Caveat Scriptor: The following tips and guidelines for freshman composition
classes are provided by P. Aaron Potter, an instructor of English at the
University of California, Riverside, for the benefit of his composition students.
Other composition students or instructors are welcome to make use of
this material with the understanding that while much of it reflects generally
accepted writing practice, it is also indicative of the personal tastes of
the author and should in no way be considered an authoritative document.
This is advice I give to my students on how to succeed at writing
in my class -- your mileage may vary. All material is solely
a product of P. Aaron Potter and does not reflect the official policy or
opinions of the Department of English, the University of California, the
government of the United States, or the United Federation of Planets.
WARNING: the following information is, more often than not, more a matter
of personal style than hard and fast 'rules' for composition. These are stylistic
guidelines for papers in Mr. Potter's composition classes:
When in doubt CONSULT WITH YOUR INSTRUCTOR -- contrary to some undergraduates'
beliefs, instructors are almost universally ecstatic when a student brings
them a paper before it is due to be turned in: this affords you the
opportunity to get some proofreading and advice on your paper before it gets
graded, and has the added benefit of convincing your instructor that you
are serious about turning in quality work and improving your writing. Take
advantage of office hours and moments after class, or set up an appointment
with the instructor; the sooner the better.
When in doubt, err on the side of formality. College papers are thoroughly
formal documents, part of the process of professionalization. ALWAYS TYPE
YOUR PAPERS in a legible font (Times New Roman size 12 is reccomended),
double-spaced, with adequate (1" to 1.5") margins on all sides.
Avoid sexist language, particularly when using pronouns to represent a
hypothetical individual -- why would you want to risk alienating half (at
*least*) of your audience? "Today's student must work hard in his English
classes" can easily become "Today's students must work hard in their English
classes" or "One must study hard in one's classes" or even "Today's student
must study hard in his or her classes." Any one of these solutions
is better than the original error. I realize that occasionally this
will render sentences unwieldy; our language is in a state of flux as we
create new methods for dealing with antiquated verbiage. Think of yourself
as part of an historic process. Don't try to fix this problem by using
or other slashed constructions....they're like speedbumps on your reader's
Avoid slashed constructions in general:
"if/when" and other hybrids. Be brave
enough to choose one term, find a better word which covers both cases, or
use the conjunction "or."
Forbidden words: avoid using vague terminology such as
"thing" or "stuff"
to refer to material. It's very rare that the material in question can't
be limited at least somewhat: "The room was so full of
stuff that I could barely breathe" could easily
be changed to "...full of furniture..." It's not necessary to define every
object in the room (particularly if that interrupts the flow of your essay)
but your reader now has some idea of the type of objects involved.
Forbidden words, continued: "just" is not an
emphasis, although it is often used as such (particularly in conjunction
with "so"): "The car was
just so red that it looked like it was on fire."
This is a common informal use of "just," but is unacceptable in a formal
paper. Just means either "only" or "equitable," not "very."
Forbidden words, continued: avoid using
or similar words as emphasizers: "The car was
really red. My friend was
really mad." "Really" means that true, or factual,
as opposed to false or untrue. How could the car be "falsely" red?
Unless you tell me otherwise, I will assume that if you tell me the car was
red, it was red. "Really" should be reserved for disinguishing reality from
appearances or other contrary-to-fact statements: "He looked as though he
were sleeping, but he was really dead as a doornail."
Forbidden words, continued: avoid using
"completely," or other words as emphasizers
unless the reader would otherwise assume that the adjective or modifier in
question were only partial. In the sentence "The car was
completely is unnecessary: unless you state
otherwise, your reader will assume that the car was red over its entire surface.
On the other hand, "she had been dismembered," might be considered sufficiently
different in meaning from "she had been completely dismembered," to merit
inclusion of the adverb.
Don't begin your sentences with common conversational 'openers' such as
"Well,..." The purpose of these introductory
phrases in conversation is to give you a chance to collect your thoughts
before you launch into your sentence -- you don't need (and don't want) that
type of informality in your paper.
Don't begin sentences with "With": it provides
you with a false impression that you have established cause and effect. "With
Kosovo being bombed, I'm running to Canada." *seems* to make perfect
sense...however, "with" is a *very* weak word of relationship -- all it really
means is that the two events were happening in approximately the same universe.
"With Kosovo being bombed, I'm running a slight fever." makes almost as much
logical sense as the first example.
Avoid passive phrasing, in general. Passive
phrasing occurs when you place the *direct object* of an action in the *subject*
position of the sentence...rather than "I picked up the chalk," you write,
"the chalk was picked up by me." This tends to *displace agency*, making
it difficult (or impossible) for your reader to determine just who is doing
what. "Victims are being drained of blood" makes it sound as though
the "victims" are somehow bringing the action upon themselves. Who
is actually doing the draining? It is much more accurate to use the
*active* phrasing, "Vampires are draining victims of their blood." Now
we can see who is responsible.
Avoid the use of Rhetorical Questions (questions
to which you already know the answer, or for which there is no answer expected
or possible), particularly in argumentative papers. "Who's to say I
shouldn't cut off your head?" makes it *seem* as though I've presented a
valid argument for cutting off your head...after all, what authority could
answer that question? But this is an insufficient argument -- an astute
reader will be able to argue "*I'm* to say!" and thus refute your