First-Year Preceptorial

Faculty Survey

Faculty Concerns about Student Writing

What writing problems concern Union teachers most? Here's a list contributed by Union College faculty in February, 1999. Problems include the truly serious--and the truly irritating. (Faculty were asked to contribute either.)

Many problems fall into the "dead wrong" category. Others are a matter of style and appropriateness. That's fair enough. Instructors want student writing to be better than merely correct. A few provoke disagreement: May you or may you not end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive or start a sentence with a conjunction?

Preparation, background knowledge, and writing habits

  • Failure to read good writing before they start to write. I am not sure a lot of students really know what good writing is.
  • Starting late, delaying the research, and writing until the last moment.
  • Inability to understand what a literature review is... and how to go about doing one.
    [Editor's tip: When you don't know, ask.]
  • Writing late at night when many students are tired, instead of in the morning when they are fresh
  • Failure to understand that good writing is rewriting. The importance of revising, and revising, and revising.
  • Not owning and using a dictionary.
  • Trying to edit everything on the computer, instead of on hard copy.
  • Not reading their prose out loud to hear how it sounds.
  • Not showing their work to others.
  • Failure to take notes when seeking help from professors. or, I imagine, writing tutors. I no longer let students see me for advice unless they have pen and paper.

Thesis, introduction, and conclusion

  • Failure to address the assigned topic.
  • Not having a thesis or argument (3)

  • Failure to include in the introduction a clearly identifiable thesis statement or question that will guide the inquiry.
  • Too much plot summary. Often my topics include a "book report" part and a critical analysis part, and I hate it when students do the book report but skip the critical analysis. Some of my students are afraid they're doing plot summary when in fact they are analyzing the text...They can't always distinguish between the two.*
  • Students do not introduce topics well. Introductions tend to be incomplete and poorly organized.
  • No introductory paragraph or one that is sufficiently dull that no reader (even a captive audience like me) would want to read farther.
  • Introductions and/or conclusions that are fine, cogent, convincing, and simply not about the points actually made or not made in the body of the paper
  • Papers that dribble down to less significant points or weaker arguments instead of leading up to them for a convincing conclusion.

Evidence, logic

  • Lack of sufficient evidence. Every important assertion requires evidence of some sort to support it. Every essay is an argument of one sort or another, whose logic ties things explicitly together. It must be clear how the evidence is connected to the assertion, how the evidence leads the reader to arrive at the same conclusion as did the writer, and how all of the pieces of the argument fit together into a single whole.
  • Overgeneralization--sweeping, unsubstantiated statements.
  • Faulty logic/reasoning
  • Not making an argument.
  • Asserting cause/effect relationships that aren't.
  • Setting up comparisons and parallels that don't really work (e.g. from my last batch of papers: the student asked whether "religion" should be replaced by a "scientific education.")
  • Here's one aspect of bad writing that I often see and which is both disturbing to see, and is difficult to deal with in grading for comprehension: The problem occurs when the student's written sentences come out with incorrect logic or an appearance of incorrect understanding. Sometimes this occurs because of an imprecise choice of words, and, sometimes the writing error occurs in the form of backwards sentence structure, such as saying that the change in factor A caused a change in factor B, when in fact the change in factor A was a result of the change in factor B (note the difference in which is the cause and which is the effect). I'm sure that much of the time the student really is indeed misunderstanding the situation, but I also know from my conversations with some of these students that often they do actually understand the situation correctly. These students get marked off the same because I can't tell which case they fall into. I hope it motivates the student to be more careful in their writing to learn that they will lose points even if, in their mind, they do understand the situation well.
  • Drawing conclusions that aren't justified by the evidence presented

Organization and transitions

  • Lack of organization
  • The need to give thought to organization. Consider how the reader will see it. This is important in lab report writing, especially when the student is referring to many different figures, tables, etc. It is very helpful if things are arranged in a logical order so that the reader does not have to flip pages to find what the student is talking about.
  • Redundancy (repeating ideas)
  • Not working from an outline in papers, especially in papers longer than about five pages (3)

From a Social Scientist: I harp on the idea of writing from an outline. I encourage the use of section headers, even in short papers. Remember, the reader has no idea where you are going with your thoughts--you have to be the guide. I say "There is no such thing as writing that is too clear."

  • Poor or no transition between sentences and paragraphs.
    • Failure to connect the major ideas in a paper. As a result, the paper reads like a checklist of points, rather than like a developing argument. It's a little like reading a grocery list (tomato sauce, pasta, romano cheese) without being able to figure out what's finally for dinner.
  • Non-sequiturs (sentences, paragraphs or ideas that don't logically follow from what comes before). Sometimes these result from errors in your logic, and sometimes they result from cutting and pasting with your word processor. In either case, they make reading difficult.
  • Paragraphs
    • Lack of focus within paragraphs
    • I think the #1 structural problem actually on the page tends to be at the paragraph level. Students aren't sure exactly what a paragraph is and almost never have adequate topic sentences which state the main IDEA of the paragraph. (2)
    • Writing paragraphs without topic sentences. (5)
      • Poor organization of individual paragraphs. I would stress that each paragraph begin with a
        topic sentence that outlines the point to be proved or developed in the paragraph itself. Taken together, the points laid out in these topic sentences should form the points of evidence in favor of the overall argument of the paper as a whole.

Clarity, conciseness, exactness

  • Clarity. This is usually a thinking problem, not a writing problem. But ideas, propositions, hypotheses, etc. must be stated clearly, i.e., in terms so that the reader can state in his/her own words what the writer has said in her/his words and get the meaning exactly the same
  • Being excessively vague, using phrases like "The firm engages in many business practices" or other generalities, instead of being specific, naming names and so forth.
  • Too many abstractions. Be concrete and specific
  • Personifying the computer.

Incorrect: The computer tested the hypothesis. The computer found that income did not affect quantity demanded. Instead: The calculations in this paper were performed on an IBM 486 personal computer using EViews software. (Probably put this sentence in one footnote and don't mention the computer or EViews again.)

  • Wordiness. Economize with words. Make it a game to use the fewest words necessary to get your idea across.

Conventions of formal academic and/or technical writing

  • Using the first or second person in formal academic or scientific writing. (2)

Contrast this with one professor in the Humanities who dislikes use of the impersonal pronoun (one).

One professor explains the use of "one."

Another professor writes, "It is okay to use the first person (at least in anthropology).

  • Using an inappropriate tense:
    • Not using the present tense (economics)
  • Using contractions in formal writing.
  • Using the word "proves" in a statistics paper. You can't prove anything with statistics. With hypothesis testing, there is always the probability of Type I or Type II errors. INCORRECT: This paper will prove the theory that income affects quantity demanded. CORRECT: This paper will test the theory that income affects quantity demanded.
  • Not capitalizing the word "Table" when it refers to a specific table.
  • Students forget to number and label figures and tables in their reports.
  • Not including someone's first name the first time you refer to him or her. (After the first time, you can use just the last name.)
  • A report is not a letter home.
  • Using sources: quotations and paraphrasing
    • My biggest challenge and frustration in teaching writing, especially in the context of senior thesis is this: Most students don't use and cite sources properly. They paraphrase sources rather than state explicitly what the source says and explain how it relates to their hypothesis or argument.
    • Don't overuse quotations; you should instead use your own words to explain ideas. Don't use quotations without explaining what they mean (unless the meaning is obvious). Don't give overlong quotations; observe proper formatting for long quotations.
    • Appropriate use of paraphrasing:  Just switching around a few words in a sentence is not restating someone else's point, it is essentially copying their writing style. Paraphrasing or summarizing other work requires significant effort, and involves reworking everything. This is again important in science writing, because the use of quotations is uncommon and not well thought of by people in the field [chemistry].
  • Notes and bibliographies:
    • Problems introducing citations smoothly. (Contextualizing enough, but not too much.
    • Failure to properly cite sources and include a "works cited" page. (2)

Sentence structure

  • Various problems with syntax.
  • Sentences that aren't: fragments and comma splices.
  • Failure to use subordination.
  • Overuse of the passive voice (2)
  • Problems with parallelism (2)
  • Overuse of "there is" and "there are"
  • Starting a sentence with however, therefore, moreover, or other conjunctive adverbs. Put them further into the sentence. (2)

[Editor's note. [I was unable to find this commonly expressed rule in handbooks and stylebooks, so I consulted Miss Grammar.

She replied:

However opposed your faculty may be to the idea, adverbial conjunctions can lead sentences--especially when they are used as adverbs. Furthermore, even when they are used as conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs may appropriately and correctly introduce sentences. But use conjunctions of any sort sparingly as introductions.

Miss Grammar


  • Not using subheadings to clarify organization and improve transitions
  • Not stapling pages together.
  • Illegible handwriting (in fact, 95% of our students don't use cursive, but rather print, and poorly formed letters at that); maybe we are leaving the handwriting era, but they at least give a very bad (I don't care enough to send the very best) impression
  • Wasting paper (and trying to pad) by using wide margins. I think I unconsciously grade students down when I see this, or see them waste paper in other ways, such as creating title pages for short papers.
  • Turning in assignments without perforating the pages. I no longer accept them.

Word choice

  • Confusing "affect" and "effect." (7) One contributor noted the distinction between these words is especially important in the sciences. Clearly faculty in other divisions are no less disturbed by the error.
  • Confusing its and it's and other inappropriate use of apostrophes (many responses)
  • Confusing fewer and less (3)
  • Incorrectly using "of" for "have" INCORRECT: He should of.... CORRECT: He should have....
  • Confusing there and their (3)
  • Using lead instead of led. Those who follow a leader are led, l-e-d. I'm sick of reading about a metal.
  • The use of "now" when students mean "then" in terms of what follows from what they said before
  • Confusing accept and. except
  • Confusing know and no
  • Confusing then and than
  • Confusing buy and by
  • Confusing where and were
  • Confusing preverbal and proverbial

Grammar, punctuation, and spelling

  • Incomplete sentences, usually with no subject or no verb. Fragments. (2)
  • Dangling or misplaced modifiers (2)

[example: Leaping from the bus, my parcels flew all over the road.]

Faculty explanation: Verbs ending in '-ing' (known as participles) have to relate to the nearest person or thing when the participle introduces a dependent clause. Here's an example: 
NotIn deciding some legislation it is possible to separate [religion from politics]. 
UseIn deciding some legislation, we must separate... (Deciding relates to we). 
Not: [Rawls's] Original Position leaves out the religious views when trying to decide on principles. (Now when trying refers to religious views!) 
Use: When we try to decide on principle in the Original Position, we have to leave out our religious views, according to Rawls. (The Original Position does not itself decide anything!)

  • Inappropriate use of semi-colons.
  • Agreement
    • Lack of subject/verb agreement (4) One person says; Two people say.)
    • Lack of tense agreement (4)
      • In economics, use the present tense and active voice.
      • Lab experiments already completed are in the past as are the results and the computations.
    • Lack of pronoun/ noun agreement (5)

      There is some contention about using their to make 'genderless' references. Not everyone considers it acceptable. There are other work-arounds (e.g. using persons instead of person). The constant repetition of his/her is awkward and distracting; please avoid it.
    • Ambiguous pronoun reference
      Be sure pronouns (it, they, he, she, them, their, this, that) have clear antecedents. (I.e., what is it, who are they, etc.) (3)
      Make pronoun reference unambiguous, e.g. 
      not: Nagel feels that if a person is impersonal, it strengthens the justification.
      instead: Nagel feels that if a person is impersonal, their justification is strengthened. (???)
    • Reference order
      Not: In Rawls's essay he describes a just societyIn Nagel's argument he defines 'political arguments'
      Instead : In his essay, Rawls describes a just society. In his argument, Nagel defines 'political arguments'. 
  • Ending a sentence with a preposition. [A matter for purists?]
  • Splitting the infinitive [Another matter for purists?]

    Not: To boldly go where no man has gone before; To really understand Nagel 
    Instead: To go boldly where no man has gone before; To understand Nagel best
  • Avoid using the word "this" as a demonstrative pronoun; but you can use it as an adjective. Often it is unclear what "this" by itself refers to. INCORRECT: This means that income affects quantity demanded. CORRECT: This fact means that income affects quantity demanded.

[Tip: Another debatable rule. Perhaps it's not wrong, but your reference may be unclear and the sentence wordy.]

  • double "that"
  • "that of" fetish
    Not: The liberal response to [religion] is that of "neutrality". 
    But: The liberal response to religion is neutrality. Or: Liberals respond to religion with neutrality. (There are many variations here!) 
    Not: Rawls's impartial position is similar to that of Nagel's. (Note the redundancy!) 
    But: Rawls's impartial position is similar to Nagel's.
  • Spelling (A sampling of many responses) 
    • Not troubling to do a spell check (2)

      Horrendous spelling, even if spellcheckers are available.

    • Forgetting that spell check does not always work--word use/context is important i.e., their/there
      • A spell checker will only catch misspelled words if used, and the human pushing the buttons knows that the word is misspelled.
      • Spell checkers don't catch wrong word form (two, to ,too) (from -> form)
      • Check your spelling. Use the computer spell-checker if you have one, but proofread anyway. The computer won't pick up the difference between there and their, for example, and won't pick up grammatical errors.
    • Engineers need to know how to effectively communicate. Nothing makes you look like an idiot more than a misspelled word in the first line of your report.
    • Misspelling the name of the author about whom the student is writing.

Attitude, Deadlines, Honesty

  • Writing for a grade.
  • No sense of timeliness for meeting deadlines.
  • Failure to give credit for efforts of partners or team members in group work in class or laboratory, in other words, plagiarism.
  • Failure to proofread (5)

    The worst writing problem I encounter is failure to do basic proofreading. I don't refer to trivial spelling errors and the like, but incomplete sentences, sentences that make no sense, and arguments that make no logical sense. I suggest to everyone to read their work out loud. I always do that when it matters, and when I am writing more than one draft (unlike now).

    A computer is a great word processor - just make sure that you completely erase what you are replacing.

    Proofread all final products out loud to catch grammar, misspelled words, wrong words, incomplete erasures.

few tips for students from the Writing Center

  • When in doubt, ask. Visit your professor or come to the Writing Center.
  • Invest in a grammar handbook and use it. Lots of people suggest Elements of Style . The advice is great, but incomplete. A more extensive handbook may be more useful.
  • Visit one of the many websites that offer advice on grammar. Try the Purdue Writing Lab for dozens of short handouts on writing.
  • Often we know the rules but fail to find our errors when we proofread. Here are some tips:
  • Read your paper aloud.
  • Make a list of your common errors (e.g. using "there" instead of 'their." or putting commas outside quotation marks when you know they really go inside. Use the search feature on your word processor to find, one by one, those words or punctuation marks. Check and correct if necessary.
  • Read your paper sentence by sentence, backwards.
  • Read your paper sentence by sentence, using a ruler to block your view of the bottom of your paper.