When talking to students, most often they will recognise that they might struggle with a particular aspect of writing. Most often they’ll say things like “my grammar sucks” or “my instructor just doesn’t like my writing style” or “my teacher just wants me to repeat from class.”
These reasons for not necessarily getting those top marks on essays couldn’t be less true!
- My Grammar Sucks: Certainly, you want to ensure that whatever you submit has been checked for spelling and grammar errors. That’s just a matter of professionalism. You wouldn’t show up to a job interview in something wrinkled and dirty, because any prospective boss will think that you’re lazy and you don’t care. Making sure to do a final grammar and spell check is just like that. There are enough grammar and spelling tools out there, that submitting something that hasn’t had at least a basic check done is simply lazy. And if you are lazy on your spelling and grammar, chances are that you’ve been lazy on your thinking and argumentation. Therefore, it’s more likely that a poor grade may only be due to poor grammar and spelling on the surface. A perfect, thoughtful, well argued paper, complete with compelling evidence that nonetheless has some spelling and grammar errors? That’s only going to be marginally penalised. A paper that is lazy in its execution, all over the place in its argument, that also is riddled with punctuation, spelling, and basic grammar errors? That’s quite likely going to perform poorly, and grammar and spelling are just one part of why. The fix? Check your grammar and spelling beforehand.
- My Instructor Just Doesn’t Like My Writing Style: Sure, some professors and teachers prefer a particular writing style over another, but in most cases, their “preference” actually indicates a specific expectation for the field. To put this another way, writing is about FORM as well as CONTENT. The “form” part refers to the shape of your argument or piece of writing, which includes your writing style and mastery over the vocabulary. The “content” part refers to what you are writing about, your material. These two elements must work seamlessly together. The art of learning to master any field often starts by imitation: beginner painters imitate and copy the masters before creating a masterpiece; singers learn to sing other peoples’ songs before they start composing their own; scholars learn to write by copying the style of professional scholars first etc. If your instructor thinks that your writing style is off, then what they’re probably trying to tell you is that you have not yet mastered the genre of your field. The fix? Read the readings assigned so that you know what typical writing in your field sounds like. And if you don’t have time to read, read, and read? Then follow these quick tips: (1) avoid colloquialisms/cliches; (2) aim for objectivity and authority in your tone; (3) integrate quotations and data smoothly into your own writing (don’t just plonk them in); and (4) avoid overly flowery or descriptive language.
- My Teacher Just Wants me to Repeat from Class: I’ll admit that there might be some very grouchy instructors out there who simply want their students to repeat back to them whatever they say in class, but they are a teeny, tiny minority (if they even exist). Most instructors would find it an absolute nightmare to read through a pile of essays that simply repeated what they discussed in class. As I used to say to my own students: “I already have a PhD in this; I know what I think, but I’m interested to discover what you think.” If, however, you think that your instructor is penalising you because they disagree with your view and simply want you to repeat their views, chances are that the error is that you haven’t actually argued for your view, you’ve simply asserted. For instance, let’s say that two people have different opinions on what ice cream tastes better, vanilla or chocolate. If the chocolate fan simply argues that chocolate is the best because it tastes the best and is the best. The vanilla fan will be unconvinced, and vice versa. The chocolate fan is going to have to find some data around taste buds, likely around global preferences for one over the other, and perhaps even some historical information. The vanilla-lover might still continue to like vanilla, but they’ll at least recognise that the chocolate lover has made a good argument. Similarly, if you write something in class that I disagree with, but I can see the logic of your argument, then you will do well. The fix? Always check to make sure that you have evidence to support whatever it is that you are bringing forward so that you argue and do not merely assert a view.
So worries about grammar are really about a lack of professionalism in writing; worries about stylistic preferences are really about a lack of familiarity with the expectations in a field; and worries about not being able to disagree are really about trying to argue well.
Checking grammar, spelling, the top style checks, and making sure you have evidence will get you through these hurdles and onto the other things in life that you like doing!