In my ten years of composition instruction, I have developed a set of pet peeves associated with the body of student writing I have read. Any of my students reading this should keep in mind that I do not direct this at any particular student — this list is a synthesis of common writing errors that I often find in student papers at every grade level 6-12 and every academic level, including Honors or AP.
- Referring to an author by his/her first name only in a literary analysis. It sounds too much like they’re writing about their old pal Walt instead of the poet Walt Whitman.
- Not using proper format. I require MLA format. I provide samples. I correct it. I don’t know how much plainer it gets.
- Punctuation of titles. I admit that I am probably harsher on students than is warranted because punctuation of titles comes so easily to me, but I cannot figure out why students cannot remember that short works go inside quotation marks and longer works are italicized or underlined.
- Use of second person in formal composition.
- Apostrophes used to designate words as plural. Why? Think of the poor overworked little punctuation marks! Don’t they already have enough to do with possessives and contractions, not to mention quotes within quotes?
- Run-ons, comma splices, and fragments. Subject+verb+complete thought=sentence. Commas cannot join independent clauses. Independent clauses cannot simply be mashed together either. Let me introduce you to the semicolon. He is your friend.
- Strange format decisions. It is my experience that many young writers do not feel comfortable turning in work unless their own title is somehow different from the essay — a different font, font size, bold font, etc. Why can’t it just be plain size-12 Times New Roman?
- And while we’re discussing titles, how about this attention grabber: “Essay”; or if that doesn’t grab you, how about “Scarlet Letter Essay.” The title of the novel, of course either in quotation marks or not punctuated at all.
- Not reading feedback. I spend anywhere between 15-30 minutes reading every paper. Students flip to the grade and ask why they earned that particular grade before reading the half-page to full-page of written or typed comments I attached to the piece. When this happens, a part of me dies inside. And I think God kills a kitten, too.
- Commonly confused words and nonstandard usage: “loose” for “lose,” “then” for “than”; the whole to/two/too and there/their/they’re. “Alright.” “Alot.” “Can not.” “Irregardless.”
Professional writers are not exempt. I had to quit reading the work of a popular writer whose plots I enjoy because I couldn’t stand the fact that she, and apparently her editor, can’t identify a comma splice.
Please don’t think I take a red pen to comments and correspondence. I don’t think twice about it. Formal writing, especially published writing, has to meet a different standard.