Dr. Melczarek's General Writing & Time-saving Tips

Even though students may have taken "advanced" (I.B., advanced-placement, honors, etc.) courses in high school, they aren't always adequately prepared for writing at the college level -- even if high school teachers, the SAT, and college advisors told them they were prepared. With this fact in mind, I've compiled a list of hints for students writing in my 100, 200, and even 300-level classes.

--- ULTIMATE RULE: it's our job as writers to guide readers; to be exact; to give sufficient information; to explain clearly and carefully; and to proofread our own work. Don't expect readers to "just get it"; to "just understand"; to correct your factual or writing errors; or to fill in gaps you've left. In other words, as far as your paper is concerned, you are GOD. You have final say over everything that goes in to your paper -- nothing goes in that you don't put there. The catch, however: with absolute power comes absolute responsibility.

»» We'll be writing in Modern Language Association of America (MLA) style for this class. Even though we'll discuss the applicable specifics of this format in class, read the sections on MLA style in your handbook now and begin familiarizing yourself with MLA guidelines for writing, citation/documentation, and Works Cited.

»» #1 TIMESAVER: use your reading notes -- that's why you took them. (You did take good reading notes, yes?)

»» #2 TIMESAVER: write your paper in the active voice from the start. See "active voice" and "passive voice" in our Holt Handbook even before we discuss them in class.

»» #3(a) TIMESAVER: DO NOT MAKE YOUR PAPER UP AS YOU GO ALONG, IN ONE SITTING, AT THE KEYBOARD -- down that path awaits total disaster. You may have gotten away with it in high school, but no longer -- in college, a thrown-together paper reeks from miles away. Instead, create an outline with a thesis statement, mapping out each ¶ with its topic sentence and indicating what quotations/paraphrases/ideas you wish to borrow and cite from your reading material. STICK TO THIS OUTLINE. Believe me, the more time you spend on this kind of organizational work early on, the easier writing and revising your paper will be.

»» #3(b) TIMESAVER: trouble thinking up a thesis? MAKE ONE THAT FITS! If even composing a thesis is stopping you, try it the other way around: carry out your analysis, then look at what you have and create athesis based on that, based on what you've already written. As you'll see in "TIMESAVER #4" below, readers don't know, and won't care, in what order you wrote things, as long as everything's in the order it's supposed to be in when the paper's finished.

»» #4 TIMESAVER: If composing your paper from the introduction frustrates you or keeps you from moving on, leave writing the introduction for last -- write the actual body of the paper first and then go back and figure out what you need to do to introduce readers to what you've written. Readers will never know, and will never care, in what order you wrote the parts of your paper, as long as all the parts do their job in the final draft and read smoothly. (Whomever told students to "start writing from the beginning" should be prosecuted for child abuse.)

»» Academic papers are NOT personal essays -- you're analyzing popular culture as closely to objectively as possible. Review the introduction to Signs of Life in the U.S.A. for reminders on this.

»» Maintain a professional voice -- don't address readers directly or coloquially (using "you"), and don't become conversational (informal tone, slang, etc.).

»» Don't tell readers that anything is "obvious" or "proves" something -- it's your job to make that thing obvious or to prove that something happens (that's why you're writng that paper!).

»» You call it a "typo"; readers call it a "distraction". Proofread!

»» Never, under any circumstances, use the following phrases in any way, shape, or form, anywhere in an essay:

since the beginning of time
in our world today
in these troubled times
since the dawn of man
These phrases are meaningless, pointless, irritating, obnoxious, and often just plain wrong.

»» START THINKING AND WRITING WITH A FABULOUS THESIS STATEMENT -- have as clear an idea as possible of your topic before you begin (we call this the "tentative thesis" because things may change as you write your paper; if things do change, you can then tweak your thesis statement for the final draft to fit what you actually achieve in the paper).
Your thesis statement should make a claim that you defend/prove/illustrate through your paper; phrase your thesis with this intent in mind.
Example thesis statements:

»» In your introduction, be sure to mention/introduce any other writers you'll refer to in your paper BY THEIR FULL NAMES. Your reader will then know what to expect in your paper, who you'll use, and have a general sense of what your paper's about without giving it all away.
After the introduction, refer to other writers by their LAST NAME.
Remember that you neither explain nor define anything in your introduction; you only set your paper's tone and list who/what you're using and what you'll show (see entry on "thesis statement" above).

»» Punctuate titles in MLA style: -- see your handbook and/or class notes for instructions.

»» Explain or define any special terms/concepts the first time you use them (not when you only mention them the first time in your introduction). The introduction is there only to introduce your topic; it's not the place to explain anything. Briefly define/explain a new or complex term or concept the first time you actually use it in a body ¶, and then proceed from there (since you've done the job of educating your reader in what that term/concept means, and can from there on just use the term). Why not quote the original source of that term/idea in your explanation, and name and cite that source?

»» Use quotations CAREFULLY -- use quotations ONLY to

As to the mechanics of quotations, here are some pointers to add to whatever you find in your chosen handbook:

»» When quoting or providing examples, provide also a sentence that connects your quotation/example with, or puts it into context of, your paper. Ask yourself, "what's my reader supposed to get from this quotation/example?"

»» DOUBLE-CHECK ALL QUOTATIONS AND REFERENCES for accuracy -- don't mislead readers, and don't make yourself look unprofessional, irresponsible, or foolish.

»» Don't put anything in your paper that isn't directly/explicitly tied to your thesis, no matter how interesting you find that other piece of information. It's already understood that your paper reflects your opinion/interpretation anyway, so don't soliloquize.

»» Make each ¶ focus on only ONE topic -- anything else gets its own ¶.

»» Transitions from ¶ to ¶ go at the BEGINNING of the next ¶, NOT at the END of the previous ¶.

»» Expand your vocabulary! You must accomplish this feat on your own. Read news journals like Newsweek and cultural magazines like The New Yorker, listen to NPR news on the radio, flip through academic journals -- all sources of advanced vocabulary and linguistic style. Flip through a college dictionary or a thesaurus instead of sports or entertainment magazines at home. Even films -- like Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close and John Malkovitch -- offer linguistic complexity. You'll soon realize that "big words," "five-dollar words," and "SAT words" aren't "big" at all -- they're just specific.

»» Do not approach either your papers with a "but-I-thought-you're-supposed-to-grade-me-on-my-ideas " attitude -- this is, after all, a writing course. Even the best ideas are utterly useless if they're buried in bad writing. If writing errors and carelessness distract me (and anyone else) from your ideas, then there's no point. Therefore, we will work on revising and rewriting your drafts -- but you must pay attention to your work!.

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