Dr. Westfall’s Writing Pet Peeves (a.k.a. How to Write a Paper I Won’t Hate)

We’re at the end of the Summer II term, and I’m reading term papers. It has made me think about the biggest issues I see with student writing today. So here is my list, in no particular order, of my biggest pet peeves. If you are a student in one of my classes, this is your list of things to avoid, because you know I will count off for them.

Writing like you’re giving a powerpoint presentation.

We’ve all seen that standard bullet-point slide from Powerpoint, the one that looks like this:

A powerpoint slide entitled "Why cats are cute" which reads: Cats have facial features that resemble human babies, such as large eyes, a round head, and a snub nose. These features trigger a biological response in humans called the “baby schema”, which makes us want to nurture and protect them12.
Cats communicate with us using vocalizations that sound similar to human infants, such as meows and purrs. These sounds activate the same brain regions that respond to a baby’s cry, making us feel more attached and empathetic to them23.
Cats have soft and fluffy fur that feels pleasant to touch. Stroking their fur stimulates our social grooming instinct and releases hormones that make us feel happy and relaxed45.

Thanks to Bing AI for this content, we have our example slide. The problem I see is that students write a paper as a series of disconnected statements like the ones above. A student example might read like this under the section heading “Cat Cuteness”:

Cats have facial features that resemble human babies. They make sounds similar to a baby’s cry. They have soft fur that feels pleasing to touch.

Imagine if you were giving this powerpoint slide as a talk – you wouldn’t just read it bullet to bullet (or at least you shouldn’t do that – a presentation pet peeve of mine is people reading directly off their slides, but that’s a different article). If you were giving the presentation, you’d probably say something like this:

There are a lot of reasons why cats are cute. For example, they have facial features that resemble human babies, and so as humans, we may think of them as similar to our own offspring. They also communicate using sounds that are similar to human infants. Finally, their fur is just so darn fluffy and fun to touch, and when we do that, it releases hormones in both ourselves and our cats, which are enjoyable.

See what happened there? When I talked through the slide, I naturally added in a short introduction (“There are a lot of reasons why cats are cute”), I also put in transitions (“For example”, “They also”, “Finally”), and I expounded upon what I said beyond simple declarative statements. Also, I didn’t need to see the section heading “Cat Cuteness” to know what you were talking about, because it was right in the text.

I refer to these transitions and ability to ignore section headings as “connective tissue”, and many writers forget about it. They focus on content, but don’t realize that they know their own content so well, they don’t naturally think to set it up for a new reader who hasn’t encountered it before. Here are some tips to make sure you’re not doing this:

  1. Imagine that all the section headings are missing from your paper. Would you still know from the first sentence of a paragraph what that paragraph was going to be about?
  2. Imagine that the last line of a previous paragraph was missing – would the first line of this paragraph review what was important previously? Or would it seem like an abrupt shift to the reader?
  3. Imagine that your reader just read the last line of your paragraph – would they know what direction the next paragraph was going in?

To these last two points, it can be helpful to take a paragraph out of your paper and ask a friend “What do you think I just talked about in the last part of the paper?” and “What do you think I will talk about next?” – if they can’t answer those questions, you’ve got to write more, and probably revisit your outline. Which brings me to my next pet peeve.

Outline? What outline?!?

If you sit down to write a paper, and start with the introduction, then stop – you’ve already made a mistake. You should only write the introduction after you have an outline. Your outline doesn’t have to be fancy – you don’t need to use roman numerals and indenting (although it can help), it just has to be a roadmap you can follow. Imagine your instructor has asked you to write a paper on why cats and humans have a symbiotic relationship. You could just sit down and pound out everything you know about cats and humans, but that will likely lead to a stream of consciousness style paper. It will sound like you’re having a conversation with a friend about cats and humans. This seems fine, but your reader is going to be very annoyed – they want to use your paper as a reference material – they want to know facts they can use about the subject. To use a modern analogy – they don’t want to read 70 pages of backstory before you give them the recipe!

Thankfully, today, AI tools allow us to generate outlines pretty easily. I’ll ask Bing AI once more to generate an outline for that prompt. Here’s a PDF of what it came up with.

Let me be honest with you – if a student took this outline, tweaked it, and then wrote the paper based on it’s suggestions, that would likely get an A from me (Assuming it was well sourced and cited). The real power of Artificial Intelligence and Large Language Models is NOT to write the paper for you – it’s to give you ideas to write the best paper possible. And you cannot write a good paper without an outline.

If you turn in a stream of consciousness to me, you will get a low grade. If you use an outline, not only are you organized, you can also easily build in transitions like the ones I mentioned above AND you aren’t dependent on section headings to tell the reader what you’re trying to do. Isn’t software great – of course, it isn’t always perfect, and it definitely can get you in trouble if you decide to copy and paste directly out of it.

Copying and Pasting Nearly Always Leads to Plagiarism

We have a big problem today with people not understanding what Plagiarism is. Great tutorials exist that can help people understand citing and paraphrasing (I particularly like Kosha Bramesfeld’s hosted by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology), but it seems many pretend that changing 1-2 words is sufficient. Here’s an actual example:

Original Text: Teachers can improve their utilization of homework
by using research-tested strategies and accommodations (McNary, Glasgow, &
Hicks, 2005).

Student’s Paraphrased Version: Teachers can improve the utilization of homework
by using research-tested strategies and accommodations (McNary, Glasgow, &
Hicks, 2005).

Did you spot the “paraphrasing”? The person changed “their” to “the”. Not only is this not paraphrasing, it’s hard to see how it could be an honest mistake.

Now it could be: The person copied that line out of the article and put it in their notes, then when it came time to write the paper, they thought they’d paraphrased it already when they put it in their notebook, but in reality they’d just copied it. For this reason, my syllabus contains the following stern warning: “Copying and pasting from an original source material is never allowed unless you see it explicitly discussed in the directions of the assignment.” I put that line in not to be mean, but to help people avoid honest mistakes – copy and paste can be a dangerous tool. Also good advice: If you aren’t sure if you’re allowed to do something or not – ASK THE PROFESSOR. We can provide guidance before problems arise.

So far we’ve talked about the issues related to transitions, outlines, and plagiarism. Now let’s turn to the last biggest Pet Peeve – APA Style violations.

It Doesn’t Need to Be Perfect, But At Least Try!

I don’t think anyone is an expert in APA Style. But there are several things I would like students to at least try to do because they speak to the deeper tenets of having a style in the first place. Here’s a quick list:

  • Prefer paraphrasing over direct quoting. APA style is meant to be concise and coherent in one voice. It’s not like MLA – you shouldn’t be taking large chunks of people’s writing and providing them as examples of one’s literary excellence. A scientist might write a 10 page paper – you should be able to sum it up in 1 or 2 sentences, if that. All we care about is who had the original idea, and when it was published. I typically use less than 2 direct quotations in any APA style work I write – I reserve them for when I simply cannot say it any better than the original author.
  • Understand that we don’t care what something was titled. While it’s pretty common in MLA to see something like “Jonathan Westfall, in his book “Practical R 4″ discusses how to use R to automate the creation of powerpoint slides”, in APA style we would see something like this: “You can use R to create powerpoint slides (Westfall, 2020)”. Notice how it’s more concise and readable?
  • Focus on content, not filling space – I hate page length guidelines as they typically make students inspired to create mountains out of molehills. I do NOT want you to take a sentence and turn it into a paragraph. I want you to take 10 page papers and reduce them down to 1-2 sentences!
  • For the love of uniformity, make sure your fonts match. Seeing a font change (for example in the running head) just makes me think you’re sloppy and rushed.
  • APA Literally puts an example paper in their style – Purdue OWL has a great one too – MAKE YOURS LOOK LIKE THEIRS!

Ultimately writing is difficult to master, and the only way that you do is to, well, write. Set yourself up for success by avoiding these pet peeves – write good transitions and introductions, set up an outline that you can follow, avoid plagiarism, and follow style as best you can, and you’ll be on the right track!

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