Short Writing Assignment: 10 Fixable ‘Glitches’

It was a pleasure to read your first bit of writing about Speth, Pearce (Arcadians and eco-modernists) and Jensen.  I spotted several ‘glitches’ in many of these essays that, if left unaddressed, will undermine your success in our class.  If one of more of the following issues bedeviled you in this first writing exercise, please take pains to avoid the same pitfalls in your subsequent assignments.

1.  Answering the Question.  The most prevalent problem in the papers was a reluctance to speak directly and clearly to the prompt.  In future writing, double- and triple-check that you’re addressing the question posed.  Eliminate anything in your essay that doesn’t move you further and deeper toward responding fully and directly to the prompt.

2. Remember your audience!  (or, don’t summarize material when writing to an audience that already knows the stuff).  You’ll recall that your audience for this essay was everyone else in class.  That means that you don’t need to summarize the essay or essays that you were holding up as most useful to you, since we all read them too.  Students who spent unnecessary time and energy summarizing material known to us all ended up burning valuable words (don’t do that when you have a tight word limit!) that could have used to further explain why one author or another was especially useful.

3. Passive Voice.  Using the passive voice is a classic way to rob your prose of power, and to create wordiness at the same time.  Avoid it!

4. Overuse of adjectives and adverbs.  Say what you mean with strong nouns and verbs.  Chose the right word rather than crowding you prose with adverbs and adjectives (and especially adverbs. . .yeech).  Here’s one web page among many that explains the problem.

5. Sentence Clarity.  Some of you struggled with writing sentences that clearly expressed your ideas.  In some cases, the overuse of ambiguous terms was the problem.  In other instances, overly long sentences (where the author seemed to forget by the end of the sentence what they were aiming for) were the culprit.  Wordiness that obscured more than clarified was a third issue.  In many cases it appeared that the writer hadn’t fully figured out what they wanted to say in as direct and clear a way possible — perhaps they submitted their first or second draft (which writers use to figure out what they want to say) rather than their third or fourth draft (where we polish our prose and refine our paragraph structure.)  If this was a problem for you, these links might help:  sentence clarity and conciseness.

6. Paragraph Structure. Some essays featured paragraphs loaded with LOTS of ideas, which often began with a topic sentence that was made irrelevant by what immediately followed in the paragraph.  Such paragraphs suggest an active mind (hurray!) but they obliterate the power of their author.  Methodical paragraph construction is one key to effective writing.  This will help.

7. Cadence. Some authors tangled themselves (and their ideas) up in an extended string of long sentences.  Not.  Good.  This might help.

8. A word limit is a word limit.  I quit reading after the word limit for any given essay.  Make every effort, therefore, to write with precision and economy.  No need for an elaborate introduction, or three examples where one will do!

9. Conclusions should punctuate, not recapitulate.  No need to end your essay with a summary of your major points; your reader is smart enough to recall your key messages from their reading of such a short essay.  Also avoid blunt phrasing such as ‘in summary’ or ‘in conclusion’ — DO, don’t tell (in other words, write in a way that conveys to your reader that you’re bringing it all to close without such heavy-handed signaling).  Most important:  your final sentences could ‘punctuate’ your argument with some novel twist, ending assertion, or final observation that brings your essay together without resorting to simple summary

10. Last but certainly not least:  Read your Work Aloud Don’t submit anything as ‘finished’ until you’ve read it aloud.  Really.  Some essays had small awkwardnesses in word choice and sentence structure that undermined the power of the author’s voice.  Other essays repeated phrases (e.g. “I feel that…”) or modifiers in ways that injected a certain tedium into the prose. You’ll catch a lot of these small problems if you read your paper aloud, slowly.