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Those of us who teach in the humanities frequently ask our students to use MLA format when writing research documentation. Because a lot of research writing tends to come through English classes, especially in high school, students are most often exposed to MLA rules for citing sources.
Although there is nothing wrong with that, teachers should know that APA style is also alive and well on college campuses. Focusing exclusively on MLA might cause problems for students when they step foot on a college campus. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for teaching research writing in high school and introductory college writing classes.
Let’s take a step back. MLA is the acronym for the Modern Language Association, an organization focused on the use and study of language, primarily in academic settings associated with the humanities. APA is the acronym for the American Psychological Association, an organization focused on all aspects of psychology that has developed a set of rules and standards for scientific writing used across many disciplines. Although MLA and APA are the most common formats used on college campuses, there are some professors who require papers written in other formats: Turabian, Harvard, Chicago Manual of Style, and IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers).
Because college students are likely to encounter multiple documentation formats in their classes, introducing students to research writing by requiring them to memorize the specifics of a particular documentation format is less important than helping them know how to find the right format. After all, the formatting rules change from time to time rendering obsolete those memorized specifics. If a student knows MLA and only MLA, confusion can arise when college professors require other formats.
Although I work with many humanities students using MLA format for documentation, one of my biggest eye-openers from working in our college’s writing center is the depth involved in the term “APA style.” Papers written in “APA style” for a nursing, psychology, or sociology class look very different from interpretive papers for an English class or a narrative for a child development class.
In other words, an individual college student is required to write in widely varying styles as he goes from class to class, so as we prepare students for college writing, we need to make them aware of these different expectations.
For example, in addition to documentation and page layout, APA style actually includes a rhetorical stance that emphasizes precision, clarity, and objectivity, which is consistent with APA’s scientific orientation.
While more expressive writing may strive for variety by using synonyms, the APA Publication Manual suggests that using synonyms is risky in scientific writing: “The intention is commendable, but by using synonyms you may unintentionally suggest a subtle difference. Therefore, choose synonyms with care. The discreet use of pronouns can often relieve the monotonous repetition of a term without introducing ambiguity.”
APA style also prefers “economy of expression”: “Say only what needs to be said. The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication.” (“Publication” as used here clearly refers to academic or technical journals.)
For precision and clarity, APA suggests avoiding colloquial expressions and jargon, and being careful when using pronouns or comparisons.
APA style also has no use for what the Publication Manual calls “linguistic devices”: “Devices that attract attention to words, sounds, or other embellishments instead of to ideas are inappropriate in scientific writing. Avoid heavy alliteration, rhyming, poetic expressions, and clichés. Use metaphors sparingly … Use figurative expressions with restraint and colorful expressions with care.”
Perhaps the most important element of writing in APA style is the issue of bias. The APA Publication Manual devotes seven pages to guidelines for reducing bias in language relevant to gender, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic identity, disabilities, age, and “historical and interpretive inaccuracies.” Objectivity is obviously important in scientific writing: “If your writing reflects respect for your participants and your readers and if you write with appropriate specificity and precision, you will be contributing to the goal of accurate, unbiased communication.”
So, if we want students to be college-ready writers when it comes to research, here are some suggestions:
1. Provide students with practice in a variety of rhetorical stances, including those without traces of subjectivity or bias. In an earlier post, I wrote about how students think they are not supposed to use “I” in their writing, although they frequently misunderstand the intention of that rule. Be the teacher who helps writers understand how to adapt their writing to all kinds of situations.
2. Provide students with practice in following in detail at least one specific documentation format, but make sure they are aware of the existence of others.
3. Help students understand the mechanics and purposes of documentation. Be aware of the existence of automatic citation generators such as EasyBib, BibMe (my favorite), and Citation Machine. These are amazing time-savers, but they work more smoothly for those who understand what is being created. Although students are responsible for the results of their work, those who use these sites are not cheating.. In fact, many databases and college libraries now provide citations in a variety of formats alongside the entries so that users can simply cut-and-paste them.
4. Help students understand the dichotomy of research writing. Research is not writing, and writing is not research. They are two separate activities. As we said in Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, “Good writers can create sloppy, meaningless research projects, and good researchers can write research papers that are dreadful to read.”
Of course, research writing is just one element of a healthy writing curriculum. In addition to the research writing discussed here, young writers need opportunities to practice narrative, analytical, expository, personal, and creative writing. Students who are comfortable and competent in all of those modes are ready to face not only academic writing challenges but can also embrace writing as a vital, fulfilling means of expression.
Artwork by Lisa Congdon.
It took me a long time before I could say, “I am a writer.” I now proudly claim that Writer mantle because I spend a fair amount of time stringing together words, trying to say something worthwhile as engagingly as possible, and then sharing it with others.
I was thinking about this today and wondering how I learned to be a writer. Unfortunately, I can’t say my high school years had very much to do with it. I don’t remember writing anything for a high school class. That doesn’t mean writing wasn’t assigned or taught. It just means I don’t remember it, probably because I didn’t do it. I didn’t do most things assigned in high school. (Yes, I was a true joy to my teachers.)
I remember writing an explication of Don McLean’s “American Pie” and an editorial or two for the school paper. One of those editorials was a truly awful satire entitled “The Bells, Bells, Bells …” which ended like this: “If we continue to allow bells to run our education, surely, surely they will run our entire lives.” Yikes! This is fresh on my mind because my masterpiece recently ended up on Facebook, posted by my classmate Denise, the artist assigned the unenviable task of illustrating it many years ago.
Writing is still hard work, and I struggle with it. I struggle with beginnings, middles, and endings. I use too many unnecessary modifiers. My tone frequently varies from what I hear in my head to how it appears on the page. I use anecdotes that distract from my main point, and once in a while I use the wrong your.
Over time I have learned strategies for spotting and revising those weaknesses. I can cut distracting words, sentences, and paragraphs. I look for ways to add or subtract material to enhance the attitude and ideas I want to convey. I read my work out loud before submitting or posting. Still, I’m rarely satisfied with the result. This Paul Valery quote comes to mind: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
I’m a better writer because some people have helped me along the way, no doubt about it. In college my saintly mentor Marion Gremmels helped me grow by leading me to reflect on my writing process. The writing group I met with at the Barrington library for several years motivated me to be a more productive writer. I’ve worked with colleagues who give excellent feedback and encourage me to pursue ideas and projects. My wife is my best editor and b.s. detector. I also try new ideas gained from reading a lot about writing and listening to really smart writing experts.
My point is that I learned to write on my own for the most part, and I’m glad. The lessons I’ve learned about writing come from my own writing experiences. I learned to write by writing. I learned to generate ideas by generating ideas, and I learned to revise by revising. I figured out things about writing, and the lessons are deeply internalized.
I didn’t learn to write because someone told me how to do it. I didn’t learn to write because I completed assignments made by somebody else. I didn’t learn to write by following rules I didn’t understand.
I learned to write from the inside out.
So what does this mean for the way I teach writing? Is teaching an inherently outside-in kind of thing? I don’t think so.
Telling about my own writing is part of how I bring my internal processes to the surface with the hope I am providing a useful model to help students discover their own processes. I share what I’m working on and ask for their advice, which is almost always solid.
What else? Well, my students will tell you I’m not very big on directions. When it comes to writing, I rarely tell students what to do or how to do it. This drives them a little crazy at first, but I strongly believe that if they are to grow as writers, they need to figure out how to make writing decisions. They need to feel what it’s like to grope for an idea and experience the trial-and-error process of shaping it into something satisfying to both writer and reader.
When students ask questions about rules, I try to respond with answers that will shape them as writers rather than shaping a specific piece of writing.
Question: Is it OK to use I? Answer: There are no forbidden words. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish and use the words that get you there.
Question: Is there a rubric for this? Answer: The rubric is based on the size of my goose bumps when I read it.
Question: How long does this need to be? Answer: You’ll know when it’s done.
When students ask questions about writing processes and individual writing dilemmas, I take those very seriously and thoroughly walk through options and problem-solving scenarios.
After students submit writing, we reflect on what worked well and what didn’t work so well in their individual experiences.
Our school also promotes the development of inside-out writers in a couple of other ways. I’m not the only writer on our faculty. We have many teachers in many departments who write and share their work. Through our Writers Week program we bring in a dozen or so professional writers each year who talk about their writing. Along with those professional writers, our faculty writers and student writers also share their writing lives during Writers Week. Thankfully, our students are frequently exposed to writers who articulate how authentic writing works and what it’s like to be a writer.
What does it mean then to teach writing from the inside out?
Maybe the best I can do for young writers is provide opportunities to practice many different kinds of writing, help them think through the obstacles that arise and reflect on what worked well in the writing process, and encourage risk-taking.
Practice. Reflect. Risk. Isn’t that what writers really do, from the inside out?