Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

How to make your English teacher happy

All that formatting stuff is more important than you think.

In one of my classes this evening, I returned essays to students with my comments. But half of them got zeros. Yes, that’s right, I gave failing grades to half the class – actually, more than half, because a couple  of students didn’t turn in essays at all.

Why, I hear you say, would you do such a thing?

The answer is simple. The students failed to follow directions. I gave the class instructions on how to format their essays on three separate occasions. First, on the first day of class, I went through the syllabus, which included instructions on how essays were to be formatted. Second, in the computer lab when I was explaining how to use the word processor, I went through the steps to produce the desired formatting. Third, during the class session before the essay was due, I noticed that many of the drafts that had been brought for peer review didn’t meet the standards, so I gave a quick rehash of how essays were to be formatted.

In spite of all of this instruction, half of the essays that this class turned in didn’t even come close.

I hear a number of cries in protest: Isn’t all of this silly and pointless window-dressing? Doesn’t it matter more what’s in the essay than that it meets standards of formatting?

Perhaps. But if the formatting shortcomings prevent the reading of the essay, the best content in the world won’t count for anything. If a student wants to get a good grade on an essay, it is in the student’s best interest to make the essay readable. As I put it when I explain to my students: If I have a hard time reading something, I get eyestrain. When I get eyestrain, I get a headache. When I get a headache, I get mean. And you don’t want me to get mean when I’m grading your papers.

So here I will set forth the standards I expect in essays from my students. You will find that most English teachers have similar standards. I do have a few personal quirks, and I will point them out, but any recommendation I make that I don’t set apart as just my own preference should be taken as universal, and therefore to be done for all English teachers everywhere in the United States.

First, all essays must be typed on a word processor, not handwritten. Essays must be double-spaced, with the first line of each paragraph indented ½ inch, and no extra space between paragraphs – the indent is sufficient to indicate the beginning of a new paragraph. Font size should be 12 points; smaller is hard to read, and larger smacks of essay padding (more on that later). Fonts should be free of special effects such as italics or boldface, and they should be plain and easy to read – no Olde English gothic, wedding-invitation flourishes, or fonts that look like someone’s sloppy handwriting.

The text of the essay should have left alignment. This means that the left margin of the text lines up straight, but the right margin is ragged. You may think it’s prettier to have the text justified so both edges are straight, but that makes your essay harder to read. The word processor makes the right edge line up by putting extra space in between the words, so words are unevenly spaced. Also, if every line ends at the same place, the eye has trouble tracking to the next line.

You should also avoid essay padding. These are tricks that you might use to make your essay look longer than it really is. Don’t even think about them. All they do is make me think you think I’m too stupid to notice, which makes me angry. Do NOT use a font larger than 12 points. Do NOT use boldface to make your words fatter. Do NOT use a wacky font that takes up a lot of room. Do NOT triple space your text or put extra blank lines in between paragraphs. Do NOT use margins wider than 1 inch top and bottom and 1¼ inch right and left.

I have learned not to assign a minimum number of pages, because if I do, students will use those padding techniques. I have also learned not to assign a minimum word count, because if I do, students spend all of their time saying the same thing over and over again 17 different ways, or they fill their essays with meaningless wordy phrases, such as, “in my own humble opinion, but then again, I may be wrong, but maybe I’m right.” These techniques lead to really lousy essays.

If you want your English teacher to take you seriously, follow these standards when you turn in work. You will present yourself as a conscientious worker who cares about the details. Your teacher will be able to read your work and evaluate it upon its merits, and whatever grade you get, you will know that you have earned it honestly.


Anonymous Jesse said...

The whining is typical, but utter crap. It's the same arguement against good grammar. The students need to realize that good grammar and correct formatting serve their purpose - which is to be an author who gets his point across.

Down the hall in the welding shop, the professor is teaching safety. Why? Safety doesn't weld two pieces of metal together or make the bead smooth and straight. But safety is integral to good welding practice.

Farther (further?) down the hall in the art class, the professor is (hopefully) teaching craftsmanship along with technique. In art class, like writing class, the imagination is the thing. We all want our creativity to soar. But knowing good craftsmanship, i.e. how to correctly mix the paint, gesso the canvas, blot the ink, use the rubber cement, etcetera etcetra, are the wings the creative imagination soars on.

Tue Sep 27, 09:02:00 AM MDT  
Anonymous andrew said...

Maybe if you replace essay with resume, it might get some more attention. If the resume is formatted bad/wrong/sorry/whatever, I just ignore it and go on to one I can read easily. Yes, I may miss some talented folks, but at least I get those that can follow directions.

Tue Sep 27, 10:34:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Jesse, I couldn't have put it better myself.

Thu Sep 29, 01:21:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Pat said...

Circumstances may call for variations in format or special formats for special purposes, but these are typically explained in the style guide used by the instructor or the school.

Depending upon which style guide is used, italic and bold fonts have their place, such as in headings and some elements of reference citations, but the whole essay is most emphatically NOT their place.

Another habit that annoys English teachers is gratuitous (too much, lots of it where it isn't needed) punctuation!!!!!??!!@^^(%^)(%**()##))!!!!!!********!!!!


Thu Sep 29, 01:05:00 PM MDT  

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