“Conventional Rules” of Academic Writing- 2nd Year Frustrations

A few weeks ago, I received my first COLL150 essay back. This freshman writing seminar is about Literature and World War II, with 75% of my grade riding on three 6-page essays. Along with our essays, the professor handed out a sheet of generic comments about the essays. At the very top- “remember that writing a formal essay is like a game. There are conventional rules. You develop skill through practice.”

As someone who has been writing formal, academic essays for a year now, I couldn’t help but laugh at this. It’s true- there are conventional rules. And you do learn these rules through practice. I laughed because, well, when you go to two different schools, the conventional rules are going to be completely different.

At St Andrews, I loved writing formal essays for my International Relations modules. Maybe it was the fact that we only had two a semester, or that they were anonymized, or that the rubrics were published for us to see what we would be graded on, or the fact that we could choose from a set of questions to answer. I loved checking 7-9 books out of the library, heading to a café and doing research, and eventually forcing myself back to the library to actually write the paper.

At William & Mary, I quickly learned that this was not the case. While I still get my books from the library and sit down with coffee to do initial research, a lot is different about the process and grading. Instead of having one module and one tutor to write an essay for, I suddenly found myself with essays in 5 different classes, all with a different professor. The “conventional rules” of formal academic writing not only change between the two institutions, but between professors themselves.

The first essay I had to write at William & Mary was for my Russian Literature class; a simple, 3-page essay on whatever we wanted. This was absolutely daunting- anything I wanted? 3-pages? How many words was that? The professor stressed that we should use at least two secondary sources- at LEAST two? St Andrews always wanted us to use more.

I ended up doing fairly well on the essay, despite the fact that my margins were still on St Andrews’ standards and realizing too late that those were very different than MLA format.

Even in my International Relations course here at William & Mary, for our first paper our professor said we didn’t need to use any secondary sources if we didn’t want. What??

I tried to transpose the conventional rules of writing from St Andrews to William & Mary, and while my essays have still been fairly stellar this semester, I’ve realized that the Scottish conventional rules are different. I am discouraged from structuring my opening paragraphs with “This Essay shall…”; I am told not to outline the whole essay in the first paragraph, for fear of giving too much away to the reader. My COLL150 professor told us once that he looked at “essays as storytelling”- what does this mean?

So I was stuck for the first part of this semester. Do I tailor my essays to each individual professor? Do I throw all of St Andrews’ writing rules and styles out the window? Do I not cite everything? Am I using too many secondary sources? Are my margins still too big? Am I writing this TOO formally?

When people ask me what my favorite school is- I always insist that you can’t really compare the two. People want me to answer: “Oh, William & Mary is just so beautiful this time of year!” or “Oh, the food at William & Mary is so much better!” or “Oh, the people at William & Mary are so much nicer!” But that’s not what I’ve found myself comparing this semester.

While I love the freedom to choose what I write about in most of my classes at William & Mary, I miss the structure of St Andrews. I miss the published rubric, showing that the grading would be less arbitrary than it seems at William & Mary. I miss the set, 2000 word maximum, and 10% leeway. I miss only having to write two essays a semester, but also love writing multiple in every class I have here.

Attending two different universities means that there are two sets of “conventional rules” for academic writing that Joint Degree Students have to know. After leaving that COLL150 class, I’ll admit I was a little angry. I had done my best- I wrote how I was taught. But I’ve come to realize that that’s one of the more interesting, albeit very frustrating, aspects of being a WaMStA. We do go to two different schools. We survive in this program by adapting to both, and we leave knowing two different sets of such “conventional rules”. Which, in the grand scheme of things, is probably more impressive than just knowing one.

  • Kary Stevick, 2nd year, IR

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