Two Common Stylistic Flaws of Undergrad Prose Writing

creative writing expository writing
By Hank

Academic proseOver the course of nearly fifteen years as a full-time academic, I have edited and graded thousands of pieces of writing from undergrads and grad students alike. Over these years I have identified a range of common mistakes that I would say are typical of undergrad writing. As an instructor and editor, I have a range of stylistic rules and best practices that I share with my students and clients. I use my rules first to edit specific pieces of writing and I then teach students to internalize various rules so that they can better refine and improve their future written work on their own.

Here I begin a list of general rules that I suggest students apply to their own writing, and that they should use to potentially revise admissions essay drafts. In future blog posts, I will go on to list more common stylistic issues of this sort, and propose what will hopefully be useful suggestions and rules of thumb for editing your written work. Consider these proposed best practices, and put any piece of writing to the test to make sure that you are not committing either of these common errors.

1. No Contractions in Academic Writing

This one is extremely simple. Once you have read this, you should hopefully never make this (all too common) mistake again. In academic writing you should not use contractions except in the case of possessive constructions. So, you can have ‘Richardson’s theory,’ but you should not write ‘doesn’t.’ You should instead write out ‘does not.’ In academic writing contractions like ‘won’t’ and ‘don’t’ are too colloquial and they appear out of place, unless perhaps in a direct quotation. Simple, right? Yet as a professional grader I observe that many undergrads have not yet properly internalized this rule.

2. No throwaway intros.

At some point, in various pedagogical contexts, some instructor tells students that every essay should begin with a universalizing sentence that appeals to everyone and references the overarching importance of a given topic. This is unfortunately a bad rule. It causes students to write insufficiently specific intros. Whatever you do, avoid a vague intro, which will typically start with a vague first sentence. Examples include statements like, “The environment is an issue that effects everyone,” or “Musical trends vary from one generation to the next.” Read your intro sentence out loud to yourself. If it is vague, then put pressure on it: make it more specific by refining your argument and using precise, concrete language.

If you follow these two rules in your academic writing, you’ll be sure to avoid the common pitfalls I see my undergraduates fall into consistently.

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Check out some other helpful posts on writing tips below!

4 ways to beat writing anxiety

Five strategies to improve your writing

Four ways to become a (better) writer


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