How NOT to Write: Pay no attention to details!

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!


There is a problem with the world today–it is called apathy.  I wish that I could blame it all on me getting older (and therefore more curmudgeonly in my observations), but I just don’t think that is justified.  As Don mentioned back in April in “The Barbarians are Coming!” there seems to be a drastic upswing the number of people in college who just don’t care and they think everyone should be OK with that.  This attitude reflects into many parts of life–personal relationships, professional behavior, and, yes, even writing.

In the last ten years I’ve seen an increasing number of students just “not bother” to do things right, for lack of a better description.  In the classroom, they refuse to take notes, even after being warned that the material on the test is coming straight from the (unpublished) lectures.  They come and go from the classroom as they please, and often don’t bother to come at all until the day of the test.  I spell their assignments out, in detail, in their syllabus and in class; sometimes a third of the class comes up short of meeting even the  minimums, and half the class (or more) fails to meet at least one basic requirement.  The particular minimum varies widely–editing for common errors, using the assigned notation style consistently, not enough sources, no attempt at basic organization, etc. etc. etc.  In all cases, the student seems to think that since he/she covered some of the major requirements, the details aren’t worth bothering over.

(Perhaps even more disheartening, one major, consistent complaint I get in my student reviews is that–in insisting that students go beyond meeting the minimums–my standards are “unreasonably high” and that I’m “too tough.”  And people wonder why we homeschool.)

There are, of course, usually only two reasonable options as to why this happens:  either the student in question is completely incompetent (most aren’t) or they simply don’t care enough about what they’re doing to actually try to get it right.*  Some of this is undoubtedly due to the “everyone gets a trophy” culture of the last decade or two.  Those students are used to getting accolades without having to actually work for them.  Another likely culprit is the “consumer culture” that is being created at some American colleges and universities.**

As a professor, one of the most basic things I expect out of a student’s paper is a level of intelligent self-respect.  If you think so little of your efforts that you cannot even be bothered to reach the minimums, you should not be surprised to see that you get a failing grade.  You may not be brilliant, you may not win a Pulitzer for the paper you wrote in my class, but I want to see you at least take some pride in what you do.  If you learn nothing else from me than this one point, I think your money will be well spent.

Unlike some of the other errors I’ll discuss, we as writers should reject apathy and laziness outright.  If we don’t care enough about our writing to get it right on even the most basic level, how can we expect anyone else to care about it?  Even if you can write a “good” book (or paper) with a slovenly method, imagine what you could do if you really tried?  Still, there is at least one way for you to benefit from this very disadvantageous social trend–even if you don’t directly partake.  One side effect that I’ve seen first hand is that when the world around us degrades substantially, as our culture has since the 1960s, it becomes easier to stand out.  As long as you maintain strong moral and professional standards, you will turn some heads.  The irony is that you will do this not by going above and beyond the call of duty, but rather by simply doing a good job.  But why stop there?  Set your standards as high as you can and see what happens!

In the end, if you care about what you’re doing, if you give it your very best, it will come through in your writing.  Your passion can be infectious and will set a tone where people will want to read your story because you yourself wanted so badly to write it properly.  Take pride, take care, take time, and get it right.  That is an essential step to any kind of good writing.

Next Week:  Tackling too much!


*I have considered–and usually dismiss–the idea that they just don’t know what they’re doing because of the sad state of the education system in America.  That can explain some cases in my survey classes, but many of these students are still writing papers like this all the way into my junior level and senior level history classes–where I review the steps to good writing in detail.  If I know they’ve been given the information they need, I know they have the opportunity to ask questions, and they still produce slop, I’m forced to consider the points above.

**While I do agree that there are a number of points on which the average institution of higher education needs desperate reformation, consumerism has the effect of saving the village by destroying the village.  After all, if the student is the consumer, that makes the professor little better than a customer service representative.  Most students demand what they want (an A or a B with just enough work to make them feel like they’ve done something for it) rather than what they need (to be held to the standard they face in the larger world and pushed to become better).  And how can you grade a customer when the customer is always right?

More in the How NOT to Write series:

5 thoughts on “How NOT to Write: Pay no attention to details!

  1. Sad, but true. I’ve seen my dad, a high school German and history teacher, deal with apathetic students for years. I don’t get that mentality. People like that are missing out! Great post. Look forward to next week’s.

  2. The apathy makes me more frustrated than anything else. I work as a Teaching Assistant in the History department at my school, so I am well aware of both the effort professors put into helping their students succeed and the frustration they experience when their help is ignored. Grading essays (which I am coincidentally doing this week) makes me want to go up to each student individually and ask them why they did not simply edit their paper after they wrote the first draft. Luckily, there are those few students who step up and make it seem more worthwhile.

  3. When I was in a public ( ! ) high school in the 1960’s, a fragment or a comma splice–just one–was an automatic F for the whole paper. Failure to follow directions was an automatic F. If the directions said to give the letter of the correct answer and you wrote the (correct!) answer out instead, it was counted wrong because you did not follow the directions. If I applied such standards to college students today, I would flunk out well over half of the class and lose my job. What’s wrong with this picture? Thanks, Brian, for reminding us how insane our lives have become. How about some practical suggestions for fighting back against this anti-culture culture that we have to teach in?

  4. Absolutely excellent.

    Here in France, students have been granted degrees at insanely high rates (80-90%), just by doing the minimum required, which is attending lectures and being on time with assignments. Even teachers started to care less and less.

    This results in an incredible devaluation of degrees (any of them), and in more competition in the “job market”.

    I cannot help asking myself if someone I just met (a new doctor,perhaps) really “deserved” their degree.

    I’m especially skeptical about recruiters. They act like spoiled children.

  5. I think a contributing factor is the greater percentage of students enrolling in colleges. If a school were only accepting the top 2-3% of applicants, then you probably wouldn’t see some of the problems you describe.

    Also on note taking: Some students don’t take notes because they’ve never needed to. Before college I was always able to pay attention and remember what was taught. I didn’t develop my note taking skills until I was in college and even then only copied down bits and pieces of what was taught. For some of my higher level classes, my notes were more in depth, but for the most part I used my memory and the text book(s).

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