As I dig myself out of the pit of end of semester grading, here is a list of personal grievances regarding college student writing. Your list may differ from mine.
- The lack of paragraphs. Many students seem to think they are optional, but they are not. Paragraphs that are tight and focused show tightly focused thinking.
- The use of "I think," "I feel that," or "in my opinion." Couching an argument in these terms weakens the argument. I know it's your paper, and I know it's your opinion. So be bold – good papers take no prisoners, but argue vehemently and irresistibly towards their conclusions.
- A lack of structure. Some students opt for a stream of consciousness approach, as they meander through the topic and various anecdotes. Good papers have good structure, with a clear argument and reasons to support it. An academic paper is not a journal or diary entry, and it's not a record of your thoughts and feelings. It is a clearly articulated position paper that includes your thoughts and feelings, but in a rational way, not a stream of consciousness way.
- The overuse of lengthy anecdotes. Many students get bogged down in a personal story or news story that, like the struggling golfer in the sandtrap, they barely escape. Anecdotes in papers (and in sermons, for that matter) are quite powerful, and therefore need to be used sparingly and briefly. Your memoirs can contain lengthy anecdotes, but a formal paper keeps them to a potent minimum, as they tend to overwhelm the overall argument, pulling both the writer and reader into a hopeless tangent of unhelpful curiosities.
- The overuse of questions. Questions, succinctly put, can be great. What's clearer than a well-written question? But overused, they can become a crutch, hiding a lack of good transitions and connections among the various bits of a paper. Ideas need to be clearly connected through modifiers, conjunctions, sentences, and their development into further ideas. Stringing a bunch of questions together only shows that the writer is unsure of the ideas' connections.
- Burying the lead. Some college writers are tempted to sound more sophisticated by writing indirectly, so that stuck at the end of the sentence is, as you can see here, the subject. English is a language where subjects typically precede verbs (since we don't conjugate our nouns, as is done in some languages; conjugating the nouns would point to its grammatical role in the sentence). Good writing is clear and direct. You can still be sophisticated, but that sophistication is achieved through a good vocabulary and varied sentence structure, not by periphrastic circumlocution.
- A lack of momentum. Good papers are deft, with a sense of forward progression to their ideas, structure, and conclusion. Ideas are not left undeveloped and undefined, but neither are they dwelt on unnecessarily. This is tricky. It is the artistic side of what is a formal, standard paper. When does a paper bog down and lose its energy? I can't give a definite answer, but I know it when I see it. As I was advised long ago in my own writing, a rough draft will often find its best tempo somewhere after the first pages. It is painful to delete, or cut and reuse elsewhere, that preliminary stuff, but it's vital to do so. Good papers are like good musicians and athletes, they make the progression of thought seem effortless and obvious, even though it's not. Staying with this analogy, there is an incredible amount of work that is hiding itself, there in plain sight, be it a musical performance, athletic performance, or writing. Outside of the rare genius, most of us can only find the correct tempo in this manner: write, write, write.