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Shocking undergraduate writing

If I tell you that the writing of today’s college undergraduates is depressingly shoddy and incompetent, I tell you nothing more than I could have said when I was a graduate teaching assistant at Syracuse in the 1970s.* And if I were even older and creakier than I am now, I could probably have told you the same thing about student writing of the 1950s and 1960s.

But the deficiencies are less in the writing, bad as it is, than in the thinking. I’ll get to that after removing some underbrush.

The first thing you will want to clear from your mind is the belief that things are worse now than they have ever been. That doubtful judgment is subjective rather than rigorously demonstrated, and generations of lamentations by English teachers give the lie to it.

The next thing to get rid of is excessive concern about mechanics. True, most undergraduates appear to approach commas in the same way that the waiter offers to grind some fresh pepper on your pasta, sprinkling them promiscuously over the page. And the inability to get plurals and possessives of proper names appears to be universal. But mechanics can be taught—well—mechanically.**

Students could probably also be trained to do a little better in paragraphing than putting heterogeneous sentences in the same paragraph, or spreading several sentences one the same topic over as many paragraphs. Or taught a little about subordination so that they could put secondary information in subordinate clauses instead of stringing together a series of simple sentences.

It is more difficult to get at awkwardness, such as the hackneyed opening sentence that some phenomenon is not “something that you see every day,” which I found cropping up regularly in a batch of undergraduate articles that I recently edited.

Moreover, like the writers of Saturday Night Live, students appear at a loss to bring the work to a satisfactory end. They frequently resort to a concluding sentence of editorializing conclusion or prediction which they have no personal authority to make and for which there is no warrant in the preceding text. “X’s determination to become the first human to build a perpetual-motion machine will surely bring him success,” &c., &c.

A major failure in thinking proclaims itself in the throat-clearing the often begins a student paper, as if the topic cannot be broached without a preliminary discharge of marginally relevant remarks. (The pattern will be familiar to those of you who have received a letter that remarks on your excellent qualifications and impressive experience before informing you that you did not get the job.)

Such throat-clearing is symptomatic of a failure to identify focus, and the failure to establish and stick to a focus is primarily a failure of thinking. If the writer has not identified the single main thing the article is about, and clued the reader to that early on, there is a good chance that the reader will never fathom what the point was supposed to be.

That failure of thought leads to others, particularly in organization. Failure to focus yields the newspaper article that is a notebook dump by the reporter, or the memo that takes you from Troy to Schenectady by way of Chattanooga.

Thinking of a particular kind, analytical thinking, is required for effective prose in these categories:

Focus, as previously mentioned, requires identifying what the main point is, what subordinate elements are included in it, and what material is extraneous to it and can be safely omitted.

Organization of the facts and supporting information to be marshaled in subtopics that proceed from one to another in an orderly and recognizable manner comes next. (Make an outline of your text after you have written a draft. Does it make sense? Can you reorder it more effectively?)

The audience must be identified and considered: what its concerns and interests are likely to be, what background information can be taken for granted and what should be furnished.

The rhetorical strategy that will most effectively make the point to the reader must be identified and followed throughout the text. This will determine the tone as well as the rhetorical figures to be employed.

What I see in the students with whom I am examining the elements of editing is that while they have had some training in expression, they do not appear to have had much in argument or analytical thinking. I can drill them on mechanics, and after a semester they will understand that some people care about distinctions between lie and lay, even if they are mystified by such concerns. But training them to look analytically at texts is hard work for them, because they haven’t been asked to do much of it.

And their own writing shows that.


*During the year I taught freshman composition, the English department inflicted Sheridan Baker’s Practical Stylist on the students. Its deadening formula was fatal to any originality of thought or expression, and the topics the teaching assigned students were almost as stifling as those on which the young John Milton was assigned to write prolusions—“Whether Day or Night Is the More Excellent.”

**It’s not, mind you, that I am unwilling to teach college juniors and seniors elements of grammar and usage that I learned in the seventh and eighth grades, but we would have time to talk about the more intricate delights of editing if the baseline were a little higher.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:02 AM | | Comments (11)


This was a pleasure to read. I am terribly guilty of approachiong "commas in the same way that the waiter offers to grind some fresh pepper on your pasta, sprinkling them promiscuously over the page." Have been since I can remember. I sent this to a few professors at UMD and bet they will love it.

*approaching. Typo. Eek!

My children's high school had a fairly rigorous and robust English program. When my son went to a small private liberal arts college, he was enrolled in the required Freshman writing seminar. They were covering writing issues he'd learned no later than Sophomore year in high school. Some students were unable to keep up. My son turned in first drafts and got As.

He was as ill-served by such low standards in the writing seminar as the struggling students had been by their earlier elementary and high school English curricula.

I'd rate this one of your best posts. Thanks!

I think things like the preliminary harumph reflect a failure to edit. It's fine to put things down on paper in the order you think of them; trying to do anything else can stifle your ability to write at all. It's not fine to have no strategy to reorder them afterwards.

Time to once again trumpet Rosemary Hake, who (as far as I know) invented or reinvented the strategy of teaching writing by having students copy pieces of writing. By hand. Until they could get it correct. Students copied essays of various forms verbatim, then made changes in the form to suit their topics. Repeatedly.

Her book is called Mapping the Model, and there's one used copy left on Amazon. Go for it.

Agreed, John Cowan. The best solution I've ever found for my writer's block is just to write something, anything, even if i know it's eventually headed for the ashcan. Writing begets writing. Eventually it should also beget editing, self- or otherwise.

True, most undergraduates appear to approach commas in the same way that the waiter offers to grind some fresh pepper on your pasta, sprinkling them promiscuously over the page.
I wish I could see some sprinkled commas. In my industry, ERP instructional development and training, I see the opposite too often: long sentences, not quite Kafkaesque but pretty close, with plenty of subordinate clauses and no commas. Though I never studied Indo-Iranian languages, I wonder if those languages do not have such features as subordinate clauses or even commas, since the primary offenders seem to be native speakers of those languages. There are many in my field of work.

Moreover, like the writers of Saturday Night Live, students appear at a loss to bring the work to a satisfactory end.
Since I haven't watched SNL since it stopped being funny*, I'll have to take your word for it. I would have said "like most Spike Lee movies."

*That would be 1990, the year Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider made their debuts on the show.

"Troy to Schenectady by way of Chattanooga"? You're just trying to get this ex-Chattanoogan out of the woodwork, aren't you?

Seriously, great post. And don't think for a moment that these problems are confined to undergraduates. My current authors (two PhDs and a PsyD, for what those are worth) are suffering badly from most of them.

This topic is dead-on. In fact, I have just been telling a friend about the atrocious writing in my MBA Information Technology class. We all have to keep I.T. blogs and post at least once a week. I now have become the most popular person in my class for group project teams, due entirely (as far as I can tell) to the fact that my blog posts are the only coherent ones. Out of 45 students, who all have undergraduate degrees, probably two can string two words together intelligibly. I find this sad -- although finally being popular for being a nerd has been interesting.

Instruction in English and instruction in biology seem to have gone in opposite directions. When I was in high school, we learned that cells had things in them and among those structures were mitochondria. Now in high school, students learn that there are mitochondria and then they learn about the structures in them. There is a lot more detail to learn in high school biology now.

What research and new discoveries in writing have crowded out instruction in grammar? While we know much more about language, courtesy of the science of linguistics, few of those discoveries creep into writing or English textbooks.

Was there something in the "Sputnik moment" that allowed mediocrity in English while insisting on improvements in biology and other sciences?

Or is the problem that English textbooks are written without the input and review of linguists but biology textbooks are written and reviewed by biologists?

Throat-clearing. That is actually what Bill Stott calls it in his book Write to the Point - a very good book on writing. What fascinates me the most is that professors and writing instructors fervently demand catchy introductions and then try to find a thesis in the jumble they receive as opening paragraphs. Why not just say it? Because there's usually not much to say. Great post - thank you.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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