Getting an A on an English Paper

Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University – Newark


Part of good writing comes from developing a mature and confident critical voice, and that comes only with time.

It's not surprising that freshmen, even those who did well in high school English, often need time: time to learn what a college-level English paper should do, time to eliminate all the little mechanical errors, and especially time to develop a clear and sophisticated tone.

Once again, there are no shortcuts. You can, however, get better more quickly if you supplement a lot of writing with a lot of reading. Read the best stylists whenever you can. Alexander Pope gave similar advice to critics almost three centuries ago:

You then whose Judgment the right Course wou'd steer,
Know well each ANCIENT's proper Character,
His Fable, Subject, Scope in ev'ry Page,
Religion, Country, Genius of his Age:
Without all these at once before your Eyes,
Cavil you may, but never Criticize.
Be Homer's Works your Study, and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night,
Thence form your Judgment, thence your Maxims bring,
And trace the Muses upward to their Spring.
In other words, before you can write good criticism, you have to absorb the styles of the best writers. Pope recommends Homer and Virgil: they're fine, but I suspect you have small Latin and less Greek. I'll recommend some personal favorites who had the decency to write in English, and who can, I think, improve a writer's prose style. For counterexamples, check out the winners of the annual Bad Writing Competition, which awards a booby prize every year to the worst published academic writing they can find.
My Guide to Grammar and Style includes a lot of notes on developing an effective style. Read the whole thing, but especially Audience, Bluntness, Concrete Language, Diction, Economy, Formal Writing, Long Words, Mixed Metaphor, Obfuscation, Passive Voice, Revision, Taste, and Vocabulary.

from Jack Lynch's guide,
Getting an A on an English Paper

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