If you’re preaching during Advent, here is a group of previous seasonal reflections, with the last one linking you to more (let me know, please, if links are broken), in case they can be of help to you:
At this time of year, students are receiving back papers from professors with various forms of the same advice: “Please get help for your writing.”
Well, if your campus has a fine writing centre, then you can pretty easily do that. Or if you have a favourite professor who is willing to go over your work sentence by sentence, then you’ll advance quickly.
Many students, however, don’t have access to excellent tutors. And even if you do, most improvement has to come from you consulting guidebooks and learning from them. So here are some basic suggestions:
For correctness—everything from punctuation to footnotes to page set-up to capitalization: The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). You can buy a big hardcover edition or you can subscribe online annually. You can also buy a much cheaper version: Kate Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Ms. Turabian was the dissertation secretary for years at The University of Chicago, and her book is a reduction of the CMOS. (These are books to keep handy for reference.)
To be sure, if you’re majoring in the social sciences, you might want to learn the American Psychological Association (APA) style instead. And if you’re in Biblical studies, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) style. But Chicago style is the most widely used style in North American formal writing, so that’s why we default to it.
(And, as a Chicago alum who abominates all things crimson, here is a rude gesture toward the needless and eccentric “Harvard style.”)
For improving your style: For becoming a more fluent and lucid writer (what most of us mean by “style”), read William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style. This is a little book that packs a big punch. It’s a little dated by now, of course, but every page has advice that will make you a better writer. (Read this book a few pages at a time, picking one thing to work on. Then read it again in a year or so, and pick new ones.)
For thinking through a writing project in the most efficient way, read Sanford Kaye, Writing under Pressure. You will write everything from emails to multi-volume encyclopedias better because of this strategic way of approaching any writing opportunity. (It’s a very good book to read over the Christmas break or over the summer.)
And for a treatment of research generally—a book that you can read all the way through or just pick a chapter from time to time for consultation—get Wayne C. Booth, et al., The Craft of Research.
No one is just naturally a “good writer.” Some people like writing more than others, yes, but some of those people aren’t good writers! Other people find writing hard, and yet some of those people become excellent writers. We all learn by reading good writing, paying attention to why it seems so good, and then by consulting guides like these to improve our skills. So now you know—or, at least, you could!
Despite COVID-19, some universities, colleges, and seminaries are hiring. We here at Crandall University are, in fact: in Business, Education, Psychology, and Religious Studies. I have sat on search committees for lo, these several decades—at two small Christian universities, at a large secular university, and at a theological graduate school. So here’s my list of ways to blow yourself up, or at least to put off prospective colleagues.
Don’t Praise Yourself Don’t use adulatory adjectives and adverbs. Stick to facts and “let another praise thee” (Proverbs 27:2). Avoid locutions such as “world-class” and “outstanding” and, yes, “unique”—as if everyone is not, in fact, unique. And we’re not looking for unique: we’re looking for qualified and capable. I realize that in at least some sectors of the business world this kind of language is expected. Not in the academy. We’re looking over your file for evidence of quality, not for your opinion of yourself.
Don’t Mention Irrelevant Accomplishments It’s certainly cool if you’re a skydiving instructor or a terrific ballerina or a still-ambulatory matador. But normally these skills won’t be required on the job, and we’re trying to find someone to do the job. Likewise, you’re not applying for college: we’re not looking for admirable well-roundedness. So the fact that you volunteered for this or edited that or starred in the other really doesn’t matter if those activities do not directly pertain to the position. Mentioning these other skills and experiences, in fact, can make it sound like you are compensating for professional deficits.
Don’t Mention No-Longer-Germane Accomplishments Good for you for being your high-school class valedictorian. Bravo for scoring highly on your SAT, ACT, or GRE exams. But we really don’t care. The relevant record starts with your first degree, and we want to know how everything went from then on.
Don’t Mention Mediocre Accomplishments Sorry about this, but the fact that you won your local Rotary Club’s $50.00 scholarship for “Most Promising College Student Who Is a Child of a New Member” is not going to open any doors. If your GPA isn’t impressive, don’t list it. (And “impressive” starts north of 3.80 on a 4.0 scale—namely, “A’s.”)
Don’t Tell Us You’re a Perfect Fit You can’t possibly know that. Why? Because “fit” is an all-purpose word in the academy used to cover everyone’s unspoken agenda. Whether someone “fits” is in fact not simply a matter of you corresponding to the explicit job description, but of whether you will emerge from all the politics that will go on in the search process. Those politics are not necessarily insidious, but they are real and important, and they are invisible to an outsider. So just tell us how you fit the job description and we’ll all see what happens after that.
Don’t Major on the Minors If you have published books and articles, don’t list a long trail of book reviews. If you have published articles and reviews, don’t list a long trail of conference papers. If you have published reviews and delivered conference papers, don’t list a long trail of adult education talks you’ve given, articles you’ve published in minor community or denominational magazines, weblog posts, and the like. Lead with your best stuff, and don’t tell us a lot more…or we might start to wonder if you don’t know enough to devote your energy and time to the higher-impact modes of publication.
Don’t Predict the Future If you have a book project in mind, don’t say you intend to submit it to Oxford University Press or Cambridge University Press or Harvard University Press or—. Everyone says that, because anyone can. It doesn’t get you anything to say that, however, and instead it makes you sound like you’re trying to grab a little of that press’s halo before you’ve earned it. The one exception here is if you know a prestigious press has a particular series for which your book would be appropriate, go ahead and say that, because saying so shows a certain awareness of what’s going on in your field.
Don’t Claim Divine Leading If you’re applying to a confessional school, such as ours, please don’t tell us that God has told you that you’re The One. Frankly, it sounds pathetic—like the boy at summer camp who tells the girl of his dreams that God has assured him that they are to be together. Precisely no girl in the history of summer camps has ever replied, “Well, I didn’t think much of you before—in fact, I didn’t really notice you until now—but if God has told you, then kiss me and we’ll be together forever.” God may well have told you that, but it will be reassuring all ’round if we all can come to that conclusion ourselves. And then we can celebrate!
Don’t Take My Word for It You paid a lot of tuition dollars to get your doctorate and you deserve good job-hunting advice from your supervisor. Ask him or her to look over this list and then have a good chat with you. And then do what he or she tells you, I’d say—