed comments.”  He made several assumptions about his reader – that she was emotional (given the partisan nature of the discussion everyone seemed a little emotional, so I’ll give him that), that she was thoughtless (this was more problematic given that she had thought enough to respond to him), and that she was uninformed (this is most problematic – the officer had no way of knowing how informed she was). Given the current context where conservative politicians have been perceived as attempting to hush or silence their female liberal counterparts, the man’s phrasing came off, at best, as tone deaf, and, at worst, as patronizing and dismissive.  The man had lost the opportunity to persuade her, probably one of the few people who disagreed with him but who was willing to read his posts, and, I imagine, he had lost the respect of more moderate readers.

To be clear, I am making a number of assumptions about why this individual was posting in the first place.  I assume that he wrote his post because he wanted to convince others on Facebook that President Obama’s presidency was, in fact, a massive failure.  Given that the original post was nostalgic about the former president, this writer must, on some level, have understood that he was writing for an audience that would include people who disagreed with him.  Given this context, he would have had more success if he had tempered his language to respectfully express his opinions.  Of course, I may be wrong about my assumptions regarding why he wrote as he did.  Perhaps he merely wanted to vent his own frustration with President Obama, in which case one wonders why he did so in a public forum and and why he engaged so vociferously with people with whom he clearly disagreed.  Alternatively, perhaps his post was neither an attempt to persuade people with opinions that differed from his, nor an emotional catharsis for his outrage; perhaps it was an attempt to encourage people who shared his values.  If that was the goal, then the writer did succeed – a number of other posters spoke approvingly of his post and denounced President Obama.

I, too, engaged in some of the conversation in this post.  I tried to be the voice of moderation, and, where possible I tried to ask questions or provide links to news reports and studies relevant to the efficacy (or lack thereof) of President Obama’s administration.  Eventually I found myself in a conversation with the officer that seemed to be deteriorating.  I pulled back and tried to think of something that the officer, my reader, and I might have in common.  It dawned on me that the day before had been the 4th of July, and that my reader was a conservative (he identifies as a Constitutional Conservative on Facebook) and a soldier.  In my next response to him I took the time to remark that the day before we had celebrated our independence and that it was thanks to soldiers like him that we remained free and that the freedom he had defended allowed for our heated argument.  I then continued with the points I was making to counter his earlier response.  He never replied after that.  I’m certain that I didn’t convince him of anything.  It’s possible that I simply wore him out, but it’s also possible that he saw in me what I saw in him – a shared set of values.  I like to think that the advantage I had over him was that I had envisioned my reader and had written to him instead of at him.  In any event, by the time I wrote my last post my goal for writing had changed.  I was no longer trying to convince my reader that President Obama was not the dishonorable person he had portrayed the president to be.  I was simply trying to encourage an ongoing, respectful dialogue between two people who were never likely to agree politically.  If we were able to show each other mutual respect while disagreeing I would consider that a small victory.

My point, dear reader, is this, next time you’re going to write an essay, an email, or a Facebook post, take the time to try to understand who your reader is.  Write with your reader in your mind.  Think about what he or she already knows and doesn’t need to be told.  Think about how your vocabulary, your sources and the arrangement of your ideas are likely to impact your reader.  Ask yourself, why has this reader committed the time and effort necessary to read something that I’ve written, and how do I repay him or her?

 

 

 

 

Using Evidence in Academic Writing

One of the most essential skills an academic writer must possess is the ability to use material from primary and secondary sources.  This skill is so central to academic writing that students in my classes cannot earn anything higher than a D for research or analysis essays that do not appropriately quote from other sources.  Because I am upfront about this expectation two things happen without fail every semester – students ask me how many quotations they need to supply and students go forth and randomly select passages to quote with little or no thought about why they chose those passages, how they will graft those passages into their own writing, or what those passages are supposed to contribute to their essays.  This post is an attempt to address some of those issues.  Specifically, I will be discussing how to select material and how to incorporate that material into your own writing.  The question of how to find and evaluate material for use in an essay will be reserved for a later post.

Lawandorder01

The opening voice-over of television show, Law & Order, with its division between “the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders” provides a valuable analogy for the task of an academic writer.  As writers, we embody that duality.  Before we write we investigate our topic to see if there is anything to be said.  Sometimes we find that there is nothing to our “case” and we close it and move on to another “case”, or we find that there may be something to our “case” but we lack sufficient evidence to move the “case” forward.  Other times, though, we find the raw evidence we are looking for, and then we transition into the second role of prosecuting our “case” by writing an argument-driven essay.  These two roles, investigatory and prosecutorial, are equally important and intertwined in most academic writing.

When writing on a topic in the humanities, the evidence that academic writers pursue is the words and ideas of other people.  Just as the evidence collected for a crime can be divided into different categories (material evidence, witness testimony, expert testimony, etcetera), so, too, can the evidence for an essay be divided into different categories.  The most useful way of identifying these categories is to label them as primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources include the items being studied, or items somehow connected to the item being studied.  For example, if I were writing an essay on Raphael’s painting, The School of Athens, the painting itself would be a primary source, but so, too, would any drawings that Raphael made as studies in preparation for painting The School of Athens.  Furthermore, any letters or journal entries that Raphael or his contemporaries wrote about the painting would also be considered primary sources.  Similarly, if I were writing an essay on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice I would consider the novel a primary source, but I would also consider any letters written by Austen to her sister, Cassandra, about the novel to also be primary sources.

Secondary sources, for the purpose of this post, are defined as texts (this may include written, televised or cinematic texts) that provide a scholarly discussion of primary sources.  For example, if I were writing an essay on J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in addition to reading Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and Tolkien’s letters, all of which would be primary sources, I would also want to read Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth, which is a scholarly examination of Lord of the Rings, and I would want to look through any relevant essays in the academic journal, Tolkien Studies:  An Annual Scholarly Review.

Primary sources, I should note, are vastly more important than secondary sources.  If we return to our court case analogy, we can consider primary sources to be the testimony of the individuals directly involved in the case, while the secondary sources can be considered expert testimony.  It is possible to write an essay relying solely on primary sources.  Indeed, in my literature courses I require student NOT to use secondary sources when writing their literary analysis essays because I want them to learn how to analyze literature without depending on the opinions of scholars (or, as is more frequently the case, the opinions of the creators of SparkNotes).

So, let me return to an earlier observation.  Frequently students ask how many quotations they need to have in their essays.  I think this mindset that there is a fixed number of quotations that I am looking for probably comes as a consequence of students growing accustomed to formulaic writing instruction and rubrics.  If quotations are evidence, though, then there can be no set number of quotations required.  A student asking me how much he or she needs to quote is like an attorney asking a judge how much evidence he or she needs to present.  The answer is the same in both instances – however much you need to prove your case.

I also mentioned that students frequently go looking for quotations to “satisfy” my requirement.  My concern, of course, is not that students have quotations, but rather that they select meaningful quotations and use them in a manner that progresses their arguments.  We’ll talk more about how to select valuable quotations momentarily, but for the moment I want to emphasize the notion of context and the chain of custodyCriminal investigators look for evidence that has not been tampered with or removed from the scene of the crime.  The reason for this is simple – if the evidence has not been disturbed, then its location provides a context for what happened that the investigators bloody knifecan interpret.  After all, an investigator will reach very different conclusions if he finds a bloody knife next to some uncooked steak in the kitchen instead of a bloody knife next to a body in the bedroom!  Similarly, good academic writers look for evidence in the primary sources they are investigating.

Frequently I have students who, having decided, for example, to write an essay on Pride and Prejudice, go to AZquotes.com where they then look up things written or said by Jane Austen.  The typical reason for this sloppy approach to find quotations is because the student in question hasn’t read, or marked, his or her copy of Pride and Prejudice. Several problems, though, attend this approach to finding evidence.  First, the student does not have the quotation in its original context, and thus is unable to understand its relationship to the text as a whole.  Secondly, the chain of custody has been broken.  In a criminal investigation the chain of custody refers to the apparatus by which investigators log and track evidence to make sure that it is not lost or contaminated. Students who rely on AZquotes or other quotation sites have broken the chain of custody.  If they do not check the quotation in the original text, they have no way of knowing if the quotation has been altered or even exists.  I have, on occasion, gone online and found quotations attributed to one source that actually belongs to another source, or that has simply been invented by somebody online.  I also frequently find online quotations that have errors in them.  The only way to ensure that you have a chain of custody for your evidence is by going to the original document, recording it yourself, carefully, double checking that you accurately recorded it, and inserting it, properly cited into your own writing.     

So, having gone over the importance of quoting and some of the things to keep in mind as you are looking for evidence, I want to turn now to the six rules I give my students to help them select and use quotations:

Rule 1:  Only use quotations that are clearly relevant to the case you are building (i.e. they support your ideas, add to your ideas, or disagree with your ideas, and you want to respond to the argument they present).   Keep in mind that one of the smartest moves you can make is identifying and responding to information that seems to undercut your argument.  If your readers are familiar with the text you are analyzing, they may very well be familiar with any contradictory evidence, in which case ignoring any attempt to ignore that evidence will just make you look like a careless investigator.

 

While you do need to address any evidence that undermines your argument, you don’t necessarily need to use all of the evidence that supports your argument.  If you have two or three strong quotations that illustrate your point, then you don’t need to include the less useful quotations.  Being selective in what you use is important because typically you are going to have limited space in which to make your argument.  In a five page essay you will not be able to meaningfully discuss, for example, every reference to commerce and property in The Merchant of Venice, particularly if you intend for your essay to be more than just a patchwork of quotations.  Bear in mind, that while I do not tell students how many quotations to use in their writing, it is possible to have too many quotations.  The majority of the writing in your essay needs to be yours.  To return to our court case analogy, if you are an attorney you don’t want to muddy the minds of the jurors, or test the patience of the judge by presenting an endless supply of evidence that is not clearly integral to the case you’re building.

Rule 2:  Always embed quotations into your own writing.  Use your own words to provide, where possible, the source of the quotation, and to provide a context for the quotation.  Your own words should also indicate the quotation’s relationship to your own argument.  Let’s imagine that I’m writing an essay on the importance of social class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I want to use evidence of that fact from this passage:

Elizabeth listened in silence, but was not convinced; their behaviour at the assembly had not been calculated to please in general; and with more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister, and with a judgment too unassailed by any attention to herself, she was very little disposed to approve them. They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of being agreeable where they chose it; but proud and conceited. They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank; and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade. 

Mr. Bingley inherited property to the amount of nearly an hundred thousand pounds from his father, who had intended to purchase an estate, but did not live to do it.—Mr. Bingley intended it likewise, and sometimes made choice of his county; but as he was now provided with a good house and the liberty of a manor, it was doubtful to many of those who best knew the easiness of his temper, whether he might not spend the remainder of his days at Netherfield, and leave the next generation to purchase.

His sisters were very anxious for his having an estate of his own; but though he was now established only as a tenant, Miss Bingley was by no means unwilling to preside at his table, nor was Mrs. Hurst, who had married a man of more fashion than fortune, less disposed to consider his house as her home when it suited her. Mr. Bingley had not been of age two years, when he was tempted by an accidental recommendation to look at Netherfield House. He did look at it and into it for half an hour, was pleased with the situation and the principal rooms, satisfied with what the owner said in its praise, and took it immediately.

Obviously I’m not going to quote all three of these paragraphs in my essay.  Instead I want to focus on how Bingley’s sisters appear, at least on a subconscious level, to be anxious about losing the social status that their family has only recently acquired.  I might write this:

All of the characters in Pride and Prejudice are anxious about maintaining their social standing.  For Bingley’s sisters, the precarious nature of their family’s fortune is illustrated by the manner in which they repress their awareness that, “their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade” (Austen 12). 

Here I have taken control of the passage that I’m quoting by embedding it in my own words.  If I embed every quotation in my own writing, then it follows that a free standing quotation will never appear at the beginning of a paragraph.

Let’s return to our analogy.  In a trial it is never sufficient for the lawyer to simply plop a piece of evidence in front of a jury and say, “Here is a piece of evidence.”  Instead the lawyer needs to establish where the evidence came from and its relevance to the case, like this:  “If it please the court, we are going to introduce into evidence bullet fragments that were found embedded in Mr. Smith’s skull, and we are going to demonstrate that those fragments came from Mr. Johnson’s revolver.”  You need to do the same thing when you are introducing a piece of evidence to your reader.

Rule 3:  Always follow a quotation with relevant analysis of your own.  Following up on our example above, a good lawyer always interprets the evidence for the jury.  A prosecutor might say, having introduced bullet fragments and the testimony of a ballistics expert into evidence, “Our ballistics expert has conclusively shown that the fragments found at the crime came from Mr. Johnson’s revolver, and we know that Mr. Johnson had spoken of getting revenge on Mr. Smith, and that he was seen leaving Mr. Smith’s neighborhood fifteen minutes after Mr. Smith died.  There can be no doubt that Mr. Johnson planned to murder Mr. Smith and carried out the attack that ended Mr. Smith’s life.”

Likewise, you need to provide an interpretation of whatever evidence you introduce to the reader.  Here’s an example of this might be done using what I’ve already written about from Pride and Prejudice.

All of the characters in Pride and Prejudice are anxious about maintaining their social standing.  For Bingley’s sisters, the precarious nature of their family’s fortune is illustrated by the manner in which they repress their awareness that, “their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade” (Austen 12).  Their resentment of the Bennet family appears to stem, at least partially, from the unacknowledged fact that the Bennet family and the Bingley family are alike in that the wealth of each family can be traced to roots in the less respectable world of commerce and business.  One method for ensuring the respectability of one’s family in Regency England is by separating one’s family from commerce through the acquisition of a familial estate, which is why the Bingley sisters are “very anxious for [their brother] having an estate of his own” (12).  The apparently rising status of the Bingley family stands in sharp contrast to the declining status of the Bennet family; the Bingleys speak of procuring a familial estate while the Bennets worry about the impending loss of their estate to Mr. Collins.

In this rather poorly written example I have introduced evidence from the novel in my own words, and I have followed that evidence with my interpretation.

Rule 4:  Always cite each quotation in text.  Citations must follow the format established by the MLA.  In other words, you should include the last name of the author, or, if that is not available, a shortened version of the title of the piece as well as the page number.  Punctuation always follows the citation.  For example:  “North Korea poses no great threat” (Johnson 12).  When you are using a quotation from a source that appears in somebody else’s writing, indicate both sources like this:

According to President Harken, “Negotiations with North Korea are valuable” (qtd. in Johnson 14).

In the example above we know that (the fictional) President Harken is the speaker, but that the quotation itself can be found in the (fictional) source written by Johnson.

It is important for writers to cite sources for the same reason that it is important for criminal investigators to meticulously capture the location of each piece of evidence that they have found – in both instances subsequent investigators may want to go back and look at the original material.

Rule 5:  Modify the quotations you are using so that they fit seamlessly into your own writing.  The most important thing to keep in mind when modifying a quotation is to NOT modify the quotation so much that the original meaning of the passage is distorted or lost.    When you are changing a quotation by inserting words or by leaving out words, indicate the changes you have made by ellipses (three dots) or by square brackets [like these].  The ellipses indicate that something has been cut from the original passage.  Ellipses do not need to be used at the beginning or end of a quotation, even when the quotation begins mid sentence or ends mid sentence.  The square brackets indicate that you have inserted something or changed something in the original to help clarify the meaning of the statement or to merge the statement into your own writing.  For example:

Readers who imagine that Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is primarily a love story have overlooked the fact that the important ingredient in Austen’s ironic “universal truth” is not single men, but rather single men who happen to be “in possession of a fortune” (1).  Mrs. Bennet, who embraces Austen’s “universal truth”, clearly values wealth and social status over other concerns.  Consequently, when Mrs. Bennet learns that Elizabeth is to marry Darcy, a man for whom Mrs. Bennet had expressed a particularly loathing, she seamlessly transitions to enthusiastic support for the nuptials:

Good gracious! Lord bless me! only think! dear me! Mr. Darcy! […] Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! […] I am so pleased—so happy. Such a charming man!—so handsome! so tall!—Oh, my dear Lizzy! pray apologise for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it. Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! […] Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! (331-332)

The fact that it is Darcy’s wealth, and not any newly discovered liking for Darcy himself that sways Mrs. Bennet is evident in how Mrs. Bennet takes account of the newly obtained wealth first – “What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages” – and the attributes of her future son-in-law second – “Such a charming man!—so handsome! so tall!” (331-332).  So central is wealth to Mrs. Bennet’s conception of a successful marriage that after the most superficial enumeration of Darcy’s qualities Mrs. Bennet returns to raptures over Darcy’s fortune.  Mrs. Bennet could care less that Darcy is “charming… handsome… [and] tall” as long as he can provide a “house in town” and “[t]en thousand a year” (332).

So, now that you’ve waded through everything I just wrote, note that I used the ellipses to mark sections where I had removed content from the material being quoted.  In this case I used square brackets around my ellipses to highlight the fact that the ellipses were not part of the original pass.  I also used square brackets to indicate that I had introduced a word into a quotation and that I had changed a letter from upper-case to lower-case.

Rule 6:  Normally you should use short quotations surrounded by your own analysis.  Occasionally, however, you may need to quote longer passages of text in which case you may need to use block formatting. Quotations longer than four lines must be block formatted.  Block formatting is set off from the rest of the text by indenting it one inch from the left margin.  It does not have quotation marks, unless there is a quotation within the quotation, and the citation is placed outside of the punctuation.  The block formatted quote must be double spaced.  Here is an example:

In The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White provides an amusing, but accurate, description of combat in the Late Middle Ages:

To be able to picture the terrible battle which now took place, there is one thing which ought to be known.  A knight in his full armour of those days, or at any rate during the heaviest days of armour, was generally carrying as much or more than his own weight in metal.  […] This meant that his horse had to be a slow and enormous weight-carrier, like the farm horse of today and that his movements were so hampered by his burden of iron and padding that they were toned down into slow motion, as in the cinema.  (65-66)

This image of knights charging in slow motion makes the serious battle being described sound ridiculous and thus illustrates T. H. White’s own belief that all warfare is foolish.

Here ends the instruction on how to introduce evidence into your own writing.  This is by no means a comprehensive explanation of how to handle quotations, but it does cover the basics.  For more information I would recommend visiting Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

On Writing College Essays: Suggestions for Student Writers from a Traumatized Professor

Michael Amey

I hate grading, and I’m not alone in my aversion. Indeed, while I caution my students against offering up universal “truisms” in their essays, I think I can safely offer up one truism – all of my colleagues in the English department detest grading too.  We resent the mind-numbing task of untangling bad syntax, the desperate search for missing theses and topic sentences, and the endless scrolling up and down the page to check if the jumbled list of sources in the Works Cited page – assuming a Works Cited page exists – bears any relationship at all to the citations in the essay – assuming any citations exist.  We seethe when what we took for a good, or even mediocre, essay turns out to be plagiarized.  After all, the time we spent reading material that our students told us they wrote, but that was in fact written by some nameless hack on the internet, is time we’ll never get back.  We’ve been robbed!  Perhaps the greatest insult of all, however, comes at the end of the semester, when, after hours teaching and grading, our students return to haggle with us, with statements like, “But I worked really hard,” and “I attended all of the classes” and “Could you raise my grade five points so that I can have a B instead off a C?”  This last minute bargaining reveals that these students have misunderstood the entire purpose of attending our classes and of the grades they earn.  To state the obvious – the purpose of attending classes is to learn something and the grades merely indicate how well each student has demonstrated his or her acquisition of what is being taught. So, the entire process of grading is, for many teachers, traumatizing, demoralizing, and exhausting.

I’ve shown you the dark side of grading; the reason why your instructors move in a fugue of depression in the last weeks of the semester.  To be clear, though, not all grading is like this.  Sometimes, rarely, we receive an essay so polished, so thought provoking and original that we sit there wishing that we had written it.  Often we share our delight over these essays, just as we commiserate over the poorly written ones.  The problem, though, is that by the time we’ve read over a hundred research essays that include phrases like “Since the dawn of time…” and “Webster’s Dictionary defines racism as…” we may be too burnt out to appreciate fully the gift of brilliant writing that a handful of students have given us.

So, here is the thing – I can either accept the status quo and acknowledge that my students and I are going to remain frustrated with each other and with the essays that they have to write and that I have to grade, or I can attempt to help as many students as are willing to work (seriously work) with me become the kinds of writers that I strive to be.  That is, of course, the entire reason why I teach, but sometimes that fact gets lost in the fatigue of the semester.  So with that in mind, I’m going to do my best to set out here a very basic, and, by necessity, incomplete summary of what you need to know about essays and how I grade them.  My hope is that this summary will provide you with a starting point for better writing in my classes, and perhaps other people’s classes.  With that in mind, I have broken this down into categories so that you can easily return to the points most relevant to you.

Grading:

To parody Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that grades are a quintessential part of an education.  Actually, what I just wrote isn’t true – author Alfie Kohn has written at length about how grading is actually detrimental to the whole process of education.  I happen to agree with much of what he says, and would love to find another way to provide feedback to my students on their progress, but the college I teach at insists that at the end of each semester I enter a letter grade indicating my assessment of the work completed by each of my students.  If I must grade, and apparently I must, then I need to be as ethical as possible in my grading, and you, as the recipients of those grades have the right to know what I’m grading and what I am NOT grading.

Let’s begin with two of the nots:

I’m not grading you as a person.  How I feel about you does not determine the grade you receive from me.  Students have, at various times, suggested that only students I like get good grades.  It’s true that I like many of the students who earn As in my classes, but my detractors have reversed the order of things.  I don’t typically have any opinion about my students when I first meet them.  Over time, though some students invest themselves in the hard work of learning, while others do not.  The students who work hard, who see me after class to talk about ideas, and who come brimming with their own ideas are more likely to earn good grades, and, because I enjoy working with  these students, frequently, by the end of the semester, I like them.  They earned their As, and because they earned their As I like them.  After all, they’ve demonstrated an interest in the things that interest me.  That said, I  have had students whom I have liked very much who have earned low grades, and I have had students of whom I have not been particularly fond earn high grades.

I’m not grading your effort. Effort is something I cannot see, so I can’t evaluate it.  You may be putting in twice as much time writing your essays as another classmate, and you may still earn a lower grade.  The other student may have an advantage over you in that he or she speaks English as a first language, has attended an excellent school, or has spent, from an early age, a great deal of time reading and writing, thus gaining the skills that are most valuable in my classroom.  Perhaps unlike you, he or she may also not be burdened with a fulltime job or a family.  It’s also possible that you might have things going on in your life that make school, at this particular moment, more difficult.  I can sympathize with all of the reasons why you may be hustling more and may not be achieving the same results as your more privileged classmate, but I’m not in a position to evaluate how hard you are trying.

So, what am I grading?

I’m grading the work you produced.  This is the only thing I can assess with any competency.  I can evaluate the formatting of your essay, the structure of your sentences and paragraphs, the validity of your arguments, the reliability of your sources, the cohesion of your paragraphs, the accuracy and precision of your diction; nothing outside of this domain of your writing is accessible to me.

When I grade I choose, for the most part, to look at each essay holistically, which is why I avoid, with rare exceptions, rubrics.  I have used rubrics as a high school teacher to encourage students to think about the individual components that go into the making of an essay, but the problem I have with using rubrics at a college level is that rubrics don’t accurately reflect the unity of the essays being graded.  How, for example, can I separate grammar and syntax from the content of the essay?  Is an essay that has flawless grammar and syntax but is devoid of meaningful content better or worse than an essay that is incomprehensible but that may contain a unique position?  Rather than parse these differnces, I respond to each essay as a cohesive, unified work, where formatting, grammar, syntax, evidence, transitions, and the introduction and thesis statement are intertwined.

Grades:

A – As are earned by essays that are exceptionally well written.  In other words, it’s not enough for an essay to have few or no grammatical, syntactical or formatting errors.  It’s also not enough for it be carefully researched with all of the research appropriately documented.  All of these things certainly belong in an A essay, but, in addition, an A essay must be original in what it says and how it says it.  A essays are focused, nuanced and thought provoking, and convey complex ideas clearly and succinctly.

As are, by definition, rare, but that doesn’t mean you should abandon hope of earning one!  I don’t grade on a curve, or have a specific number of As (or Fs) that I award.  In theory it is possible for an entire class to be awarded As, and, in fact, in some of my upper-level literature classes a majority of the students do earn As.  I should point out here that that is more likely in upper-level courses because: 1) students in those courses have elected to take those courses and are often already gifted readers and writers, and 2) students in those courses have had to rise up through more basic English courses, and thus have developed the skills necessary for doing well.

B – Bs are awarded to essays that have few or no grammatical, syntactical or formatting errors, that are well organized and convey complex ideas clearly and succinctly, and that are carefully researched with all of the research appropriately documented.  When I’m reading a B essay I can focus on the ideas contained in the essay without having to spend much, if any, time struggling with the language employed by the writer.  What differentiates a B from an A is most frequently the issue of originality.

C – C essays are deficient either in the ideas being conveyed, or in their mechanics, structure or formatting.  I often have to pause in the midst of reading a C essay to make comments on incorrect grammar, awkwardly worded sentences, incorrect word usage, misspelled words or incorrectly or inadequately cited sources. This constant disruption means that I cannot focus on the ideas that the writer is trying to convey.  Additionally, C essays often lack a clear focus or purpose, and the ideas expressed may not be particularly insightful or original.

D – D essays have even more pronounced problems than C essays and frequently do not match the requirements of the assignment.  For example, analytical literary essays that do not quote from the primary text (the play, the novel, etcetera) being discussed automatically earn Ds. Similarly, a student who writes only three pages out of a four-page assignment is likely to earn a D.  D essays are also frequently so vague in their focus as to be virtually meaningless.  For example, I have had students write five-page essays entitled “Technology”.  These students frequently waffle on about how technology has “infinitely” improved our lives.  The problem with such an essay, of course, is the scope of the topic.  Technology can include, to name a few things, automated cars, medical technology, electronic security systems, gaming consoles, government surveillance systems, smart homes, smart phones, fitbits, genetic modification, the atomic bomb and the internet.  What could any student possibly say in five pages about this topic that would be meaningful?

F – Fs occur when the submitted work is so poorly written that it either does not meet the requirements of the assignment at all or is nearly indecipherable.

Plagiarism

I’ve already stated that what I’m grading is the work you have produced.  Both the language and the ideas must be yours in order for it to merit a grade. I consider any attempt to pass off the work of somebody else as your own to be a form of theft.  Students who plagiarize are obviously robbing the person who originally thought up and wrote down the material being plagiarized, but, beyond that, they are stealing my time, and because the time I spent looking at what they submitted takes away from the time I might have spent looking at other students’ writing, they are also robbing their classmates.  Perhaps most importantly, though, they are stealing from themselves.  After all, they have paid to learn how to become academic writers and that investment is squandered when they don’t take the opportunity to practice writing.  With that in mind, whenever I detect plagiarism, I award zero points to that essay and I don’t allow the writer to make up those points.  If a student plagiarizes a second time, that student has demonstrated that he or she has no interest learning how to write and so I have no choice but to give that student an F for the semester.

I want to make clear that any plagiarism, no matter how limited it might be, will result in an F.  The following examples from actual essays should demonstrate the different types of plagiarism that occur.

This example comes from a student whom I like very much, and whose essay, for the most part, was not plagiarized.

Student’s essay:

The homoerotic undertones of Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship and interactions can be easily analyzed when examining the dedication and declarations of love by Antonio, because he does not have a heterosexual romantic relationship to counteract against his love for Bassanio.

This website includes this passage:

https://sites.dartmouth.edu/exploratoryshakespeare/2015/07/14/bassanios-sexuality/

The homoerotic undertone of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship is easily discussed by analyzing the dedication and declarations of love by Antonio because he does not have a heterosexual romantic relationship to counteract against his love for Bassanio.

Notice that this student did make changes to the material being used.  Those superficial changes, however, did not make this a paraphrase or summary of the original material, and even had the student radically altered the language, the student would have still been guilty of plagiarizing because the ideas being expressed belong to the write of the webpage.

These examples come from another student’s essay.

Student’s essay:

“According an online study by psychology today on Science and technology ‘most people with prolonged isolation can result in sensory deprivation and mental illness, high blood pressure and venerability to infection.'”

At first glance this may not appear to be plagiarism.  After all, the student has put the borrowed material in quotation marks and has acknowledged that the material comes from an online study.  The student, however, has failed to cite the source of the study.  No author or title is provided and nothing is listed in the Works Cited page, so this is plagiarism.

Student’s essay:

Throughout the story isolation because of technology, leads to little human interaction and an over reliance on machines.

This website includes this passage:

https://straigar.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/the-machine-stops-analysis/

Throughout the story isolation because of technology leads little human interaction and an over reliance on machines.

In this case the plagiarism of this sentence is verbatim.  The student hadn’t copied material verbatim from the website throughout the essay, but this small, single infraction was sufficient to warrant the student receiving zero points for the essay.

You shall not paste

Although most plagiarism involves students copying and pasting chunks of writing from the internet, there have also been cases of plagiarism where students get somebody to write their essays for them.  Obviously these cases are more difficult to prove, but my policy is that if a student cannot demonstrate his or her ability to write at the level indicated by the essay he or she has submitted, then the essay is plagiarized.  Furthermore, if a student is unfamiliar with the argument presented in the essay he or she submitted, or if the student is unable to define words that he or she allegedly wrote, then the essay  is plagiarized.  Two real examples will illustrate this point.  One of my students wrote an essay mentioning the Tequila Party.  I had never heard of the Tequila Party.  It turns out, neither had the student who had “written” the essay.  That student received an F for the essay and failed the course.  Another student submitted an essay on abortion.  The quality of writing in the essay seemed substantially better than the quality of writing the student was able to produce in class, which immediately made me suspicious.  When I asked the student about the submitted essay, the student correctly identified the topic of the essay as being abortion.  Unfortunately, the student thought that the essay was making a pro-life argument when, in reality, the essay was making a pro-choice argument.  This case of plagiarism also resulted in the student earning an F for the semester.

I have provided these examples to drive home the point that no plagiarism is permissible, and that what appear to be rather small violations of the academic honesty code will have a huge impact on the grade of the student caught plagiarizing.

What I Look at in an Essay:

I want to give you a broader idea of everything I look at when I’m reading a student’s essay.  I consider the four following areas:

  • Formatting – Formatting includes what identifying information you have in your essay and where you put it, where you place your title, what font and font size you use, where you put your page numbers, how you space lines and indent paragraphs, and how you quote sources and cite them. There are many different ways to format your essay or report depending on which discipline you are writing in. Essays for English are formatted according to MLA (Modern Language Association) rules.  The format of your essay is the first thing your teacher will see, and he or she will immediately form an impression about your essay based on that.

Here are a few quick guidelines for MLA formatting:

  1. Everything needs to be in Times New Roman, 12 point font.
  2. The essay should be double spaced.
  3. In the top right-hand corner of each page should be a page number preceded by the last name of the author, like this: Johnson 5.
  4. The following information needs to be include in the top left-hand corner of the first page:

    Student’s Name

    Professor’s Name (always give your instructor the title of professor, not Mr. Ms. or Dr.)

    The name of the class (i.e. ENG 112, ENG 125, etcetera)

    The date (the date should be formatted like this 10 May 2017)

  5. Underneath the information listed above should be the title of your essay. The title needs to be centered, and needs to have the initial letter of each noun, verb, adjective and adverb capitalized.  The title should NOT be bolded, underlines or, unless there is a quote in the title, in quotation marks.
  6. Titles should have two parts. The first part should be a hook that captures the attention of the reader, and the second part should indicate more directly the focus of the essay.  This is common practice in academic writing.  Consider the following examples from published pieces:

    Just Walk on By:

    A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space

    The New Jim Crow:

    Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

    Whipping Girl:

    A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

  7. The initial line of each paragraph needs to be indented using the tab button.
  8. Quoted material must be in quotation marks, and all material borrowed from other sources must be cited using the MLA in text citation method.
  9. A Works Cited page must be on a new page from the rest of essay and must have sources listed in alphabetic order, either by the name of the author, or, if the author’s name is not available, by the title of the source. Sources need to be left justified and sources that are longer than one line need to be set up with hanging indentation.
  • Mechanics – Mechanics refers to grammar, syntax (aka sentence structure), and punctuation. Having lots of mechanical problems can be really distracting for your instructor, and your ideas might not receive the attention they deserve simply because the instructor is trying to untangle a poorly worded sentence.  Here are a few small rules to keep in mind:
  1. English sentences require a subject and a predicate. The subject consists of a noun phrase and is the object, person, idea, whatever that is being described or is doing somethingThe predicate is the verb phrase that tells you about the subject.  Consider this sentence:

    “The Handmaid’s Tale explores how religion can be manipulated to disenfranchise women.”

    The phrase “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the subject, while “explores how religion can be manipulated to disenfranchise women” is the predicate.

    Here is an example of a student’s sentence where the subject is missing:

    “Around 1981 Nintendo released Donkey Kong featuring a character named the Jumpman. Popularly known as Mario.”

    This is an example of a sentence fragment. This sentence fragment could be fixed by writing, “Today Jumpman is popularly known as Mario.”

    I think it’s worth noting that Spanish speakers are perhaps more likely to leave off the subject in a sentence because in Spanish the subject of a sentence can be left out.  The English phrase, “I went to the hospital,” can be translated into Spanish as, “Fui al hospital.”   The pronoun, “Yo,” has been entirely left off of the sentence.

  2. When a comma is used to join two independent clauses this is called a comma splice. Independent clauses are clauses that can be sentences on their own.  Consider these two independent clauses:

    “Mr. Collins is not in love with Elizabeth Bennet.”

    “He is offering her financial security.”

    Independent clauses can be joined using a comma and a coordinating conjunction or by using a semicolon:

    “Mr. Collins is not in love with Elizabeth Bennet, but he is offering her financial security.”

  3. Apostrophes serve two purposes:  they indicate possessive nouns (“The student’s essay”) or they indicate that something has been removed. (“She’s going to the store.”  “Don’t talk that way to me.”)

Students frequently misuse apostrophes.  One common mistake is demonstrated in this sentence:

“The Moral Majority came to power with President Reagan in the 80’s.”

This sentence should actually be written:

“The Moral Majority came to power with President Reagan in the ‘80s.”

The point here is that the apostrophe should not go between the zero and s, because nothing has been removed from there and the ‘80s is not a possessive noun.  An apostrophe should, however, go before the 8 to indicate that the 19 has been removed.

  • Voice – Voice refers to the vocabulary and sentence structure the writer uses to convey who he or she is and to convey something about the nature of the communication occurring in the writing.  An email to a friend, for example, would be less formal and more “chatty” than a letter to a potential employer.  Academic writing needs to be more formal, but also needs to retain a personal aspect.  The following guidelines will help you develop a scholarly writer’s voice:
  1. Avoid euphemisms (i.e. replace “passed away” with “died”; replace “slept with” with “had sex with” ), slang (i.e. replace “cops” with “law enforcement” or “police officers”; replace “kids” with “children”; replace “cool” with “popular”; replace “guts” with “courage”), abbreviations (eliminate “i.e.”, “vs.” and “etc.”) and clichés (i.e. remove “through the roof”; “tons of opportunities”; “avoid like the plague”).
  2. Be aware of the denotation (dictionary definition) and connotation (emotional baggage) of the words you use and select words that precisely convey your meaning. Consider, for example, the difference between the phrases “illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants”.  Both phrases refer to the same demography, but these phrases have different connotations and suggest the writer’s political position on the issue of immigration.  Here’s another example: “rape victim” versus “rape survivor”.  The first term suggests that the person who was raped has no agency and is passive – the recipient of an act; the second term suggests that the person does have agency and has acted by surviving.
  3. Avoid entirely the second person pronoun (you). This pronoun makes your essay sound too chatty or too preachy.  You will have noticed that I’m using “you” throughout this post, but that’s intentional – this post is meant to be instructional for you the reader and, thus, directly addresses you.
  4. Limit usage of the first person pronoun (I). You should avoid phrases like “I personally believe…” or, even worse, “Me, personally, I believe…”. There are several problems with these phrases.  First, the word “personally” is redundant.  If you wrote “I” we assume that it is personal statement.  Secondly, the reader assumes that you believe everything you’ve written in your essay.  You wrote it, so you must think it’s true.  You don’t need to say you believe it.  There are a few times when I do condone the use of I in academic writing.  These occasions would include:
    • recounting a personal anecdote that exemplifies a point you are trying to make or that establishes your personal expertise in the field being discussed (i.e. “As a trans woman serving in the U.S. army I have faced a significant amount of hostility from fellow soldiers and, more alarmingly, from my superiors.”)
    • disagreeing with common wisdom or with an expert in the area being discussed (i.e. “Howard Bloom and other literary critics have argued that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is clearly anti-Semitic, but I am going to contend that while characters within the play do express anti-Semitic opinions, Shakespeare makes Shylock a fully human and fully sympathetic character.”)
  5. Be brief and succinct. Students occasionally think that the best way to impress their instructors is by writing long sentences or by using unnecessarily complicated language.  Your goal, though, is to express your ideas as quickly and as clearly as possible.  Sometimes, in order to accurately and comprehensively conveying your meaning, you may have to resort to longer sentences and technical terms like liminal, discourse, epistemology and hegemony.  That’s fine.  Just make sure your sentences make sense and that you know what those terms mean before you use them.
  • Content – Content refers to the ideas expressed by the writer. The type of content you include depends on what you are writing.  Lab reports for science courses, for example, will consist of your observations and, possibly, hypotheses and conclusions.  History instructors may ask you to write a critical book review of a secondary text.  In a critical book review the writer briefly describes the book in question and then offers his or her opinion of the book.  English professors may ask for a range of different types of essays, like descriptive essays, persuasive essays and “This I Believe” essays.  Most of the essays I assign, however, are going either to be analytic essays or research essays.

Analytic essays are more difficult to write than critical book reviews, but they are also a better indicator of the writer’s ability to reason and make arguments, and they are more interesting to read.  If you were writing an analysis of Pride and Prejudice you would need to identify a key idea that you wanted to explore in the novel.  You would make an argument about that idea, and you would find evidence (passages from the book) to support your thesis.  For example, you could argue something like this:  In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen subverts Regency era social conventions by having Elizabeth Bennet marry above her social status.  Your job now would be to retrace your way through the novel looking for passages that support this contention.

Research essays require writers to investigate a topic and then make an argument concerning that topic.  Notice that it is not enough to simply conduct research and report what you’ve discovered.  You need to balance the information you have uncovered through your research with the meaning or interpretation that you then give to that information.  Information is the data that you derive from your research.  An essay that is information heavy reads like an encyclopedia entry.  There are plenty of facts, but the facts don’t connect with either the reader or, it would appear, the writer.  The reader leaves the essay shrugging her shoulders saying, “Okay, I now know about the breeding habits of the platypus, but who cares?”  Meaning is the interpretation you give information.   Although it happens less frequently, it is possible to have an essay that is meaning heavy.  A meaning heavy essay reads like an opinion editorial.  The writer cherry picks one or two “facts” and uses them to spin off any meaning he or she feels like.  With that in mind, let me give you a couple of examples from historians:

  1. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire relies on evidence that Gibbon gleaned from primary sources to support the contention that the Christian doctrine of the afterlife undermined the civic duty of Romans.
  2. In The Trial of the Templars, Malcolm Barber looks at primary sources, and what happened in countries where the Templars were not put on trial to suggest that the King of France was motivated, in part, by his desire to acquire the wealth accumulated by the Templars.

Here are some rather obvious topics that you could work with:

  1. The rejection of climate change science by a significant portion of American society is motivated more by economic concerns than by any flaws in the science.
  2. Transphobia, the fear of trans people, stems from an anxiety acceptance of gender fluidity would undermine traditional sex/gender roles.
  3. The distrust that some academics express towards Wikipedia as a source of knowledge has less to do with the accuracy of Wikipedia, and more to do with concerns that, because Wikipedia is free and widely accessible, it will displace them as the gatekeepers of knowledge.
  4. Free trade agreements, although they hurt certain demographics in the short term, are good for the economies of all countries involved in the long term.
  5. Globalization and the power of massive international corporations have undermined the very concept of the nation state.
  6. The continual demand for high stakes standardized testing is driven less by concerns about slipping educational standards in the United States, and more by the lobbying of lawmakers by companies that profit off of these exams.
  7. Providing laptops and tablets to middle school and high school students undermines learning.
  8. Providing laptops and tablets to middle school and high school students ensures that even students from low income families will learn skills that are absolutely necessary to succeeding in our digital economy.

Any of these topics can be researched and then argued about.  There are a nearly infinite number of similarly interesting topics that could form the basis for a successful research topic.  Your job is to find a topic that interests you.

I hope that this overview has clarified what I’m looking for when I grade essays and has given you ideas for how to improve your writing.  Good luck!