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The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing is for anyone who wants to write better

Description:The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing is for anyone who wants to write better. It's intended mainly for college students

The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing is for anyone who wants to write better. It's intended mainly for college students, but it has also helped lots of other people around the world learn how to write more clearly, gracefully, and effectively.

The guide's author—that's me, Michael Harvey—has taught writing for a long time, first as a undergraduate peer tutor at the University of Maryland, then as a grad student at Cornell University, where I learned a lot in the John S. Knight Writing Program. As a college professor, I've built my students' work around writing, because it's not only something students are going to have to do throughout their lives, but it's also a great way to stimulate learning and critical thinking.

American college students live in a society that is, by historical standards, incredibly well-educated, literate, and word-oriented. Yet most college students don't write very well. It doesn't seem to matter where I've taught—an Ivy League college, a big public university, a small liberal-arts college, even an online course. Nor did it matter what I taught—introductory or upper-level courses; Shakespeare, political science, political theory, organizational behavior, or international business (I've had kind of a wide-ranging academic career). Even from bright students I kept seeing the same problems: poor thesis statements, pomposity and overuse of the passive voice, rambling paragraphs, awkward quotations, and unconvincing use of evidence. I've seen more bad writing in my 15 years of college teaching than I care to think about.

So Nuts and Bolts came about because I got tired of seeing the same writing problems year after year, and I got really tired of writing the same comments on papers year after year: "wordy," "turn passive into active," "how does this fit with your thesis?" I also started to wonder if writing comments did much good—what my students really seemed to need was explanation of why something didn't work well, and help with how to do it better the next time.

Eventually I wrote a little guide for my students summarizing my most common explanations of good and not-so-good writing. My students liked the first guide, so I expanded it. I also broadened its scope because I felt students in many different areas of study needed writing help. Most writing guides are written from the perspective of English and literature courses, but today students are increasingly likely to encounter writing-intensive courses in a wide range of fields, from history to physics to business to art. This cross-disciplinary approach to teaching writing is known as writing across the curriculum.

Nuts and Bolts is a writing-across-the-curriculum primer. The writing-across-the-curriculum perspective challenges students to write in many different fields, not just English courses. Thus, it is hoped, students are more likely to see writing as an important part of their own education, not just something English majors need to be good at. Writing compels you to ask yourself what you know, to articulate your ideas, to link facts and concepts together, to acquire skill in rational argument. Is there a better way to learn how to think for yourself?

But the writing-across-the-curriculum perspective poses some challenges for students and their teachers. Students are less likely to be taught by highly trained writing experts. In addition, each academic discipline has its own traditions, its own terminology, and its own idiosyncratic rules about things like citations and references. These differences can make it harder for students to apply what they learn in one course to other subjects.

Still, underlying the many differences between writing in various academic disciplines are some broadly held norms in western culture about good persuasive writing: rational arguments, sentence-level clarity and elegance, well-structured paragraphs, effectively deployed evidence, and adherence to disciplinary rules and conventions. The particular conventions vary, but the basic formula remains, and based on my experience I can affirm that students who learn to write well in one area can fairly easily translate that to other subjects.

Thus whatever field you find yourself writing papers for, there are certain essentials of essay-writing to know and use: common writing virtues like clarity, an active style, coherent organization, effective use of credible evidence, and observance of the conventions of standard English (that these conventions are in large measure arbitrary and change over time does not lessen their importance or the need, if one wishes to have one's work accepted by one's audience, to obey them).

A final introductory note: Some students worry that embracing the kind of writing advocated here will choke out their own voices, leave them sounding like boring, unoriginal clones. Not so. Youthful incompetence, which is what this guide takes aim at (as well as writing incompetence in general) is usually a lot less interesting than its practitioners think. Real originality and style begin when one has mastered the basics covered here. Learning the lessons of the Nuts and Bolts Guide will help you on your journey to develop your own voice, your own thoughts, and your own virtues as a writer.



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