When I sit down to look over a student’s writing, I want to be transported into someone else’s logic. But when a typical academic assignment isn’t fully developed, certain red flags begin popping up. This post will explore those flags and explain why students should avoid them in their writing.
There are a few phrases that teachers look for that usually mean the student didn’t revise effectively from one draft to the next. Found within introductions, conclusions, and body paragraphs, these terms are referred to as commonplaces and they usually appear when writers aren’t sure how to frame their opinions/arguments properly.
As Writing Center Director Mairin Barney points out, the worst introduction paragraphs contain sentences that are vague, oversimplified, cliche, or decontextualized. In the examples below, I’ve allowed my inner brat to come out and respond to these commonplaces (something I try to avoid when reviewing an actual student’s writing).
The Commonplace Convicts:
- The overly vague question/statement: “Have you ever had to juggle work with your other responsibilities?”
Who hasn’t?! This is life on planet Earth we’re talking about.
- The oversimplified generality: “Americans today don’t see eye to eye.”
You say that like we ever have.
Crack a history book and you’ll see how this statement isn’t telling anyone anything they didn’t already know.
- The cliche opener: “In today’s world…”
Whatever comes next doesn’t matter because I’ve stopped reading.
(The same goes for “nowadays” and “in current times.”)
The thing you’re writing is considered current in the moment you’re writing it, but “nowadays” isn’t specific enough to help the reader of these words 10 months or 20 years from now. Be more specific if time actually matters to your point.
- The decontextualized quote: “To be or not to be? That is the question.”
I know, right? Now explain your argument without writing a soliloquy, Bill.
This is a written space for idea development, not exploring and romantically expressing internal quandaries.
Many students start writing their papers by introducing what they know about the topic, and then adding formal language and phrases that basically say, “I read all this stuff and got lots of great ideas, so now I’m going to show you how to come to my same conclusions, too.” This is a great way to dump your thoughts and questions into a draft, but the kind of writing you’ll produce is closer to a personal journal entry than a polished work. They choose to procrastinate writing until they’re forced to write the whole paper in a few short sittings and then submit it for review (smh, that poor teacher), rather than finding the most important themes to cover and organizing their argument coherently in a different document than the brain dump.
In my early college years, I myself used this flawed writing technique. Until a teacher gave me a C and told me they could highlight the areas where I had changed my mind about my argument, ending the paper with a completely different conclusion than what I’d stated in my intro. I was embarrassed but my professor was right. I had used the writing assignment to think through the material and form a conclusion, rather than being influenced by the sources before I began to write the assignment. That conversation taught me that the prewriting, or planning phase, of my writing process can involve writing, it’s just not the kind of writing I’m willing to show a professor or boss anymore. It’s better to show that writing to friends, workshop groups, or the writing center to have another set of eyes look it over after you’ve revised all you can.
If this is a habit you identify with, these two parts of your writing work need some TLC. Now let’s take a lesson from one of my favorite intellectually low-brow comedy shows, Broad City:
The intro and conclusion are related
and there is a familial resemblance.
In my writing process, once I’ve written the majority of the piece and I can tell it’s working well, I write an introduction to counterbalance the usually passionate conclusion I just finished. I like to think about these two sections like they’re the door to a classroom. The writer is responsible for opening the door for the reader, sharing accurate and intelligent information, and then showing them out again in similar fashion. Readers need an intro that will ease them into the concepts and themes with confidence and clarity.
Knowing which genre you’re writing in is incredibly important. Introductions aren’t even required for a lot of documents in professional fields, and conclusions can end with demands, suggestions, moral pleading, or a perfect little bow depending on the author’s rhetorical needs. Wherever your conclusion is now in the writing process, make sure it’s not doing these things:
The Conclusion Convicts:
- The empty, throat-clearing phrase: “And, therefore, it is important to keep in mind that …”; “In conclusion…”; “To conclude…”; “However, it is important in arriving at such a conclusion to recognize…”
Get to the point- just say it.
- The overstuffed Oreo: “Yet another thing to consider…”
Oh, no you don’t- this is the end of the assignment, not a time for an afterthought. A conclusion containing new, unexplored ideas shows that the student hasn’t taken the time to properly organize their thoughts in writing.
- The confusion conclusion: Whether it’s adding more info in the conclusion, forgetting a topic sentence, or ending the assignment on a different topic, these mistakes usually make the whole paper confusing and ineffective.
If you thought writing it was hard, try grading the thing. It’s not easy.
- The missed connection transition: Transitions can make a good paper great by tying up the loose ends of the writer’s thoughts and arguments. Writers can do this by using keywords and phrases from the previous paragraph in the conclusion to help the reader make connections without having to explicitly make those connections for them.
You don’t have to be Captain Obvious but you can’t expect me to be Miss Cleo either.
Conclusions can take any form at the end of the essay but the most effective ones function like good sales pitches; They’re memorable because of the clarity of the message and the consistency of tone.
Remember to check your introductions and conclusions throughout the writing process to maintain your creative direction from start to finish. Make the necessary adjustments to the organization before fine-tuning transitions and looking for grammar mistakes.
You don’t want to freak out about tricky punctuation and then realize the whole paragraph needs to be deleted anyway because you got off topic.
Skip the stress and the extra revising work: organize, revise for commonplaces, and keep your writing muscles healthy and strong by doing lots of writing workouts.