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What is a college paper?

Let's admit from the start that by "college paper" we mean a paper for a course in the humanities. The sciences, bless them, have their own peculiar ways of using language that many of us in the humanities find bizarre. Of course, the way some humanists write papers is also beyond belief. One need only pick up any work by one of the adherents of the modern "deconstructionist" school of literary analysis to see how bad academic writing can get. Forget all that academic jargon. Any college paper you write reflects your opinion and should be in whatever style or voice is most comfortable for you. And whether the paper is for the English Department, History Department, Psychology Department, Religious Studies, or any of the many subsets of the social sciences, the rules here outlined generally apply. Even such pseudosciences as economics and business require papers that are written in English and follow the same general rules and procedures as an essay on Emerson.

That said, it is undoubtedly true that you can get away with more colorful and creative - if not downright peculiar - experiments in a paper for a literature class than in one for an economics class. But even this is not guaranteed. Some English professors imagine themselves as supersophisticated, scientifically based apostles of some wacko school of literary analysis and therefore insist on rigidly exact performances, whereas some economists are as loose as the proverbial goose. And some of the best scientists write not in science-ese but in clear human language. Reading Freudians is an exercise in despair and confusion; reading Sigmund Freud himself is a delight. There is a reason for this.

The historian Barbara Tuchman has said that the ability to write well implies the ability to think well. Great minds think and write clearly; secondary minds get confused; inferior minds tie themselves in knots pretending they understand what they clearly can't even grasp. People who understand what they are talking about write in clear simple language intended to communicate ideas from one mind to another. This is because they have ideas and want to communicate them. People who do not have a clear idea of what they are talking about try to hide their confusion behind an ink cloud of obscure verbiage. And some superior snots write not to communicate but to impress people with how smart they want us to think they are.

Do not, therefore, be afraid to say what you think in plain, simple English. To the truly literate, the use of excessively pompous and complex language indicates cowardice and ignorance, not intelligence. If you cannot understand your textbook, do not despair; the fault may well be the writer's, not yours. In contrast to European intellectuals with their aristocratic heritage, the best American writers from the very beginning gloried in what we call "the plain style." Our greatest American books offer not clouds of baroque rhetoric but simple American speech. Think of the dialect in Huckleberry Finn, the direct sentences of Ernest Hemingway, the penetrating boldness of James Baldwin, and be not afraid. As Emerson so wonderfully said in that most American of essays "Self-Reliance," "Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense."

The college paper is assigned to determine how well you have mastered the course material, how well you have understood the significance for good or ill of that material, and how well you can write about it. Whether for history, English, or whatever, the requirements of good arguments, good evidence, and good communication are essentially the same. These are the requirements on which this guide is focused.

 

   
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