Everybody Writes
Everybody Writes

I’ve no doubt college students who are too young to remember life without internet think of the internet when they engage in a writing exercise. There must be some explanation for why some students Capitalize Every Word In A Sentence In A Paper Like Buzzfeed Does or engage in an ostensibly random confusion of proper nouns and common nouns. Seriously, I’ve seen students write about “president obama” , “congress”, “republicans”, or “putin” but feel the need to capitalize random words like “War”, “Health”, or “Oil”. I can’t explain the latter, though I think it’s a Twitter effect.1 I think professors assume the internet is a major problem for some poor writing they observe in class papers and that an increasing web focus only compounds the problem. It would be a ready source of slang, jargon, and poorly structured writing we tend to observe.

Could a web-minded approach actually help students become better writers? I asked myself that question when I saw Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes in the Amazon book store in Seattle.2 I later bought it and read it over the course of the spring to get an idea of how a web content approach might help students become better writers. Today’s college students are children of the internet now and any book that discusses good writing habits should correct bad habits that medium has reinforced no matter the indended audience. Still, Handley’s presentation for her intended audience (i.e. marketers on the web) was great and several points translate well for students as they think about their in-class papers. I share some of them below.

Shed High School Rules

Handley dedicated this topic as her third chapter but I think it’s worth summarizing first. Writing incentives, formats and even some rules that students learned in high school do not translate to being a good writer in college or beyond.

The five-paragraph essay is illustrative of the problem. This format is so ubiquitous that it is one of few things I remember from high school. It’s also the format on the SAT college entrance exam. The problems with it are multiple. For one, students may have learned that this format rewards (and thus encourages) vocabulary and long-winded bombast. It even encourages students to flub basic facts in pursuit of paper length. Retired MIT researcher Les Perelman found that paper length correlated with SAT essay score more than any factor. He cynically encouraged students to exploit that for the sake of the SAT.

“You can tell them the War of 1812 began in 1945,” he [Perelman] said. He encouraged them to sprinkle in little-used but fancy words like “plethora” or “myriad” and to use two or three preselected quotes from prominent figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, regardless of whether they were relevant to the question asked.

He got results for the 16 SAT students he advised. 15 of those students scored in the 90th percentile when they retook the exam. Perhaps SAT essay graders do not notice the details. However, a political science professor like me will notice a claim that the War of 1812 began in 1945 and proceed to downgrade the score for the assignment.

Perelman advised his students afterward to “never write that way again” because “no one is actually learning anything about writing.” This is true, but let’s not forget students respond to incentives, no matter how perverse. Perverse incentives reinforce bad habits professors try to correct.

Students should forget that five-paragraph essay and instead think of writing as task-specific. There is no one way to write and few assignments are equivalent across professors, even in the same discipline. They may not be the same across the same professor. For example, the 6,000-8,000-word research design paper I assign in my quantitative methods class differs in scope from my foreign policy case papers I assign in my U.S. foreign policy course. These papers are different from article summary papers I assign in my upper-division international conflict course.

Writing is a Habit, not an Art

The title of Handley’s book does well to capture its overall theme, which is best elaborated in the second chapter. Everybody writes. Some do it better not because of natural brilliance but because of good practice every day. Writing is habit, not an art.

Handley writes for a different audience but there is a clear implication here for what professors want to tell students about writing a paper. Don’t do it at the eleventh hour. It will be bad and we will see it the moment we start to read it. Professors, even “young” ones like myself, have done this too long to not know a bad paper when we start to read it. “Clutch” is better defined for shot-takers in professional basketball, not students still learning their discipline and the craft of writing.

It’s easy to say students should work on their papers through the semester rather than the last week. (They should, by the way). Better advice from Handley reiterates two points. One, the student should find the time of the day when s/he feels most productive. That’s the morning for me. It might be the evening for others. Find that time to focus on good writing with some in-class assignments in mind.

Two, write often, not just “a lot”. Handley mentions that 30 minutes a day is better than five hours on a Saturday. This is true but it’s also helpful to think even smaller than that. One good paragraph each day is worth more than five bad paragraphs on a Saturday as well. Don’t think just about input, but output as well.

Follow a “Writing GPS”

This was the sixth chapter in Handley’s book and almost the outline for the rest of the book to follow. Handley’s audience (i.e. marketers on the web) differs from my intended audience (i.e. students in political science) though there are two things she mentions in her “writing GPS” that translate well to my audience.

One, never lose sight of the goal of the paper. Each paper the student writes needs to accomplish some major goal. For example, the research design paper in my quantitative methods class needs to propose a novel empirical test for an interesting social science question. The foreign policy case paper needs to explain how the preferences of various decision-makers in the U.S. manifested in the policy that the U.S. decision-makers chose to implement. Identify the goal of the assignment and the steps the student will take to accomplish that goal in the written assignment.

Two, never lose sight of the reader. Good writing should serve the reader, not the writer. I like advice Handley relayed in this chapter about putting the reader into the goal of the writing assignment. The student should take the goal of the assignment s/he has and ask “so what?”. The student should be able to answer this at least three times in different ways.

I’ll illustrate this with an example for a foreign policy case paper I wrote to show students my expectations. I chose the Samoan Crisis because I happen to know a lot about it and think it’s interesting. Here is an example paper I wrote about it to illustrate the expectations of the assignment and here’s how I’d go about this process Handley describes.

Goal: Explain how the preferences of key decision-makers in the Samoa Crisis manifested in the brief intervention that followed.

So what?

Because this crisis shows there is no guarantee the president is able to successfully excercise power to get what he wants even when conditions should favor him over legislative opposition.

So what?

Because the president was compelled into a policy he did not want even as a lame-duck president. This is rather unique in U.S. foreign policy, all things considered.

So what?

Because the intermediate-term fall-out of this crisis was a partition of Samoa that gave Tutuila to the United States. We now call this territory “American Samoa”.

I could continue about this case too. For example, it’s the only militarized interstate dispute of which I’m aware (and I know that data well) that ended with an act of nature. I think that’s interesting.

The student should outline the “writing GPS”, whatever it is for the assignment, and stay on it.

Embrace the Ugly First Draft

I know of no writer, myself included, who produces a good first draft. All good writers produce bad to terrible first drafts. The good writer is also the excellent editor of their own work. Students should not worry about producing a bad first draft. They should embrace it (but not assume that it’s a final draft for the professor to grade).

I think Handley does well to encourage writers to embrace the ugly first draft with a timeline she proposes. First, writers should “barf up the ugly first draft”. Those are her words, not necessarily mine, but I like the metaphor anyway. The student should think about what s/he wants to say and add bullet points to structure the draft under construction. Then, start writing. Don’t worry (for now) about grammar, awkward phrasing/transitions, or subject-verb disagreements. Worry about that later. Don’t worry too much about drawing blanks on specifics. Feel free to insert something like “need more examples here” or “add something that supports this point” as if they were marginalia. Just get it on paper.

Next, walk away. This is important. No one does a good job self-editing a draft they just wrote. The student should congratulate herself/himself for the output by doing something, anything else. Watch TV or eat some food. Just walk away.

Then, come back to it and gaze upon the horror of the ugly first draft and rewrite it. Find the parts that work and fine-tune them. Find the parts that don’t work and repurpose them to make them work. This is where the student should care about things like awkward phrasing/transitions, grammar, and subject-verb disagreements.

However, the ugly first draft comes first. Paraphrasing Don Murray, the student’s draft needs fixing, but first it needs writing.

Edit, Edit, Edit, Edit

I could write forever about things students need to do in their drafts. There are so many problems I see and Handley dedicates several chapters to various tips about editing. I’ll relay some important points here especially as they relate to papers I tend to read from students.

Make the Important Stuff Come First (Don’t Bury the Lede)

Students have a bad habit of burying ledes because they think it sounds smart and buried ledes present their argument with more sophistication. This is wrong. They write like they would talk, which I doubt anyone encourages. Consider this example from Handley, which mirrors the kind of sentences I see students write all the time.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), released in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Education, 30 million adults struggle with basic reading tasks.

What’s ultimately important in this sentence? It would not be NAAL. NAAL is just a report. It would not be that the U.S. Department of Education released it in 2006. That’s not brass tacks. The claim is 30 million adults, almost 10 percent of the U.S. population, struggle with basic reading tasks. That’s important.

Make the important stuff come first and focus on it. The rest is filler that students tend to write because they are worried most about the minimum page length or word count. Don’t write with those in mind. Save those words and analytical energies to clarify and expand on the important stuff, not the irrelevant stuff.

Cross out the Wrong Words

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” - Mark Twain

Edit first by chainsaw, then by surgical tools (to use Handley’s metaphors). First slash anything that feels extraneous or does not help the writer make natural transitions from one paragraph to the other. Then trim the bloat and fat. These are things like jargon and adverbs. On that note…

Ditch Adverbs

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” - Stephen King

Adverbs don’t make the writer sound smart. Adverbs just get in the way of the point the writer should be communicating.

Handley recommends to ditch all adverbs unless they adjust the meaning of the verb or adjective they modify. I recommend going one step further. Eliminate adverbs altogether. Find a better adjective or verb instead and get from A to B in as few words as possible.

Watch For Misplaced Modifiers

Students routinely misplace modifiers in an odd word order. I see these errors and believe the student needed to edit the paper better before sending it to me to grade. I’ll use one of Handley’s examples here because it involves an international relations topic.

Though often misunderstood, scholars know that anarchy does not mean chaos.

What is misunderstood in this sentence? Scholars who argue that anarchy is simply a fact of life in the international system (i.e. there is no world government)? Or anarchy itself (via, I assume, the general public)?

If it’s the former, then the sentence contains a non sequitir. Scholars may be misunderstood but that does not appear to matter to a claim about anarchy that the sentence does not question.

If it’s the latter (and it is), then the sentence buries the proverbial lede. What matters here is the general public mistakes the term “anarchy” for chaos when that term minimially means the absence of government (hence: a-narchy, without government) as scholars know well.

Do note that this example defies the first point raised in this section. Make the important words come first. Whoever is misunderstood is tangential to the claim that anarchy does not mean chaos.

  1. Please let me know if you have answer for the origin of this confusion of common noun and proper noun. I honestly can’t explain it. 

  2. Seattle is awesome.