Laura Winton, Writing Consultant
I am the world’s worst proofreader, as some of you may have noticed. I never find a typo until 5000 copies of an item have been run, and then it jumps right out at me. Now, some of you may be thinking, “Laura, how can you be an English teacher and not be a good proofreader? Isn’t that the heart of what makes a good paper?”
Possibly the same people may have also looked at a professor’s assignment prompt and snickered at the typos. Hopefully there would only be one typo, but occasionally there are more. Sometimes I will even give my students extra credit points if they can find the typos. It shows them that I am human and I admit it.
The fact is that for English professors, like everyone else, typos happen. You are thinking one word but your hand automatically types another one. Maybe you have your hands set on the wrong keys and you are typing gibberish. The other fact is that grammar and spelling only count for a small amount with English teachers. On my papers, it amounts to 5%-10% of the grade. I have known English teachers that go up to 20%.
That still leaves 80% of the paper or more that is not about grammar, spelling, and/or typing. This is why in the writing center we really do not focus on grammar and spelling. Because it’s not what is going to make or break your paper. We look at all the other things. Thesis sentences. Introductions. Research. Conclusions. I will talk about all of these in future columns. For right now, I want to focus on detail and organization, which amounts to what we might call the “flow” of the paper.
Organization. Does the flow of the paper make sense? Is it well-organized? Or do you follow one thread for a little while, chase another butterfly through the field and then come back, wings fluttering, to land on your initial point that has been left unpollinated by the bees? See what I did there? I used a series of mixed metaphors to totally obscure my point. That’s what happens when you don’t stay on course with what you are writing. Your reader becomes confused and often bored. Sometimes a teacher will chuckle and scratch their head, trying to figure out what you meant to write. Sometimes they will post it as humorous to a secret teacher’s page on the internet and everyone will get a good-natured chuckle and try to help your poor teacher figure out what you meant. Other times, like any other reader, they will get bored and stop reading. Your professor has anywhere from 10-30 papers to grade. That can be up to 10 hours of grading. If you are in the middle of the pile and your teacher has read 8 papers before yours, do you want to take the chance that he or she will stay with your terrible organization just to give you the benefit of the doubt and a better grade? Or do you want to stand out and be twice as good as the last 8 that they read?
The next thing that makes a paper flow is the amount of detail. If your structure is really good but you have no details, then you have written a skeleton paper. You have to have some meat to put on the structure. And frankly, details are what makes the paper yours. What details do you choose to put in? Are you going to name the major serial killers of the 20th century and give us some of their backstory? Are you going to say what traits they had in common? Did they all come from broken homes? Are you going to pinpoint what areas of the country they came out of? Are you going to tell us what color hair was most common among them? Do redheads kill more than other people? All of those choices are yours and the decisions you will make determine what kind of paper you are writing. Details are what make a paper interesting. Details are what make the sections hang together and transition from one point to another.
These are also the main things you want to look for if you are peer reviewing a paper. How does it flow? As an instructor, I will overlook quite a few things if the flow of the paper is there. If there are interesting details that I haven’t heard from every other student who has ever written about gun control, that aren’t taken from the dreaded Wikipedia, that have interesting statistics or a particularly poignant story, if the details make me want to read the paper, then I may not even notice a typo or an occasional slip of grammar because I am so engrossed in the paper. That’s what, for me as a teacher, makes a paper an A or a B, vs. a C or lower. Stick to your organization and add some sparkling detail.
You wouldn’t go to a party and say “3 clergy walk into a bar” and then walk away. (Unless you are a minimalist comedian or a Dadaist, but that is another matter. Most of us are neither.) You tell the joke, embellishing when you sense you can get a laugh. You will tell what denomination those clergy come from. You will give details.
Next time I will write exclusively about thesis sentences. I know that you are all a-twitter with anticipation!