I. Adherence to Textual Conventions

Part of the confusion for students is that whether a piece of writing is good or not depends on the rhetorical situation it is written into.  Different rhetorical situations require adherence to different textual conventions, and writing that would be entirely appropriate, even "excellent," in one context may be absolutely inappropriate ("bad" writing) in another. 

The most obvious example of this is the lab report.  Lab reports and experimental analyses have conventions so strict that they might well be called rigid.  For example, the use of the first person, whether plural or singular, is considered unacceptable, so a lab report will inevitably make far more frequent use of the passive voice construction than would be considered appropriate in most other sorts of writing. 

This is the sort of locution you would expect to find in a lab report: the pigeons were observed over a period of three weeks; the data were analyzed; the condition was treated with a combination of drugs; the subjects were divided according to the following factors. . . .

Lab reports also have certain parts that must all be included, and that must be arranged in a very specific order. Here is the format for a biology lab experiment:

abstract  [this is sometimes not required]
introduction [A statement of purpose or hypothesis for the experiment and a summary of the relative principles and methodology of the experiment.  Background information related to the experiment goes in the introductory section.]
procedures [A clear, concise description of the experimental procedures performed in the laboratory.]
data and results [A summary of the significant data drawn from the experiment. Data is reported as text. The reader is referred to the data tables and graphs for specifics and clarification. All data tables and graphs appear in this section. A short statement (caption) is included for each data table and graph, detailing the data it contains.]
discussion and conclusion  [A summary of the results of the experiment, a statement regarding the conclusions that can be drawn from these results, and a discussion of how these results impact the natural world. This section also includes a statement regarding the sources of experimental error.]

Most students internalize the conventions of the lab report before reaching college because they begin to use them in their grade school science fair projects, and they are required to produce lab reports in junior high and high school science courses.  Only a few manage to get to college without ever having written a lab report according to these conventions.  Thus, students seldom question the appropriateness of these conventions or the necessity of following them if they hope to earn a high grade on a lab report.

But for some reason students seem to find it harder to adapt to the variability of textual conventions in humanities courses. 

Let's look at the some of the varying conventions that confuse students in college English classes.

In English 101 classes at the college level, students are commonly required to write what are called "persuasive" or "argumentative" essays.  These labels are not very useful, because they misrepresent what it is an English 101 class is primarily intended to accomplish.

I prefer to use the (admittedly awkward) label "persuasive/analytical" to describe the sort of essay students usually write in a freshman composition course.  Because in such essays the student is expressing an opinion about a complex issue, the essay can be considered "persuasive," in the sense that it presents the writer's reasons (arguments, evidence) for the position he has taken.  But the primary focus of such an exercise in writing is to teach the student how to analyze a complex issue, so that he arrives at his conclusion (opinion) by way of reasoned analysis, not as a consequence of thoughtless reaction or emotionalism.

This sort of essay is also sometimes called a "personal opinion" essay.  Representing as it does the author's own reasoned (one hopes!) opinion on an issue, such an essay may be written in the first person.  That does not mean that the author inserts "I" into every paragraph or every few sentences, but that if it is necessary to use personal experience to support a point, he is not forced to resort to such awkwardly self-conscious phrasings as "in this writer's experience" or "the author of this essay."

Phrases like "in my opinion" are generally discouraged because, as a personal opinion essay, the whole paper can be considered to be the author's opinion unless otherwise specified.  The sudden insertion of "I" is also discouraged in a situation where the paper has been consistently written as a third-person essay for several paragraphs.  Switching to first person after several paragraphs written in the third person would be an inconsistent use of voice, and therefore a flaw in the writing.

The point is not that that "I" is required, but that it is not forbidden in an essay of this sort, and if it is the smoothest and most natural way to express a point, then it should be used.  Of course, some teachers, adhering to rigid rules that may not make much sense in the context of this rhetorical situation, might insist that the student avoid all uses of "I," and some even forbid the so-called editorial "we." 

But part of the rhetorical situation that a student must write into includes the demands and expectations of both his hypothetical audience and his real audience.  The hypothetical audience for most persuasive/analytical essays is the "educated generalist," someone who has approximately the same sort of general knowledge that the average educated adult might be expected to have. 

But the real audience for every such essay is, of course, the teacher who will be grading the essay.  Because that is the case, the student's rhetorical sensitivity--i.e., his ability to discern and adhere to the requirements of a given rhetorical situation--should lead him to obey the teacher's requirements, even if they seem to fly in the face of logic, to contradict what he has learned from other teachers, or to violate the principles of what he knows as a reader to be good writing.

But most teachers of freshman composition courses do allow the use of the first person where it seems appropriate to the context and content of the essay.

However, just because "I" is considered acceptable in most English 101 classes at the college level, that does not mean that it is acceptable in all college English classes.

After their basic composition course, most college students must take one or more courses designated as "composition and literature" courses.  These classes almost always focus on literary analysis, and the essays the students are required to write in such classes are of the sort referred to as literary criticism.

Now, literary criticism, which is the technical analysis of literature in terms of its form and content, is a kind of "argument," in the sense that the critic must make plausible claims about the work of literature and support those claims with "evidence" drawn from the literary text under discussion. 

But literary criticism is not the same sort of essay as a discussion of whether assisted suicide should be legal, whether welfare reform is working as it was meant to, or whether unrestricted immigration is helpful or harmful to the nation's economy. 

Literary criticism has its own set of textual conventions, and for the most part, the writer is not supposed to insert himself into his analysis of the literary work.  The way I explain it to my students is that the spotlight must remain focused on the poem, story, or novel at hand.  It must not be yanked away from the literature and focused on the person writing about the literature.  In other words, the essay is not about the student, but about the literature, and they are forbidden to use "I" in their essays, although I do permit the occasional judicious use of the editorial "we" for discussing audience reaction to the work.

You would think this would be a fairly simple convention to follow: Don't use "I." In order to avoid violating it, all the student has to do is go through his essay and make sure he never says "I." (The search function in Word should make this a snap!) And yet many, perhaps even most, students find it almost impossible to stop writing "I," even when "I" has been expressly forbidden and they know their grade will be lowered if they use it. 

This is evidence of rhetorical inflexibility--an inability to adapt to the demands of different rhetorical situations.  Ironically, the same student who cannot shift his writing to match the conventions of different rhetorical situations in the humanities never has such difficulty in adjusting to the conventions that govern writing in the hard sciences.  Very few students write "I" in their lab reports or attempt to present their data in a chatty, self-referential style, and those that do learn very quickly not to and almost never make such mistakes in their second lab report. 

Nevertheless, the same student whose grade has been lowered for writing a chatty first-person "reaction" essay to a poem or a work of fiction when told to write a critical analysis will continue to make the same mistake repeatedly in all of his essays, and to wonder why doing so has adversely affected his grades.

Students need to learn that one very important trait of good writing is that it is appropriate to the rhetorical situation.  In other words, it recognizes and adheres to the rhetorical conventions governing a given type of writing.

How does a student know what those conventions are?  Well, paying attention helps.  In most courses, the teacher will provide some sort of written explanation of what is expected in the written work for the course.  Often, she will even provide sample essays and reports for the students to use as models when preparing their own work.  I write such sample essays for my students, and I also provide samples of excellent student writing for them to use as models.

In addition to teaching, I also tutor in a wide variety of subjects, so I have seen the handouts for writing assignments in a number of other courses.  The instructions are almost always precise and detailed.  They are also almost always universally ignored by the students, just as my literature students ignore my forceful admonitions against saying "I" in their critical analyses. 

Sometimes the problem is that the students don't even read the instructions or look at the sample essays.  But even when they do, they don't always follow them, just as they often ignore explicit instructions concerning proper manuscript form.*  Although most students accept that they must obey the rules in science classes, a lot of them seem to disregard the importance of rules and requirements in humanities courses.  This attitude includes disregarding the rhetorical conventions that govern whatever sort of writing they are expected to do in such classes.

Grading Standard: A student's grade should be significantly lowered if he ignores such textual conventions.


*My article on that topic is "The Importance of Manuscript Form."


back to page 1: What Is "Good" Writing?

to page 3: Correctness

to page 4: Style

to page 5: Voice

to page 6: Purpose

to page 7: Development

to page 8: Organization
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