Dec 3, 2010

Practical Essay Tips from Professor Zinn

Over the past decade, Professor Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn, of Southern Oregon University, has been collecting data about common errors her students make in their writing. An associate professor in the Department of Education, Dr. Zinn suffers mightily from what she sees as a fundamental lack of training in basic writing skills among undergrads.

According to Dr. Zinn, sometimes the errors are simple—“spelling and punctuation and other mechanical glitches that can be corrected by editing and minimal rewriting.” The difficult ones are content-related. “If a writer doesn’t have anything to say, there’s not much that can be done to improve her or his writing.”

After consultation with Professor Zinn, I have permission to use her list of writing “challenges” as they relate to college essays. These tips were originally published in her blog, Zinnfull and have been substantially edited.

Proofreading. This takes time. Do not rely on on-screen reading. I always read my writing aloud, and I catch many errors I would have missed otherwise.

Unnecessary words and phrases. These are things that sound good, but are meaningless like “I believe that I think” or “in my opinion, I am sure that I know” or, you get the picture. When you make a statement in your [essay], you can make it without these qualifiers.

Impoverished vocabulary. Do not rely on the thesaurus feature of your computer. It may suggest words that are not correct in the context of your writing. Work on improving your vocabulary and making sure you understand the full meaning of words you use. Awesome, cool, amazing, and similar overused words meant to be compelling modifiers are not.

• Lack of thoughtfulness. Gaps in reasoning and a “whatever” attitude waste a reader’s time. When it is clear that you hope to create a blizzard of words that hides your lack of information, most readers will not be fooled. Vague generalities are sometime used to mask a lack of thought and/or research.

• Repetitiveness. When a writer says the same thing over and over, it appears that she or he doesn’t have much to say.

• Spellcheck and Grammar checker reliance. [These] do not always give correct advice. Have a friend or relative or other trusted person read your work.

• Colloquialisms, slang, and other choices related to audience. Learn to “code switch” and understand that the kind of writing that’s appropriate when texting friends isn’t appropriate for other contexts. This includes using the ampersand (&), as well as other abbreviations and acronyms (OMG, tht ws 1 awsum lectur!). In addition, etc. (etcetera, meaning “and other things” or “and so forth”) while handy for abbreviated thoughts should be avoided in formal writing–finish your thought instead.

• Parallel construction. “I like swimming, biking, and reading.” NOT, “I like swimming, biking, and to read.”

• Subject-verb agreement. The men go. The man goes.

• Unclear reference. Be sure the reader can tell to what or to whom your pronouns refer.

• Sentence variety. Check the beginnings of sentences, and be sure that there are not too many that begin the same way (although sometimes you may do this deliberately for effect). Also, watch overuse of pet phrases or words.

• Semi-colon and colon use. I rarely see these used correctly. Be sure you know what you’re doing. Commas? Often reading aloud will help you see where to pause with a punctuation mark.

• Paragraphing. Question your writing if it is one long paragraph.

• Introductions, conclusions, transitions, clear purpose. These things are necessary.

• Absolutes. Think carefully about the use of words like never, always, and everyone. When you use an absolute, you may send the reader off on a mindchase for exceptions. Consider using words like some, many, almost, and other qualifiers that indicate that your awareness of other possibilities.

• Other things that make me tired. Careless misuse of there/their/they’re, to/two/too, it’s/its, and all the others from lists I’m pretty sure were taught in elementary school.

By the way, there are a zillion essay books on the market. Some are better than others. College Admissions Essays for Dummies expands on many of the points made by Professor Zinn and provides concrete tips for getting your essay off the ground. Robert Cronk’s recently published book, Concise Advice: Jump-Starting Your College Admissions Essay suggests a clever cinematic model for “showing” and not “telling” your story. I also like Jan Rooker’s description of “authentic voice” in Nail Your College Essay. And Harry Bauld’s On Writing the College Application Essay is an “industry” classic.

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