Tag Archives: writing

“Students Today…”: On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

Posted at Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled, college instructor Rick Diguette offers a grim picture of first year college writing:

Once upon a time I taught college English at a local community college, but not any more.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on faculty and scheduled to cover three sections of freshman composition this fall.  But it has become obvious to me that I am no longer teaching “college” English.

Every semester many students in my freshman English classes submit work that is inadequate in almost every respect. Their sentences are thickets of misplaced modifiers, vague pronoun references, conflicting tenses, and subjects and verbs that don’t agree―when they remember, that is, that sentences need subjects.  If that were not bad enough, the only mark of punctuation they seem capable of using with any consistency is the period.

I read this just after I had been mulling Jessica Lahey’s What a 12 Year Old Has in Common With a Plagiarizing U.S. Senator, and I recognize in both pieces several overlapping concerns that deserve greater consideration as well as some warranted push back.

“Students Today…”

Let me first frame my response by noting that I taught high school English for 18 years in rural upstate South Carolina—where I focused heavily on student writing—and now have been in teacher education for an additional 13 years. My primary role is to prepare future English teachers, but I also serve as the university Faculty Director for First Year Seminars, and thus support the teaching of writing at my university.

In both Diguette’s and Lahey’s pieces, we must confront a problematic although enduring sense that “students today” are somehow fundamentally different than students in the past, and that difference is always that “students today” are worse. Students today can’t even write a complete sentence (Diguette), and students today are cheating like there is no tomorrow (Lahey).

This sort of “students today” crisis discourse fails us, I believe, because it is fundamentally skewed by our tendency to be nostalgic about the past as well as by shifting far too much focus on lamenting conditions instead of addressing them.

I offer, then, a broad response to both Diguette’s and Lahey’s central points: Let’s not address student writing and plagiarism/cheating as if these are unique or fundamentally worse concerns for teachers and education in 2014 than at any other point in modern U.S. education.

And for context, especially regarding students as writers, I offer the work of Lou LaBrant on teaching writing (see sources below) and my own examination of teaching writing built on LaBrant’s work; in short:

In “Writing Is More than Structure,” LaBrant (1957) says that “an inherent quality in writing is responsibility for what is said. There is therefore a moral quality in the composition of any piece” (p. 256). For LaBrant, the integrity of the content of a student’s writing outweighs considerably any surface features. In that same article, she offers a metaphor that captures precisely her view of the debate surrounding the teaching of writing—a debate that has persisted in the English field throughout this century: “Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house” (p. 256)….

…LaBrant sought ultimately through writing instruction the self-actualized literate adult, the sophisticated thinker. She never wavered in her demand that writing instruction was primarily concerned with making sincere and valuable meaning—not as a means to inculcate a set of arbitrary and misleading rules, rules that were static yet being imposed on a language in flux.

Lou LaBrant remained paradoxically rigid in her stance: The writing curriculum had to be open-ended and child-centered; the content of writing came first, followed by conforming to the conventions; and English teachers had to be master writers, master descriptive grammarians, and historians of the language. It all seemed quite obvious to her, since she personified those qualities that she demanded. LaBrant was one of many who embodied the debates that surround the field of teaching English, and she left writing teachers with one lingering question: Do we want our students drawing blueprints or building houses? The answer is obvious. (pp. 85, 89)

Instead of framing student writing and plagiarism, then, within crisis discourse, we must view the teaching of writing and the need to instill scholarly ethics in our students as fundamental and enduring aspects of teaching at every level of formal schooling. In other words, the problems in student work we encounter as teachers—such as garbled claims; shoddy grammar, mechanics, and usage; improperly cited sources; plagiarism—are simply the foundations upon which we teach.

Along with the essential flaw of viewing “students today” as inferior to students of the past, the urge to lament that students come to any of us poorly prepared by those who taught them before is also misleading and more distraction.

We certainly could and should do a better job moving students along through formal education (see my discussion of common experiences versus standards), but the simple fact is that each teacher must take every student where she/he is and then move that student forward as well as possible. Formal standards and implied expectations about where all students should be mean little in the real world where our job as teachers is bound to each student’s background, proclivities, and all the contexts that support or impede that student’s ability to grow and learn.

Now, before moving on, let me introduce another point about our perceptions of how and when students “learn” literacy. Consider the common view of children learning to read by third grade, for example. As reported at NPR, this widespread assumption that students acquire reading by third (or any) grade is flawed because children and adults continue to evolve as readers (and writers) in ways that defy neat linear categories.

As educator professor and scholar Peter Smagorinsky notes in his response to Diguette, “Education is very complex, and it’s rare that one problem has a single cause.”

On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

None of what I have offered so far relieves teachers of this truth: All students need (deserve) writing instruction and that must include serious considerations of proper citations as well as focusing on the ethical implications of being a scholar and a writer (and citizen, of course).

And while I disagree with claims that “students today” are fundamentally worse writers or more prone to plagiarism than students in the past, I do recognize that we can expose why students perform as they do as writers and why students plagiarize and settle for shoddy citation.

Whether we are concerned about the claims or organization in a student writing sample, the surface features (grammar, mechanics, and usage), faulty attribution of citations, or outright plagiarism, a central root cause of those issues can be traced to the current thirty-years cycle of public school accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing.

As Smagorinsky does, I want to urge anyone concerned about student writing to consider the conclusions drawn by Applebee and Langer regarding the teaching of writing in middle and high school (see my review at Teachers College Record).

Applebee and Langer present a truly disheartening examination of the consequences related to the accountability era as they impact student writing: Although teachers are more aware than ever of best practices in the teaching of writing (due in no small part to the rise of the National Writing Project in the 1970s and 1980s), throughout middle and high school, students are not writing in ways that foster their abilities to generate original ideas; establish, support, and elaborate on credible claims; and polish writing that conforms to traditional conventions for language.

The primary reasons behind this failure are not “bad” teachers or lazy/stupid students, but the demands linked to high-stakes accountability. Just as one example, please consider Thomas Newkirk’s challenge to the unintended and corrosive consequences of writing being added to the SAT in 2005.

The writing section of the SAT has negatively impacted the teaching of writing in the following ways, all of which can be found in contexts related to preparing students for other high-stakes testing situations related to state-based accountability (although NCTE warned about these consequences from the beginning):

  • Writing (composition) is reduced to what can be tested in multiple-choice format. In other words, students are being taught and assessed for writing in ways that are not composing. Here we have the central failure of allowing testing formats to correlate with holistic performances, and thus, students are not invited or allowed to spend the needed time for developing those holistic performances (composing). See LaBrant (1953) “Writing Is Learned by Writing.”
  • Students write primarily or exclusively from detailed prompts and rubrics assigned by teachers or formulated by test designers. Ultimately, by college, few students have extended experiences with confronting the wide range of decisions that writers make in order to form credible and coherent ideas into a final written form. If many college students cannot write as well as professors would like, the reason is likely that many of those students have never had the opportunity to write in ways that we expect for college students. Students have been drilled in writing for the Advanced Placement tests, the SAT, and state accountability tests, but those are not the types of thinking and writing needed by young scholars.
  • Students have not experienced extended opportunities to draft original essays over a long period of time while receiving feedback from their teachers and peers; in other words, students have rarely experienced workshop opportunities because teachers do not have the time for such practices in a high-stakes environment that is complicated by budget cut-backs resulting in enormous class sizes that are not conducive to effective writing instruction.

The more productive and credible approach to considering why students write poorly or drift into plagiarism, then, is to confront the commitments we have made to education broadly. The accountability era put a halt to best practice in writing for our teachers and students so we should not be shocked about what college professors see when first year students enter their classes.

But another source of shoddy student writing must not be ignored.

Within that larger context of accountability, student writing that is prompted tends to have much weaker characteristics (content as well as surface features including proper citation) than writing for which students have genuine engagement (see the work of George Hillocks, for example). In other words, while students are not composing nearly enough in their K-12 experiences (and not receiving adequate direct instruction of writing at any formal level), when students do write, the assignments tend to foster the worst sorts of weaknesses highlighted by Diguette and Lahey.

Shoddy ideas and careless editing as well as plagiarism are often the consequences of assigned writing about which students do not care and often do not understand. (Higher quality writing and reducing plagiarism [Thomas, 2007] can be accomplished by student choice and drafting original essays over extended time with close monitoring by the teacher, by the way.)

And this leads back to my main argument about how to respond to both Diguette and Lahey: As teachers in K-12 and higher education, we have a moral obligation to teach students to be writers and to be ethical. Period.

To be blunt, it doesn’t matter why students struggle with writing or plagiarism at any level of formal education because we must address those issues when students enter our rooms, and we must set aside the expectation that students come to us “fixed.”

In other words, like most of education, learning to write and polishing ones sense of proper citation as well as the ethical demands of expression are life-long journeys, not goals anyone ever finishes.

However, in the current high-stakes accountability era of K-12 education—and the likelihood this is spreading to higher education—I must concur with Smagorinsky:

If you want kids to learn how to write, then put your money to work to provide teachers the kinds of conditions that enable the time to plan effective instruction, guide students through the process, and assess their work thoughtfully and considerately.

Otherwise, you may as well add yourself to the list of reasons that kids these days can’t write.

And I will add that if college professors want students who write well and ethically, they (we) must commit to continuing to teach writing throughout any students formal education—instead of lamenting when those students don’t come to us already “fixed.”

Writing and ethical expression have never been addressed in formal schooling in the ways they deserve; both have been mostly about technical details and domains of punishment. The current accountability era has reinforced those traditional failures.

I find Diguette’s and Lahey’s pieces both very important and seriously dangerous because they are likely to result in more misguided “blaming the victims” in that too many of the conclusions drawn about why students write poorly and often plagiarize remain focused on labeling teachers and students as flawed.

That students write poorly and often plagiarize is evidence of systemic failures, first and foremost. In order for the outcomes—effective and ethical student writers—to occur, then, we all must change the conditions and expectations of formal education, including understanding that all teachers are obligated to identify our students strengths and needs in order to start there and see how far we can go.

Final Thoughts: Adult Hypocrisy

Many of you may want to stop now. The above is my sanitized response, but it isn’t what I really want to say so here goes.

If you wonder why students write poorly and too often plagiarize, I suggest you stroll into whatever room has the biggest mirror and look for a moment.

As someone who is a writer and editor, I work daily with scholars and other writers who submit work far more shoddy than my students submit.

And as an increasingly old man, I witness the adult world that is nothing like the idealized and ridiculous expectations we level moment by moment on children.

Plagiarism? You too can become vice president of the U.S.!

Lazy student? You can become president of the U.S.!

Now, I absolutely believe we must have high expectations for our students, including a nuanced and powerful expectation for ethical behavior, but many of the reasons that children fail at their pursuit of ethical lives must be placed at our feet. The adults in the U.S. (especially if you are white, if you are wealthy, if you are a man) play a much different ethical game than what we tell children.

Children see through such bunkum and that teaches a much different lesson that doesn’t do any of us any good.

For Further Reading

The New Writing Assessments: Where Are They Leading Us?, Thomas Newkirk

On Children and Childhood

Advice to Students and Authors: Submitting Your Work

High and Reasonable Expectations for Student Writing

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

References

LaBrant, L. (1949, May). Analysis of clichés and abstractions. English Journal, 38(5), 275-278.

LaBrant, L.L. (1934, March). The changing sentence structure of children. The Elementary English Review, 11(3),  59-65, 86

LaBrant, L. (1945, November). [Comment]. Our Readers Think: About IntegrationThe English Journal, 34(9), 497-502.

LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writingElementary English27(4), 261-265.

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to write. English Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116.

LaBrant, L. (1943). Language teaching in a changing world. The Elementary English Review, 20(3), 93–97.

LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writingThe English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.

LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to write. English Journal, 35(3), 123–128.

LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writing. Elementary English, 30(7), 417-420.

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structure. English Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

Thomas, P. L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

Thomas, P. L. (2007, May). Of flattery and thievery: Reconsidering plagiarism in a time of virtual information. English Journal, 96(5), 81-84.

Writing Is a Journey: Thoughts on Writing, College, and the SAT

A writer’s writer often ignored is James Baldwin, who examines his drive to write in the context of race:

INTERVIEWER

If you felt that it was a white man’s world, what made you think that there was any point in writing? And why is writing a white man’s world?

BALDWIN

Because they own the business. Well, in retrospect, what it came down to was that I would not allow myself to be defined by other people, white or black. It was beneath me to blame anybody for what happened to me. What happened to me was my responsibility. I didn’t want any pity. “Leave me alone, I’ll figure it out.” I was very wounded and I was very dangerous because you become what you hate. It’s what happened to my father and I didn’t want it to happen to me. His hatred was suppressed and turned against himself. He couldn’t let it out—he could only let it out in the house with rage, and I found it happening to myself as well. And after my best friend jumped off the bridge, I knew that I was next. So—Paris. With forty dollars and a one-way ticket. (The Paris Review interview)

Prompted by the announcement from the College Board that the SAT would be revamped in 2016, including dropping the writing section added in 2005, The New York Times has included a Room for Debate on Can Writing Be Assessed?

So, unlike the moment when the SAT added writing (one that heralded only doom for the field of composition), I want to take this moment to examine writing and the teaching of writing because dropping writing from the SAT may prove to be a positive watershed moment for both.

First, let me offer a few points of context.

I am 53 and have been teaching for 31 years, most of that life and career dedicated to writing and teaching writing. I read and write every day—much of that reading and writing is serious in that it is connected to my professional work. But I also read and write extensively for pleasure, including my life as a poet.

Two facts about my writing life: (1) I write because I must, not because I choose to, and (2) I am always learning to write because writing is a journey, not something one can acquire fully or finish.

As well, I strongly embrace the foundational belief that writing is an essential aspect of human liberty, autonomy, agency, and dignity; this is part of the grounding of my work as a critical educator. Living and learning must necessarily include reading, re-reading, writing, and re-writing the world (see Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Maxine Greene, just to mention a few).

Writing is also integral to academics, in terms of learning and scholarship. Writing is part of the learning process, but it is also a primary vehicle for scholarly expression.

Next, considering the importance of writing in human agency and education, any effort to standardized the assessment of writing or to use writing assessments as gatekeepers for any child’s access to further education are essentially corrupt and corrupting.

Adding writing to the SAT in 2005, then, was one of several powerful contexts that have seriously crippled the teaching of writing in formal education; those forces include also:

All three of the above fail the fundamental value in writing because they distract from the process and act of writing as well as misread writing a a fixed skill that can be attained at some designated point along the formal education continuum.

As the Faculty Director of First Year Seminars at my university, I focus primarily on how we address the teaching of writing in those seminars (and throughout the curriculum). That role has highlighted for me a lesson I also learned while teaching high school English for 18 years: Many teachers, including English teachers, do not see themselves as writing teachers and often expect that students should come to their courses already proficient writers.

Essentially, then, using a writing assessment of some sort to identify students as college-ready as writers perpetuates the idea that we can and should have students demonstrating some fixed writing outcomes before we allow them access to higher education; this presumes in some ways that college will not be a place where people can and should learn to write.

In much the same way that the accountability paradigm is misguided in fixating on outcomes over conditions, seeing writing as a measurable skill useful for gatekeeping college entrance shifts our focus away from what experiences students need so that their continual learning to write in college can be better supported.

Yes, student outcomes matter, and samples of student writing in the right contexts may provide some powerful evidence of what students know as writers and what students need as writers. But something in the addition of writing to the 2005 SAT must not be forgotten: One-draft, timed, and prompted writing scored by rubrics, and even by computers, works against the important goals of writing [1].

Just as grading should be shunned for feedback when teaching writing (see my chapter here), the question is not if writing can be assessed, but how do we insure that all students have access to the common experiences necessary at all point along the formal education experience?

What, then, are those common experiences—and once we implement those, how do we document those experiences in order to support both students having equitable access to higher education and to the continual learning to write that must be central throughout higher education?

Some thoughts on common experiences:

  • Rich and multi-genre/media reading experiences that include choice and assigned reading. Students need to develop genre awareness and discipline-specific awareness as readers.
  • Rich and multi-genre/media writing experiences that include the following: choice and assigned writing, peer and teacher feedback and conferences, workshop experiences drafting short and extended multi-draft compositions, and discipline-specific writing experiences.
  • Analysis of and experiences with a wide range of citation and documentation style sheets for integrating primary and secondary sources in original writing.
  • Continual consideration of expectations for writing both in academic/school settings and real world settings—challenging school-based norms such as thesis sentences and template essay formats.

While this isn’t meant to be exhaustive, the point is that instead of seeking ways in which we can assess well test-based writing or continuing to explore tests and metrics that correlate strongly with actual writing proficiencies, we must commit ourselves to all students having the sorts of common experiences with writing necessary to grow as writers—both for their own agency and their academic pursuits.

Finally, if we can commit to these conditions of learning instead of outcomes, we should then find ways to gather artifacts of these common experiences to use instead of metrics as we guide students through—and not gatekeep them from—formal education.

INTERVIEWER

Did what you wanted to write about come easily to you from the start?

BALDWIN

I had to be released from a terrible shyness—an illusion that I could hide anything from anybody. (The Paris Review interview)

[1] See The New Writing Assessments: Where Are They Leading Us? (Newkirk)From Failing to Killing Writing: Computer-Based Grading, and More on Failing Writing, and Students.

NOTE: For a historical perspective on teaching writing see selected works by Lou LaBrant.

From Failing to Killing Writing: Computer-Based Grading

In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Bill and Mike discuss Mike’s bankruptcy:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Someday soon, two teachers of writing will be sitting and discussing the death of teaching writing, and the conversation will sound much the same.

Teaching writing came into its own in the 1970s and 1980s with great promise that the discipline of teaching composition would find its way into K-12 classrooms; this potential rested in the arms of the National Writing Project and its state affiliates across the U.S., often connected with universities.

However, we have sat silently and watched the accountability era dismantle that hope, and as a result, we have failed the teaching of writing [1].

Standards and high-stakes testing have slowly bled that promise dry, and then the addition of the writing section of the SAT kicked writing instruction while it was down. But the final nail in the coffin?

Calls for computer-based grading of writing:

Here is where leadership is needed from teachers and administrators.  Before some company comes up with a way to grade essays and boards of education become enamored with the idea, and legislators find new ways to require their use…let’s lead.  The technology is here….

We must lead the conversation by knowing and understanding how the technology can improve the educational process, which is based on the most important relationship between teacher and student. In educating our communities, it is essential to begin with the intention of improving teacher and student contact time, not replacing it.  We need to design the solution, not be given it.  First steps are opening our minds to the possibilities.

If you take the time, this is the same self-defeating fatalism that accompanies advocacy for Common Core: Let’s shoot ourselves in the foot before someone else does it!

The piece quoted above asks Will We Ever Allow Computers To Grade Students’ Writing?—to which I say, probably because we tend to do whatever is least credible in our education policy.

A better question is Should We Ever Allow Computers To Grade Students’ Writing?—to which the answer is an unequivocal No! 

And thus I offer a reader of resources for speaking that truth to such calls:

Apologies to Sandra Cisneros, Maja Wilson

NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring

Thomas, P.L. (2005, May). Grading student writing: High-stakes testing, computers, and the human touch. English Journal, 94 (5), 28-30:

As a writer, I cannot imagine composing without my trusted iMac and iBook. And as a writing teacher, I watched the value computers and word processors had for my students—particularly as the technology contributed to students’ ability to write more and to revise more efficiently. While computers and computer programs do offer a huge benefit for the teaching of writing, they must remain merely a tool; we cannot allow anyone to suggest that computers can substitute for humans in the ultimate evaluation of a composition.

Our students’ writing has “something the tests and machines will never be able to measure,” and it is now the duty of all writing teachers to make known the art of human assessment of writing. (pp. 29-30)

[1] Please see the following:

Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction?

More on Failing Writing, and Students

New Criticism, Close Reading, and Failing Critical Literacy Again

RECOMMENDED: Writing Instruction that Works, Applebee and Langer

For Additional Reading

Computer Writer Vs. Computer Grader

Critique of Mark D. Shermis & Ben Hammer, “Contrasting State-of-the-Art Automated Scoring of Essays: Analysis,” Les C. Perelman

Writing Instructor, Skeptical of Automated Grading, Pits Machine vs. Machine

Computerized Grading: Purloining the Analysis, the Most Fundamental Exposition of Humanity

Flunk the robo-graders

Advice to Students and Authors: Submitting Your Work

If someone asks me what I do, without hesitation, I can always offer, “I am a teacher and a writer.”

I am extremely fortunate because I am able to make my living as both a teacher and a writer, something afforded me as a university professor. Being a writer and a teacher, also, are not vocations I have chosen, but who I am at my core. In other words, I did not choose to be a teacher and a writer, but I did come to recognize and embrace both ways of being.

Over the past thirty years, I have taught writing to a wide range of students (from high school through graduate courses), addressing all types of writing from poetry and fiction to personal and scholarly essays. For more than thirty years, I have been a serious writer, working on my own original poetry, fiction, essays, blogs, and academic books. Also part of life as a writer has included working as an editor—co-editing a state journal, editing a column in English Journal, editing two series at two different publishers (Peter Lang USA and Sense), and editing/co-editing book-length volumes.

All of these experiences with being a student, a teacher, a writer, and an editor have provided me with a great deal of experience that has taught me some important guidelines for students and authors preparing and submitting work in courses or for publication. I want here to outline some of that advice, recognizing that advice is often futile; it is the act of writing and experiencing all that is connected with writing that ultimately teaches us what we need to know.

First, let me offer some general comments about writing and being a writer. Essentially, there are two types of writers: ones who are compelled to write (and thus refer to themselves as writers and write regardless of achieving publication) and ones whose situation (being a student or being an academic) include the necessity to write. Each situation creates unique advantages and disadvantages, but I believe it is key for any person submitting work for course credit or publication to recognize which category she/he fits within order to understand what strategies are needed to be a successful writer regardless.

Next, two strategies are incredibly important for students and authors submitting work. One is embracing the life of a purposeful and diligent reader. Reading often as well as reading deeply and widely are essential for writing well. Reading for pleasure is important, but reading like a writer is also key. Reading like a writer involves looking at not just what writers say but how writers craft their messages. For students and authors submitting work for publication, acquiring genre awareness is a primary goal of reading.

Genre awareness is identifying and then working purposefully within or against the conventions associated with different purposes for and types of writing. For example, the characteristics of text that shape poetry (crafting a piece in lines and stanzas) differ from the characteristics of text that shape journalism. Students must gain control over the various expectations for academic writing among disciplines; writing about a work of literature is a different type of writing than preparing a literature review for a research assignment in a sociology class. Authors, as well, soon realize that submitting an Op-Ed to a local newspaper is quite different than submitting an essay to a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.

A second strategy is to seek out avenues for learning about language and writing beyond the formal classroom. One important resource is Joseph Williams’s Style. But dozens of engaging and thoughtful books exist to supplement the type of learning about of writing done in formal school settings.

Now, let me outline some guidelines for submitting writing, whether as a student for course credit or an author seeking publication:

  • In our digital age, my strongest recommendation is learn how to use your word processor, such as Word. Writers must master word processing so that the application works for you, making the tedious tasks of formatting manuscripts less time consuming so you can focus on crafting good writing. For writers, issues of headers and footers, title pages, formatting fonts and margins, handling block quotes, and formatting reference lists can create unnecessary stress that distracts from time needed for drafting and revising. The short point is that word processors will do most of these tasks in ways that are simple and quick; thus, learn how to use the word processor to do anything you need to do with preparing a manuscript.
  • A related piece of advice is “less is always better when formatting a manuscript.” A strong caution I must offer is avoid unneeded returns and all tabs. Two problematic areas for formatting a manuscript are block quotes and preparing bibliographies that require hanging indents; in both cases, do not manually put in returns and do not use tabs to format bibliographies, but do use the formatting features of your word processor. Also, bold and italics should be used sparingly and only within guidelines of the required style sheet. Never use quote marks or bold for emphasis (use italics, but, again, do so sparingly).
  • Just as less is key to formatting, simplicity is central to basic choices about manuscripts. Use 12 pt. Times New Roman for your font. Period. No variety of fonts, no variety of font sizes. Make sure headers and footers also have the same font choices. As well, in most cases (however, please conform to the style sheet required), double spacing is also required throughout, as well as 1″ margins.
  • Honor word count or page number requirements. Noting above, do not manipulate font type or size to reach a page count.
  • Follow the style requirements and refer to the appropriate guides for preparing your manuscript. Many students and authors need to conform to style and citation guidelines provided by professional organizations, such as MLA, APA, or Chicago Manual of Style. Understanding how style sheets differ and why also helps most writers conform to those guidelines.
  • When submitting cited writing, note that the list of references (headed differently among citation style sheets) is a part of the manuscript, although separated by a page break. Be sure to include the references list as part of the submitted manuscript. [Also be sure to include all proper citations in drafts and first submissions whether you are a student or author submitting for publication. Do not submit a piece and state you plan to add your references later; no one can adequately respond to a work requiring citations without full and proper documentation and the necessary list of references.]
  • Take care to provide an interesting and relevant title for all writing and take equal care with subheads (works of 4-5 pages or longer generally benefit from subheads), noting the formatting guidelines needed depending on the style sheet required.
  • Most students and writers will submit their work electronically (please attach your manuscript when you send that email), and as a result, most students and authors will receive comments and editing on their manuscripts through review features on word processors. As noted above, knowing how to use advanced review features on your word processor is crucial. Understand how to navigate track changes as you revise, but most important of all, be able to produce a clean subsequent draft to resubmit. An effective strategy is to save two versions of the returned manuscript—one that maintains all comments and track changes and a second (from which you’ll revise) that accepts all track changes and deletes all comments. Opening both files but working from the clean version (be sure to cut OFF track changes in that version) insures you’ll submit a clean draft for the next round of feedback, for a grade, or for a decision about publication.

Success when writing as a student or writing for publication, ultimately, depends on the quality of the ideas and expression in the final piece, but the initial experience a teacher and editor has with a submitted work begins that process. Students and authors must make that first experience a positive one.

The appearance of a manuscript sends a message about the purposefulness and professionalism of the writer. Students and authors must not expect teachers and editors to take more care with their manuscripts than the student or author has herself/himself.