Writing handouts
Note: Google has recently shifted this page from Google Page Creator to its new Google Sites, thereby screwing up much of the formatting and messing up the formerly-easy-to-read color scheme. If you hit "edit" and "select all" in your web browser's toolbar, you can copy and paste these online writing handouts into a Word document. Doing that won't undo all the formatting damage, but it'll make the handouts easier to read. I'll have to figure out how to reformat this page at a later date. --SH


Print these handouts and follow them whenever you write an essay for one of Dr. Heuston's courses.

Read this entire set of handouts. Yes, it's long. That's because learning to write well is a complicated process that takes a lot of time and a lot of practice. Anyone who tells you different is lying to you, selling something, or both. Yes, occasionally these handouts repeat certain things. That's not an accident. As an old teacher of mine used to say, repetition builds definition. When I'm grading your papers, I'll assume that you've read and understood this entire set of handouts and I'll expect your writing to follow the guidelines the handouts explain. If you have questions about anything, let me know right away.
 Make sure you proofread out loud to avoid turning in work that contains sloppy mistakes, and make sure you underline your thesis.


Writing well tends to take longer than you think it will. Keep that in mind and make sure you start writing your papers at least a week before your deadlines.





 The Honor Manual explains the code that will govern your conduct in all aspects of life at The Citadel. You should familiarize yourself with The Honor Manual, because The Honor Manual makes it clear that ignorance is no excuse for committing a violation. You may not receive any kind of help from anyone other than me or a Writing Center tutor in preparing your work for this class. Do not even look at sources such as CliffsNotes or SparkNotes. Such sources are often unreliable (the things they say about literary texts are often wrong), and it is likely that your professors already know what those sources say about the things you read in class. Many cadets apparently do not realize that college students and other contributors with no proven expertise do much of the writing for these kinds of sources. Using such sources is a bit like cheating by copying from one of the worst students in class. You can do better work on your own. Plagiarism cases will be handed over to the Honor Committee and may result in expulsion from The Citadel. Avoid this type of problem by remembering to follow one simple rule: Always acknowledge the source of any idea that is not your own. If you have any questions regarding proper documentation of sources, consult The Bedford Handbook for Writers, the staff of the Academic Support Center, or me.

 Here is the relevant information (with my emphasis added via underlining) from Section III of The Honor Manual:

 “b. CHEATING: Receiving or giving aid on a test or examination. Test or examination includes any work performed for which a grade is received. Plagiarism is a violation of the Honor Code. Plagiarism is the act of using someone else's words or ideas as your own without giving proper credit to the source:

             (1) When you quote another's words exactly you must use quotation marks and a footnote (or an indication in your paragraph) to tell exactly where the words came from, down to the page number(s).

             (2) When you mix another's words and ideas with your own in one or more sentences, partially quoting the source exactly and partially substituting your own words, you must put quotation marks around the words you quote and not around your own. Then you cite the source, down to the page number(s). [See (1) above]

             (3) When you paraphrase another's words or ideas, that is, when you substitute your words for another's words but keep those idea(s), you do not use quotation marks, but you must cite the source, down to the page number(s). [See (1) above]

             (4) When you use only another's idea(s), knowing that they are the other's ideas, you must cite the source of that idea or those ideas, down to the page number(s). [See (1) above]           

            (5) Citing the source means giving, as a minimum, the author, the title of the book, and the page number”(2-3).





Motivation: Where you want to go and how to get there___________________________Heuston 

When students find that they’re not doing as well academically as they’d like, they often promise themselves that they’ll work harder on academics. Those students inevitably mean well, but there’s one major problem: Setting vague goals is the first step toward failure.

Setting specific goals is the first step toward success. That's why people who play organized sports (where coaches set specific goals for you every day in practice, even if you're not aware that that's what's happening) get in fantastic shape, whereas most non-athletes (even if they work out on their own) aren't in fantastic shape. Deciding to work harder or study harder or work out more or eat better or whatever IS better than nothing, but it’s still so vague that it's usually not effective, and it's almost never AS effective as setting specific goals.

Set measurable daily and weekly goals so you can hold yourself to them. For example, if you decide that every night during ESP you'll go straight to the library (or to some quiet, empty room in an academic building) without taking your cell phone, and that you'll do nothing but homework until either all your homework is done or you have to get back to the battalion for all-ins, THAT'S a specific, measurable goal. If you slack off and fail to do that even once, you'll know.

If you can find a disciplined, motivated friend and set shared goals, that makes it even more likely that you’ll reach those goals. For example, if you have a disciplined, motivated workout partner or study partner, you can keep each other honest by forcing each other to fire up and do what you’re supposed to do. If one of you doesn’t really feel like working out or studying one day, the other person can help get both of you in gear. It’s much easier to flake out or slack off if nobody knows what you should be doing. If you’d be letting someone else down by flaking out or slacking off, that’ll make it much more likely that you’ll do what you’re supposed to do. 

Telling people what you’re going to do will help you stick to your goals. Tell your classmates and your parents what your specific goals are, and ask them to check up on you occasionally. That’ll also help keep you motivated, because you won’t want to have to tell people that you’ve slacked off or that you’re all talk and no follow-through.

Here's one more piece of advice: Every night you should make yourself study your least-favorite subjects first. Everyone tends to have a harder time with their least-favorite subjects, so you should attack them while you're fresh. Waiting until you're already tired from studying other subjects is a really bad idea. Studying your least-favorite subjects first won’t necessarily make you love those classes, but it’ll make you much less likely to flunk them. Hitting those classes hard and getting through them on the first try is much better than re-taking them.

Tips for Writing College Papers                                                                                              Heuston

(1) READ THIS ENTIRE SET OF WRITING HANDOUTS. I know it's long. The lengthy explanations are necessary because writing well is a complicated process. If you wrote a set of directions explaining how to play a particular sport well or how to play a particular musical instrument well, you'd have to write a long set of detailed directions because those are also complicated processes. When I'm grading your papers, I'll assume that you've read this entire set of handouts and I'll expect your writing to follow the guidelines the handouts explain. Let me know if you have any questions about them. Otherwise, treat them as the rules of the road.


(2) Don't embarrass yourself by waiting until the last minute to start your paper and then asking your professor for help getting started. (Among other things, that means don't e-mail your professor a day or two before the paper is due and ask for help with getting started.) You should be getting started long before that point. If you aren't organized enough to do that, you should at least be smart enough to realize you don't want your professor to realize you managed your time poorly and tried to crank out your paper at the last minute. This tip doesn't mean you shouldn't ask your professors for advice or feedback. It DOES mean that you shouldn't do it at the last minute, and you definitely shouldn't ask for advice about getting started on a paper within the last few days before it's due.


(3) Think of your paper the way you would think of an in-class presentation: If you had to give a presentation in class, you wouldn't want to bore your audience (your classmates) by telling them something obvious or something they already knew. You'd want to teach them something or point out something they probably hadn't already realized. If one of your classmates gave an in-class presentation in which he or she spoke clearly and audibly, made good eye contact, and used proper grammar but told the audience little or nothing that the audience didn't already know, you'd probably say that the presentation was a well-polished waste of time. All of the above also holds true for a college paper. No matter how good the grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and other elements of a paper might be, a paper without a strong sense of purpose is at best essentially a well-polished waste of time. Polish is important (insert your own Citadel joke here), but it's also crucial that your paper justify its existence by teaching its imagined audience (your classmates) something new and non-obvious.


(4) Use the Hand Method to avoid needlessly-wordy introductions: Many students seem to feel the need to build up some intellectual momentum by starting their papers with extremely broad statements before they get around to making their main points. If you've ever begun a paper by writing something like "Ever since the beginning of time . . ." or "Man has always wrestled with the question of . . ." then you know who you are, and yes, I'm looking at you. Get to the point, cut to the chase, and accelerate toward your thesis right away.


Here's the Hand Method: Use your hand to cover the first sentence of your essay so you can no longer see that sentence. If covering that sentence doesn't damage your argument, then delete that sentence. Cover up your next sentence. If doing so doesn't damage your argument, delete that sentence too. Repeat this process until covering a sentence damages your argument. Leave that sentence in place and keep an eye out for pointless/unnecessary sentences throughout the rest of your paper.

(5) Write analysis papers, not opinion papers: Opinion is cheap, easy, plentiful, and often devoid of proof or much merit in general. Analysis explains, interprets, and ideally PROVES something. (See the thesis handouts below for details about the importance of analytical claims and proof in college essays.) If you graduate and go on to become a sports commentator or a political pundit (or a financial consultant, apparently) perhaps it'll be professionally acceptable for you to voice your opinion without being able to prove what you claim. Until you get that type of job, though, you'll have to tough it out with the rest of us who are required to prove that our claims are accurate. Make sure to use textual evidence to prove your claims. (See the S-E-E Method handout below for details about how to use textual evidence.)

(6) Retire your Webster's/definition introduction: You know the one: "Webster's Dictionary defines X [whatever term/concept you're writing about] as . . ." Never, ever use that kind of phrase in an essay again. It's widely perceived by college professors as the oldest, laziest, and lamest move in the book. If your high school teachers already beat the dictionary-definition move out of you, good for them. If they didn't, you need to get rid of it on your own. If you ever write a college paper using it, expect the worst.

(7) Avoid using I/you/we/us in formal essays.

(8) Avoid using contractions in formal essays

(9) Stick to the present tense (when possible) when you write about film or literature.

(10) Use italics for the titles of larger works (such as films, novels, plays, government documents, books of essays, music albums, and books of poems) and quotations marks around the titles of smaller works (such as short stories, individual essays, individual songs, and individual poems).

(11) Make sure to staple your papers and make sure they meet the minimum page requirement. Do NOT change fonts, font sizes, or margins to increase the length of a paper. In general, do not turn in work that looks as if (a) you don't care, or (b) you think your professor is so clueless that he or she won't notice, or (c) both.

Burrito-Shaped Earth (Thesis statements)                                   _________         ______________Heuston


Here's one way to think about the process of developing and evaluating thesis statements: In the professions that are related to your major or your intended career field (whether it's law, medicine, engineering, history, chemistry, English, law enforcement, the military, or something entirely different) there are at least a few professional journals. By professional journals, I mean periodicals/newsletters/magazines that deal exclusively with issues that are important to that particular profession. People in the professions (your professors here at The Citadel, for example) publish articles in those journals, usually when those people want to inform the rest of the people in the profession about some discovery they've recently made. IN ORDER TO GET THIS SORT OF ARTICLE PUBLISHED, THE PERSON MUST MAKE SOME SORT OF DISCOVERY OR NEW OBSERVATION. A THESIS DOESN'T ASK A QUESTION; IT ANNOUNCES A DISCOVERY. If you're an astronomer, for instance, you can perform all sorts of experiments that other astronomers have done before. In order to publish an article, however, you've got to discover something new. Your article tells the world something like this: "I have discovered that Earth is not round; it is actually shaped like a giant burrito." That's your thesis. The rest of the article explains and supports the burrito-shaped-Earth thesis.

When you're writing college essays, you're trying to do the same sort of thing. An ambitious thesis makes some sort of discovery. This is one reason I'm a fan of the compare/contrast approach. Juxtaposing works in ways we haven't tried in class can help you discover things that weren't visible before. Obviously, you've got to support your thesis throughout the paper. NOTE: A THESIS IS NOT A HYPOTHESIS. Don't get confused about that. You can do a scientific experiment and conclude at the end that your hypothesis was wrong (that the Earth, for instance, is not in fact shaped like a giant burrito . . . it's more like a giant blueberry muffin). You CAN'T do this with a thesis in an essay. You've got to think about the thesis before you write the paper and make sure that you'll be able to support and defend your thesis. That's why you want to think about a journal article rather than an experiment. You don't write the article until you're already sure that you made the discovery. Keep this in mind as you think about the essays you'll write for this course and other Citadel courses. One more thing: Make sure to underline your thesis statement whenever you write a paper for one of my courses.


Some Thesis Statement Basics______________________________________________________________Heuston


Arguable: Your claim must be arguable. That is, it must be possible for a reasonable person who has also read the material your paper discusses to doubt or argue against your claim (or at least to require a good deal of explanation, which is what your paper will provide).


Ambitious: Your thesis statement should make some new discovery about the text or texts your essay examines. It should not make your classmates want to say the word “DUH!” or something like that. Think about your paper as a presentation. If you’re standing up in front of a group to give a presentation, you’d better have something insightful to say. That means you’d better either tell them something they don’t already know, help them look at things in a new way, or both.


Precise: Avoid vague or metaphorical language in your thesis statement, and avoid unnecessarily inflated or elaborate language.


Boiled-down: Cut through all the big words and reduce your thesis statement to the simplest terms possible. This will help you see if your claim is really worthwhile or if you’ve been camouflaging a weak idea with a lot of words. You don’t have to leave your thesis statement in this boiled-down form when you put it in your final draft, but if you don’t boil it down at some point, you risk building a paper around a weak idea. 


Provable: You do have to be able to prove what your thesis claims. If your claim is so ambitious that you can’t prove it, it won’t lead you to a successful college essay. You could think of your essay as a bit like a business proposal (a presentation in which you’re trying to convince your company to adopt some new policy or use some new technology, for example). You need to make a worthwhile claim, and then you need to support/prove your claim.


Underlined: Make sure to underline your thesis statement whenever you write a paper for one of my courses.



Think of a spectrum or range of claims: Off to one side, there are claims that are too weak/obvious (not ambitious, and thus not worth proving in a college essay). Off to the other side, there are claims that are too ambitious to prove (claims you don't have enough evidence to prove in a college essay).  


United States military security/background screening model: Let’s say you’re giving a presentation to some top military brass. You’re trying to convince them to make the background/screening process for enlisting in the military more thorough. Here are examples of how your main claim (which is basically the thesis statement of your presentation) could go wrong:


Here’s your claim: We need to have some sort of screening process for the military. If we let known terrorists into the U.S. armed forces, then that could be bad for America. We need to keep known terrorists out of the military, because they pose a threat to our country.  (This is too weak, because it's much too obvious.)


Or, here’s your claim: If we let space aliens into the U.S. armed forces, then that could be bad for America. We need to keep space aliens out of the military, because they pose a threat to our country. (This isn’t something you can prove, so one could say that it’s too ambitious.) 


Now that you've read the two bad thesis statement examples above, try to come up with your own thesis statement about military background checks. Could you argue in favor of improving military background checks without your thesis being too obvious or too ambitious? If so, how? Could you make a claim about the increasing importance of such background checks, a claim about how to improve the process, or both

THESIS CONSTRUCTION     ___________________                  _________________________Heuston


MAKE SURE TO UNDERLINE YOUR THESIS STATEMENT WHENEVER YOU WRITE A PAPER FOR ONE OF MY COURSES. The thesis is the single most important component of your essay. It is the statement of your main idea, and everything that follows the thesis should in some way support it. The thesis must be focused and directly stated. You cannot afford a wishy-washy thesis (or one which is self-evident or overly general) because the rest of the paper will seem out of focus.


Arriving at your thesis: First, remember that the narrower your topic is, the better your chance of providing enough supporting materials to make a convincing case for your thesis. (On the other hand, you shouldn’t shrink the topic until it becomes trivial.)


Topic (too broad):       T.S. Eliot's poetry


Topic (too narrow): British spelling in T.S. Eliot’s poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"


Topic (good):  What is the role of Tiresias in Eliot’s The Waste Land?        


Fair thesis: Tiresias functions to unify the many fragmented elements of The Waste Land.  ­


Good thesis: Tiresias unifies the many fragmented elements of The Waste Land by identifying a central theme for the poem through his descriptions of sexual confusion.


As you can see, it's often best to express your own topic in the form of a question. After doing so, you create your thesis by adequately answering the question. Notice that you should write the thesis using the present tense. Even though a poem or story was written in the past, use the present tense while writing literary essays in order to create a sense of immediacy in your analysis.


A good thesis not only contains a main idea (“Tiresias unifies the many fragmented elements of The Waste Land”); it also usually includes a statement of reasoning  (“by identifying a central theme for the poem through his descriptions of sexual confusion") which will help the reader understand your thinking and will also help you guide the reader into your supporting statements that follow your thesis. Here, the reader can anticipate an analysis of Tiresias' descriptions of scenes depicting sexual confusion. That analysis will help to validate (or prove) the original point.


Sometimes, particularly when writing an in-class essay, it is helpful to write out an outline statement before beginning your essay. The outline statement is one long sentence containing three key outline elements. (NOTE: Because it is usually too long, formulaic, and awkward, the outline statement does not appear word for word in the essay, although key phrases from it may appear at different points.) In order of appearance, the outline statement contains: (1) an "although" clause (which anticipates objections to your main idea), (2) the main idea: (that is, the core thesis), and (3) a causal clause (which provides both the reasoning behind the main idea as well as the predictive components). Here is an example of a good outline statement:



Although the myth of the Fisher King also helps to bring together the seemingly incoherent elements of the poem, it is primarily Tiresias who unifies the many fragmented elements of The Waste Land by clearly identifying a central theme for the poem through his descriptions of sexual confusion as exhibited by the "young man carbuncular" and the typist, through the melancholy tone he employs during the descriptions, and through his statement that he himself has "foresuffered all" that he is describing.


Again, you wouldn’t want to use this exact statement directly in the essay. The statement is too big and too messy. But it would help its author write a clear, well-focused essay about The Waste Land. By identifying a possible objection to the thesis (one that the author will be sure to address) and by stating not only the main idea but the reasons for the main idea, it provides the author with a plan with which he or she can proceed with confidence. The author might decide to veer from the original plan, but it's unlikely that he or she will stray far from the original outline if it’s well thought out.


Finally, keep in mind that the actual thesis is usually one sentence in length (rarely more than two), and that it generally appears toward the end of the first paragraph or the beginning of the second.




Always remember that everything you say after the thesis must somehow relate back to the thesis: Everything must work toward validating your main idea. If you find yourself saying something that doesn’t relate to your thesis at all, stop and back up to find the point where your argument went astray. Also keep in mind that a good literary essay is not primarily concerned with summarizing what went on in the poem or story but with what the poem or story actually means and how it communicates such meaning. Analyze, don’t summarize.


The S-E-E Method                            __________________________________________________Heuston


The S-E-E Method can help you organize your thoughts into a logical pattern in each paragraph, and that can help you stay on track in an essay. It can also be a convenient way to make sure you’re supporting your claims with textual evidence. You’re not required to use this method, but it’s a helpful way structure an argument, and it can make writing easier by giving you a sense of what to do next as you move from paragraph to paragraph. Note that this method works along with things you’ve already learned about thesis statement construction and the way everything in your essay must relate to your thesis.


S-E-E stands for Statement, Example, and Explanation. First, you make an analytical statement about a text; then you give an example (either a quotation from the text or a reference to a part of the text); then you explain how your example supports or proves your claim.


Here’s an example of how it works. Let’s say you’re writing about Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.

·                                 [Here’s an analytical statement (S)]: Although the attention to vivid color in Williams’ elaborate stage directions suggests that color is an important element in the atmosphere Williams wants to create, the overall lack of detail about what certain colors might suggest or symbolize makes it impossible for readers or audience members to infer specific meanings from Williams’ use of colors.


·                                 [Here’s an example (E)]: In the stage directions before Scene One, Williams’ references to colors include “the dim white building,” “a peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise,” “the brown river,” repeated references to a “‘blue piano’” overheard from around the corner or a few doors down the street, and references to white and “colored” neighbors who demonstrate “a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races” in mid-twentieth- century New Orleans.


·                                 [Here’s an explanation (E)]:  Because Williams’ use of color, though suggestive and deliberate, jumps from the literal visual colors of physical objects to the non-literal blue of the “‘blue piano’” (Williams’ quotation marks call attention to the metaphorical blue, like the blue of blues music rather than an actual color) to the skin tones of different racial groups, and because Williams never gives even strong hints as to what each color might imply, it is impossible for readers or audiences to move beyond a vague sense that color is generally important; Williams’ shifting use of colors never lets us figure out exactly why particular colors are important or exactly what they mean.


Even if you’ve never read A Streetcar Named Desire, you can see how the examples above work within the S-E-E method: The first part (S) makes an analytical statement. The second part (E) gives examples from the text to support or illustrate the statement. The third part (E) gives an explanation of how the examples prove or relate to the statement. 


Note that (E) Example and (E) Explanation use the same letter. The usual way to keep them straight is to memorize them, but the order does make logical sense. You wouldn’t want to end a paragraph with a bunch of unexplained textual evidence. You’d want to present your evidence (whether direct quotations or just references to parts of the text) and then explain how or why that evidence proves your point.  


Estimating Paper Length: Outlines, Bullet Points, Paragraphs, and Page Numbers

Over the years I've done a whole lot of academic writing (umpteen essays, term papers, conference papers, journal articles, and an academic book), but I haven't made a full formal outline (the kind with Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numbers, and lowercase letters) since I was in seventh grade. If you're in the habit of making such outlines, by all means continue to do so. Making a full formal outline is both an excellent way to plan a paper AND an excellent way to estimate paper length. Though I haven't made a full formal outline since the early 1980s, I ALWAYS make a general outline/writing plan before I start writing. I mention my own semi-formal outline approach in the following paragraphs not to dissuade you from writing formal outlines but because I'm concerned that some of you might be in the habit of making no outline at all. In other words, some of you might often sort of wing it when you're writing papers and simply assume that your general awesomeness will make everything turn out okay. That's not a good approach if you expect to produce successful college-level work or any successful work in a professional context.

Here's what I do: Instead of making a full formal outline, I make a bullet-point outline (which is basically a sort of glorified to-do list, but hey . . . it works). I start by listing my thesis and underlining it or circling it because everything else in the essay has to relate directly to the thesis. That's the first bullet point on my list. Underneath that, I make a separate bullet point for every part of every text that I know I'll need to mention. For instance, if I'm writing about Yeats's "Easter, 1916" and I know that I'll have to talk separately about three separate parts of that poem, I'll make a bullet point for each part.

Notice that I say "talk separately" in the previous sentence. If I'm going to mention all three parts of the poem only briefly in one paragraph that discusses some shared or similar aspect of all three parts, then I'll make only one bullet point and include all three parts alongside that bullet point. I go on and do the same thing for each separate text or section that I'll be discussing separately, AND for each bit of a secondary source that I'll be including. Some of you might remember long ago writing index cards that included separate quotations and/or sections you'd be including in your paper. That approach also works well. My approach is just another way to do the same sort of thing. If you know that you'll have to deal with some subordinate issues as you analyze a particular poem or section, then you should indent underneath the main bullet point for that section and make indented bullet points for each of the subordinate issues.

Here's the key: Each main bullet point will require a good-sized paragraph to cover thoroughly. If you figure a double-spaced typewritten page will hold about three or four good-sized paragraphs, you can estimate the length of your paper by counting your bullet points and dividing by three or four. This is an estimate, mind you, not a precise measure, but it's a heck of a lot better than simply starting to write and hoping that your general awesomeness will be an adequate substitute for actual planning and careful preparation. If you do the math and realize that you probably don't have nearly enough raw material to reach your page requirement, then you need to figure out how to solve that problem (by talking about more texts, or by talking in greater depth about some texts, for instance). If you do the math and you realize that you probably have more material than you need to reach your page requirement, that's much less of a problem. You can think about whether you want to omit certain bits of the paper either before you start writing or after you've written the paper. I'd recommend the latter unless it looks as if your paper will be MUCH too long. It's much easier to cut a few things out (if you want to) once you've written a paper. If you start cutting things before you start writing, you can cause problems for yourself during the writing process. Keep in mind that most professors won't object to your paper being a bit longer than it needs to be. On the other hand, if your paper isn't long enough, that'll cost you.  

This whole process is a simple way of solving two common problems: Students often don't have a clue about how to estimate paper length, and students often don't do nearly enough planning and preparation before they start writing. The two problems go hand in hand.


Symbolism (Words of Warning and Symbolism for Dogs)___________________Heuston


IN GENERAL, AVOID WRITING COLLEGE ESSAYS ABOUT SYMBOLISM. Apparently some high-school teachers encourage (or at least tolerate) students writing about symbolism in vague, impressionistic ways (writing about their impressions, often with little/weak/no textual evidence) instead of making analytical claims and proving them with textual evidence. (Note: Using the S-E-E Method will help you avoid this problem.) Make sure you prove your claims by using textual evidence.


Here’s the problem for writers of college essays: The seemingly-symbolic elements of a text (a novel, a story, a poem, a film, or some other text) might tempt students to write about them, and that almost always works out poorly. Some things might be very interesting but also might be bad material for college essays. For examples, issues or subjects such as love, justice, and freedom are interesting in general and they’re important parts of life, but because they’re such huge and vague concepts (abstract concepts that are difficult to define precisely—many people would define those terms differently, after all) they don’t generally make good material for college essays. Symbolism generally doesn’t either.


Symbolic elements tend to be either too obvious to write a successful college essay about or too vague to prove via textual evidence. A couple of examples will help illustrate this point. Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a great play on many levels, and often students are tempted to write about the symbolic elements of the play. Sometimes students want to write about the symbolic meaning of the streetcar. This leads to statements about how the streetcar represents sexual desire. The good news is that it does. The bad news is that that’s obvious.


Too obvious: A Streetcar Named Desire contains quite a bit of what I call “symbolism for dogs” (symbolism so obvious that a reasonably intelligent Labrador Retriever could almost understand it). That type of obvious symbolism works well for first-time viewers of the play, particularly audience members who haven’t read the play before they see it. Obvious symbolism helps such people understand some of the play’s major issues as they watch the play being acted out. Such clear, unsubtle symbolism is a good thing for audience members but a bad thing for writers of college essays, because it’s very difficult to come up with a non-obvious thesis statement about such obvious symbolism.


Too vague: Some of the seemingly-symbolic elements in A Streetcar Named Desire lead college essay writers toward a different type of problem because those elements are so vague that it’s impossible to find textual evidence to prove what they allegedly symbolize. For example, the play mentions color quite a bit in its descriptions of costumes and the stage set. Although the attention to vivid color in Williams’ elaborate stage directions suggests that color is an important element in the atmosphere of the play, the overall lack of detail about what certain colors might suggest or symbolize makes it impossible for readers or audience members to infer specific meanings from Williams’ use of colors. We can tell that the vibrant colors contribute to the overall atmosphere of passion and intensity in the play, but we can’t tell what individual colors symbolize.


F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides some other useful examples. At one point in the novel, Daisy Buchanan is emotionally overwhelmed when Jay Gatsby shows her a pile of his expensive dress shirts. It’s pretty obvious that she’s moved by the beauty of the fine clothing and by the fact that the expensive shirts represent Gatsby’s great wealth, thus someone writing a college essay wouldn’t want to base the essay on a claim about what the shirts symbolize.  


On the other end of the symbolism/obviousness spectrum, there’s the green light across the bay (which the novel mentions just a few lines after the passage about the shirts). The green light stays on all night at the end of the dock at Daisy’s house, which is across the bay from Gatsby’s house. Some readers find it tempting to assume that the green light symbolizes something, but trying to prove (via textual evidence) that the color symbolizes something in particular is a waste of time. What might the green light symbolize? Money? Envy? Go? Spring? Nature? Youth? Photosynthesis?


The novel doesn’t provide enough textual evidence to prove any of the above. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a color is just a color. Gatsby knows that the light marks the dock at Daisy’s house, and he knows that it stays on all night. That’s significant enough. There’s no need to obscure that point with a weak argument about the color of the light.


 IN GENERAL, AVOID WRITING COLLEGE ESSAYS ABOUT SYMBOLISM. If you’re tempted to write about symbolism, re-read the material above. If you’re still tempted after you do that, let me know what you’re planning to do and I’ll let you know if I foresee any likely problems with your approach.  



I/me? Him/he? Her/she? etc.______________________                 Heuston

Don't know when you should say/write "I" and when you should say/write "me" in a sentence? Read on.

Here's the way to avoid making mistakes with I/me usage: You can always check yourself (so you don't ungrammatically wreck yourself) by splitting up the people in the sentence.


"My dad and me are going to the store." You can tell that this is wrong if you split up the people in the sentence.

"My dad is going to the store." No problem.

"Me am going to the store." (?!?!) No way.

The same goes for other similar situations:

"Her and I [or "Me and him" or "John and me"] went to the store."  All are wrong, and you can see why if you split up the people. You'd never say "Her went to the store" or "Me went to the store" or "Him went to the store," so you shouldn't say those things together. Split the people up and you won't make those mistakes, though you might still wonder why so many people go to the store in my examples. It's because I'm not creative and I don't find grammar interesting. You don't have to like grammar. You just have to know it . . . unless you plan a career as a mime, a cage fighter, and/or a ninja assassin. (By the way, the one professional cage fighter I know is a very intelligent guy who speaks well and writes well, so he probably doesn't make this type of mistake even while punching someone's lights out.)


Solutions to Common Writing Errors and Problems  (from English Department Assessment Project):

1.      Homophones—it’s/its, there/their/they’re, accept/except, etc.

·         The OWL page on homophones has lots of good examples.  It’s at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/engagement/2/1/48/.  A Google search turns up plenty of PowerPoints and webpages, but most of these are designed either for elementary school students or ESL learners.

2.      Comma splices

·         The OWL page on comma splices is at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/engagement/2/1/34/.  An entertaining website that focuses on the difference between comma splices and fused sentences is at http://www.chompchomp.com/csfs01/csfs01.htm.  The examples are fairly sophisticated, although the whole exercise seems designed for younger children.

3.      Apostrophes

·         The main OWL page on apostrophes is at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/621/01/.   There are lots of secondary pages on OWL giving exercises and all kinds of advice, too.  You can find a list by searching for “apostrophe s” in the “Search the OWL” line at https://owl.english.purdue.edu.  There’s also a “Grammar Bytes!” YouTube video on apostrophes that’s actually pretty informative.  It’s at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fE0IBPtbY2o.

4.      Subject-verb agreement

·         The main OWL page on subject-verb agreement is at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/599/01/.  Also see the relevant page in The Writer’s Handbook @ the University of Wisconsin-Madison at http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/SubjectVerb.html.

5.      Pronoun Agreement, and

6.      Vague Pronoun Reference

·         The main OWL page on pronouns is at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/595/01/

·         Advice on dealing with gender and pronoun references is at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/engagement/3/6/92/ and at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/608/06/.  (But not all will agree with the last section of the second of these pages, which more or less allows plural pronouns to stand for indefinites like “anyone” or “everyone.”  The whole area of pronoun reference is unsettled.  Most readers aren’t going to accept “everyone…he,” unless the next appearance is “everyone…she.”   Few are likely to blink at “everyone…they,” but the ones who do are likely to do so with great disapprobation.  It’s important to make students aware of the range of opinions, but it’s probably wisest to tread lightly on gender issues with pronouns by suggesting re-wording instead of counting every instance.  A consensus opinion about what’s acceptable is coming; it’s just not yet here!  ) 

7.      Sentence Fragments

·         The main OWL page on fragments is at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/620/1/.  There are some useful exercises at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/exercises/5/18 and at http://www.chompchomp.com/frag01/frag01.htm

8.      Fused Sentences

·         The main OWL page on fused sentences is at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/598/02/.  Also useful is “Identifying Independent and Dependent Clauses” at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/598/01/

9.      Misplaced Modifiers

·         The main OWL page on modifiers is at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/engagement/2/1/36/.  The clever folks at “Grammar Bytes!” have a video on dangling modifiers at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txK_5awcCnE.

10.    Format Problems

·         This is something of a catch-all category, having to do with what the student’s paper looks like on the page or screen.  Has the student followed your directions regarding the paper’s layout?  Does the paper have a title, and is the title punctuated properly and tied to the paper’s thesis?  Are the quotations in the paper copied correctly and punctuated properly?  Is there a Works Cited page, and, presuming there is, are the titles on it presented properly? 

·         A lot of these guidelines can be found on OWL at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/.  (And once again, not all will agree with every one of these dictates.  MLA evidently prefers only one space after a period, as if it were a comma—a preference that some readers will see as a sign of the apocalypse.)  


Grammar Video Clips and Web Pages

The following video clips and web pages present grammar tips in ways that are at least less boring than the usual grammar lessons. Some of them include some R-rated language. When it comes to grammar, I’m in favor of whatever works. If a bit of swearing helps you remember something useful, then that’s a win. If you don’t want to read or hear the R-rated language, you should look elsewhere for grammar tips. (If that’s the case, contact me and I’ll be glad to direct you to some resources that explain grammar without obscenities.)

Literally vs. Figuratively (CM Punk’s Grammar Slam—explicit language):  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wa7TvxC2rgA


38 Common Spelling and Grammar Errors (Mental Floss):                               http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRMRCeQBAKI


Detailed List of Grammar Videos (GrammarBook.com):             http://www.grammarbook.com/videos.asp


Subject/Verb Agreement (Surprisingly Detailed):                                              http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9F8AR-LCVE


Apostrophes—Grammar Bytes! (Come for the apostrophes; stay for the tacos): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fE0IBPtbY2o


Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers—Grammar Bytes! (Needs more cowbell):  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txK_5awcCnE


Comma Usage:                                                                                              http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOwcovqtkGY


The web pages below mostly don’t use video clips, but they do a great job of presenting LOTS of useful information about grammar and writing in easy-to-read, bite-sized chunks:  

Grammar Girl:                                                        http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar?sort_by=totalcount&sort_order=DESC



Grammarist:                                                                                                             http://grammarist.com



The Oatmeal (explicit language, manatee riding, and a surprisingly festive steamroller):  http://theoatmeal.com/tag/grammar



GRADING STANDARDS FOR ESSAYS            ________________________________________Heuston


A—Outstanding Work (characteristics):

--a clear thesis presenting an ambitious idea worthy of development

--well-developed with effective support

--appropriate textual references

--interpretation, not paraphrase or summary

--sophisticated transitions

--very few (if any) problems with phrasing, grammar, usage, or spelling

--demonstrates command of mature, unpretentious diction


B—Good Work (characteristics):

B work shares most characteristics of an A paper, but may have

--minor lapses in support of the central idea

--a few ineffective transitions

--a few awkward sentences

--less sophisticated sentences


C—Adequate Work (characteristics):

A C paper is generally competent, but compared to a B paper it may have  

--a weaker thesis

--lapses in organization

--awkward transitions

--more mechanical and diction problems (including phrasing, grammar, usage, or spelling)

--a less sophisticated approach to the topic

It may fail to answer the topic question convincingly.


D—Poor Work (characteristics):

A D paper most likely

--presents a thesis too obvious or vague or too far off the subject to be developed effectively

--lacks adequate support

--has poor paragraph development

--lacks clear transitions

--has ungrammatical or poorly constructed sentences

--has major problems with spelling, punctuation, diction, or syntax, some of which impede understanding.


F—Failing Work (characteristics):

An F paper is seriously flawed. It may

--have no clear thesis or central topic

--display no sense of organization

--lack adequate support and focus

--not fulfill the assignment

--contain major and repeated errors in mechanics and usage.