On Sunday, September 11, from 2:00pm to 5:00pm, the Klooster Center will host its annual open house. Please join us and enjoy some special snacks and treats! It’s a great chance to meet the Writing Assistants and to appreciate the more relaxed vibe of the Center in its early-in-the-semester phase. Soon we’ll be too busy to do much socializing, but Sunday will give us a chance to pursue some of the more leisurely elements of writing and writing assistance (such as talking, eating, and more talking).
Here are three things that go through the minds of many college students when they’re asked to write a paper for a course:
One: “I’m not going to spend too much time on this paper, because that’s not going to help me get a good job when I graduate.”
Two: “Writing is important in English classes and in some of my gen-ed classes. But it’s not that important for my major, since I’m majoring in chemistry (or accounting or athletic training or the performing arts).”
Three: “Today, the world runs on web visuals, texting, e-mailing, and social media. When my professors assign formal papers and essays—well, that just seems so out of date.”
I’d wager that almost every college student has had at least one of these thoughts, at least once. Allowing such notions to pass through one’s mind is not an abnormal condition; these are not signs of immaturity or laziness. These three thoughts do share one small problem, however: they’re all false.
False thought 1: “Being a good writer isn’t going to help me in the job market.”
All the available evidence suggests that good writing is a key factor for success in the world of work. A recent article in Time Magazine points to a number of studies and additional evidence, suggesting that hiring and promotion are often dependent on the candidate’s writing skills. It quotes Grammarly CEO Brad Hoover, who wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review blog that “If you are a native English-speaker and never learned the difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its,’ especially given access to Google, an employer might wonder: What else have you failed to learn that might be useful?” Hoover’s article makes reference to Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, who wrote in a blog post that he refuses to hire people who use poor grammar. He believes that “good grammar is a sign of professional credibility, attention to detail, and learning ability.” That post earned kudos from a Forbes Magazine contributor, who found this point particularly compelling:
In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have,” [Wiens] writes. “They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there and they’re.”
Another article on the Harvard site points out that in the world of business, evaluations of a person’s credibility depend significantly on that person’s writing ability. The author notes that “people jump to all kinds of conclusions about you when they read documents you have written. They decide, for instance, how smart, how creative, how well organized, how trustworthy, and how considerate you are.”
False thought 2: “Writing doesn’t really matter in my major, especially since I’m a science/business/kinesiology/art major.”
If you’re majoring in the sciences in order to avoid writing, you’ve made a pretty serious mistake—and you’ll know it as soon as you get back your first lab report. And almost every academic major—no matter how “hands-on” or “practical”—requires a substantial amount of writing. College is different from a trade school; there, you might be tested only on your technical know-how, but in college, you also need to be able to describe, explain, think about, and communicate about your technical abilities. These kinds of abilities, which are bolstered by good writing habits, help to explain why college graduates tend to have better jobs and more job choices over the long run.
The natural sciences provide a good example. Science depends on the ability of other people to understand, and when necessary to duplicate, the work of other scientists. Moreover, given the tremendous amount of scientific work being done (and written about), no one has time to read bad explanations; they will just skip over such work and go on to one of the other thousand or so accounts of the same kind of work, all of which are easily accessible via the internet.
All of these factors mean that, in order to get people to pay attention to your work (regardless of your field), you need to be able to express yourself with clarity and grace. An excellent article in Psychology Today demonstrates why good writing matters, even in science; it cites a number of passages of scientific writing, both good and bad, to show how much difference it makes.
As for business majors: item number 1, above, explains why businesspeople need to be able to write well—as does this next item:
False thought 3: “Today’s world runs on web visuals, texting, and e-mailing, so when my professors demand good writing, they’re just out of date.”
A professor at the University of Colorado noticed that her students’ attention to the web and to electronic communication had not only diminished their writing skills; it had also reduced their level of care about their writing and their level of interest in learning to write well. She found herself wondering how employers felt about hiring people who didn’t write well, or who didn’t care about how they wrote. So she penned a column in The Denver Post in which she came right out and asked employers whether this was true.
She received a great many direct responses that convinced her how much writing matters, right across the spectrum of jobs and fields. The responses aren’t on the newspaper’s comments page, but they are well described in an interview on Colorado Public Radio. The professor talks about the shift away from good writing over the last several decades, and then discusses the range of responses that she got from her column in the Post.
Employers not only told her that writing matters, but that they use a person’s writing in order to winnow down their large pools of applicants. She refers to letters that she received from mortgage companies, heavy equipment manufacturers, auditors, veterinarians, engineers, and many others. Only one letter said that technical skill was more important than writing ability in the hiring process—but even that letter indicated that, “if that person wants to rise in our company, and stay in our company, then writing will matter.”
How to think differently
Most universities and colleges have a wide range of resources that can help students become better writers. At Hope College, we continue to weave writing into all aspects of the educational experience—not only in general education classes, but in the majors as well. The Klooster Center for Excellence in Writing provides peer assistance to all students, of all ages, in all majors, and through all stages of the writing process. If you’re a Hope student, you’ll want to visit the Center early and often!
Conclusions are hard. Not impossible, of course, but hard. After spending hours pouring blood, sweat, and tears into your paper, you might be tempted to throw together a quick summary and slap it on the end of the essay. After all, didn’t you just spend eight whole pages explaining your topic? What’s left to be said?
Imagine, if only for a moment, being a professor. Your student hands you an eight-page paper titled “American Exceptionalism: A Political Analysis of the Greatest Nation on Earth.” Oh boy. Grimacing, you brace yourself for an onslaught of shallowly-researched über-patriotism. To your surprise, the student’s work is quite compelling. The thesis is unique and supported by several well-considered arguments, each in turn backed by a myriad of primary sources. This student’s paper impresses you, especially when you think back to his writing earlier in the semester.
Then, you get to the conclusion—or at least, you assume it to be the conclusion, since it is the last “paragraph” of the essay. This “conclusion” consists of two vague sentences, one of which essentially reads “And yup, that’s why America is the greatest country on Earth.”
Unfortunately, too many students fall into the trap of undermining their hard work with a vague or poorly-thought-out conclusion. What makes a conclusion “bad,” though? What should you avoid?
1: AVOID summarizing.
Despite what a thesaurus might say, conclusions are not synonymous with summaries. Summaries are repetitive and boring, but conclusions are thought-provoking. Try to concisely reiterate your main ideas, but don’t dwell on them—extend your ideas to the bigger picture and answer the question “so what?”
2: AVOID repeating your thesis or intro material verbatim.
While many successful conclusions briefly reiterate the main points of the paper or use similar language, it is always obvious when a student has copied and pasted his or her thesis from the introduction because it sounds repetitive. There is a fine line between using consistent language and key words throughout a paper, and simply copying. Try to find ways to reword your ideas, using varied vocabulary and sentence structures.
3: AVOID bringing up minor points.
In short, minor points are best left in the body of the essay. If the main point of your essay is that chocolate is the greatest invention ever because it tastes amazing, then talking about its country of origin, for example, might not be the best choice for your conclusion because it’s largely irrelevant to the “big picture” that you want to emphasize. Think about it this way: what do you want readers to take away from your paper? Bringing up minor points in the conclusion will only distract readers from your main ideas.
4: AVOID introducing new information.
Similarly to how minor points can distract readers from your main ideas, introducing last-minute information can confuse readers, leaving them wondering what your paper was really about. Not only can this confuse readers, but it can also give them the impression that you have poor organizational skills. A reader might wonder why you didn’t simply include the information further up in the bulk of your argument, rather than as an afterthought.
5: AVOID selling yourself short.
Conclusions often go beyond the original scope of the paper, thus tempting us to use language that suggests that we are not experts. Since you’ve just spent 5 pages acting like an expert on your topic, however, don’t undermine your hard work by ending your essay with a phrase like “I’m not an expert, but….” Your professor already knows that you are a student, not a professional. Similarly, try to avoid phrases like “I think” and “I feel,” especially in analytical papers. Again, your professor understands that everything in your paper is a product of your own ideas; even the information in objective papers has been filtered by what you view is important. Don’t weaken or hedge your arguments with language that is less than confident.
6: AVOID the phrases “in summary” and “in conclusion.”
As easy-to-use as they may be, phrases such as these come across as cliché. Your reader can see that he or she has reached the end of your paper because it is the last paragraph of the last page. Thus, beginning your conclusion with a phrase like “in conclusion” is a bit redundant.
Conclusions may seem like the hardest part of writing a paper, but they do not have to be. Have confidence in your knowledge and express it creatively. Look for unique ways to give your reader something to think about and, if need be, encourage him or her to act. Above all, don’t sell your conclusion short. Instead of thinking of your conclusion as a short summary tagged on to the end of your paper, try to view it as the opportunity to leave a lasting impression on your reader. These are the final words that your reader will see—what will he or she remember?
For additional assistance with conclusions, check out our handout or make an appointment with the Klooster Center by going online, by calling (616) 395-7025, or by stopping by the reception desk. We’re on the first floor of Van Wylen Library.
More Complete photo attributions:
“Why Can’t I See Clearly,” by “auntjojo” [CC BY-ND 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/)] via Flickr
“Chocolate,” By André Karwath aka Aka (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
“STOP Sign,” by Bidgee (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
As we begin the sixth year of an official writing center at Hope College, a record 36 Writing Assistants will be returning to campus for four full days of orientation, staff development, team-building, and fun. This marks the beginning of the Klooster Center’s annual “pre-college conference”—so named because it echoes an event of the same name for Hope faculty (which takes place at about the same time). All Writing Assistants are required to come to the PCC every year—not just their first year, but any year in which they are on campus and plan to work for the Center. This helps the WAs get to know one another better, so that they can function as a team throughout the year. It also helps our veteran Writing Assistants to “get back in shape” for their work here, after spending their summers doing other things (and some very interesting things, too—watch this space for further details).
Be sure to look for our WAs around campus, starting on Wednesday, August 26 and continuing through Orientation Weekend. On some of these days, they will be wearing T-shirts that identify them as Writing Assistants. In case these pictures aren’t clear enough to allow you to read the text on the front, it says: “Papers piling up? We can help!” Our shirts were designed by Allyson Hoffman ’15, who served as the Student Director of the Klooster Center during her senior year at Hope. She’s now pursuing an MFA degree in creative writing at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
One of the wonderful things about the pre-college conference is that it creates mentoring relationships between our veteran Writing Assistants and those who have been newly hired at the Center. We’re hoping to extend this process into the school year, encouraging mentors and and their charges to do some sessions together. Our goal is that they will be able to provide each other with examples, advice, and feedback. So if you schedule an appointment for early in the semester, don’t be surprised if you see two WAs at your desk! (Don’t worry, you only have to deal with one of them. The second WA will just be watching the one who’s working with you on your paper.)
During their pre-college conference, the Writing Assistants will be attending sessions run by faculty and staff from all across campus, in order to be better prepared to work with their fellow students on their papers this year. A great many campus leaders have provided support for our WAs at previous pre-college conferences. A few of them are listed here (with links for offices, as well as for those individuals who already have a personal page on the new Hope website): Dr. Rich Ray, Provost; Dr. Patrice Rankine, Dean of Arts and Humanities; Dr. Susanna Childress, Dr. Beth Trembley, Dr. Marla Lunderberg, Dr. Courtney Werner, and Amy Devanney (all from the English department); Jeanne Lindell and Janet Pinkham from the Academic Success Center; Dr. Susan Ipri Brown and Dr. Courtney Peckens from Engineering; and the Research Librarians at Van Wylen Library (Rachel Bishop, Jessica Hroncek, Patrick Morgan, and Todd Wiebe)—as well as others whose names I’m probably forgetting as I write this.
We’re also grateful to Patti Carlson, who sends out thousands of session reports every semester and who helps us out in myriad ways (all as part of her administrative role at Van Wylen Library), and to Kelly Jacobsma, the Genevra Thome Begg Dean of Libraries, who provides us with all kinds of support and helps us make our space comfortable, useful, and hospitable to the students whom we serve.
(Want to get clear about why that last sentence has “whom” instead of “who”? Make an appointment at the Klooster Center and find out!)