When students come to tutors and say that they want their essays to sound smart, what do they mean by this?
P.S. Do I need a comma in the sentence above?
Yes, the comma is needed.
The students can mean a couple of things when they say this. There is a belief that sounding intelligent, through the use of big, technical words, can improve a studen'ts grade. This idea follows along with the similar idea that a longer paper is a better paper. Sadly, the combination of these two ideas generally results in a convoluted, highly-technical paper filled with run-on sentences and difficult to pin down thoughts. The best way to combat this, in my opinion, is to really put the idea in their minds that long and complicated is actually a bad thing most of the time. Instead of attempting for a long paper, they should look for concision. Show them where they can shorten sentences and write them in a more clear and straightforward way. Specifically look for passive voice, run-on sentences, unnecessary phrases and absurdly long lists.
I think I should clarify some of those things above, especially the "unnecessary phrases."
When writing a paper where students need to argue a point or at least state their opinion, there is a tendency toward wordiness. For example: "I believe that every citizen of the United States that wants to receive health care and being in need of this right should be able to receive it from the government." That kind of sentence occurs when someone is thinking of an argument and in their minds it comes out in that convoluted way. They can simplify it like so: "I believe every citizen in the United States without health care ought to receive it from the government." Specifically I look to remove the verb "to be" and replace it with a noun. For example: "being admitted" becomes "admission." Also, that, what, which phrases can often be corrected, though sometimes they are required. A typical thing I say to 90% of my tutee is: "try to say every sentence in as few words as possible that still conveys the same meaning."
I think there are enough posts on passive voice, run-ons and lists that I don't need to cover that.
The other meaning that students might have when they want to sound "smarter" is that they feel they have a simplistic writing style. That means they have a small vocabulary or don't know, and feel uncomfortable with, constructing long sentences that convey a complicated point. When someone like this comes in, I think it is best to try and raise their confidence. True, their writing might be poor, but they still have good ideas that can portray complicated thoughts.
With these kind of students, I think its best to go over the format of an argumentative essay, of a complicated sentence and a paragraph in general. They need the basics. A great way to do this is to have them think of a point they want to make and try to explain it. If their explanation is a 45-word sentence, try to pick out the important kernels. Maybe write their long sentence down and re-organize it to show them what can be eliminated, what is redundant, and which parts are higher quality. Have the student relay their ideas to you and help them clarify it. The more times you do this, the less you help and the more you take their ideas, whether or not you might have some better ones. The reason I say this is that they need to develop confidence in their writing first to feel comfortable enough to start doing some of these processes alone. As the session(s) progress, then you can coax them into some more difficult structures or (gasp) break some of the rules for emphasis. However, I would hit the basics for a long time before that.
So, a bit of a long-winded response, but I thought I would try to tackle the answer to this question since it is pretty common. Many people feel their writing is sub-par, yet at the same time know they have good ideas. And this is the root of the problem when it comes to writing; it's the transfer of ideas from our heads to others heads and we lose some information in the process. Good writing keeps as much of that info as possible in the clearest way possible.
Also, stress proofreading. I caught numerous tiny mistakes simply re-reading this post! Let alone an essay. Feel free to add, detract or criticize any of these things I have said.
P.S. That is how I use "and" to begin a sentence. I'm aware it makes English majors cringe :D.
In reply to this post by seda, slc tutor
Kevin pretty much covered the answer to this question. I have one more thing to add though. For some tutees (you have to use your best judgment) I encourage them to "sound more academic," meaning they use the jargon or nomenclature of their field of study. If they often write in generalities or write as a layperson, then I encourage them to incorporate terminology from their subject matter, but only if they actually know these words and can use them as if they really belong to that community. For example, with nursing students or students studying medical administration, they should really be using the technical medical terminology and acronyms of their field in their papers. This helps them sound academic and "smart," and allows them to practice talking and writing as a professional in their field. I really encourage this with students who are writing papers for courses in their major, and especially for grad students.
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