By David E. Hubler
Contributor, Online Learning Tips
One of the first required courses for new college students is Freshman Composition. At APU, the course is called ENGL101, Proficiency in Writing. The idea is to teach all students the basics of good academic writing “with a focus on self-expressiveness and expository essays.”
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The substance of freshman English courses is designed to give you the proper academic writing tools you will need throughout your college career. That writing skill will serve you well whether you’re writing a one-page paper or a capstone project; it’s also a useful skill for your career as well.
When I taught Freshman Composition, the course consisted of about 10 different essay writing modes and associated readings.
The modes included descriptive writing, first-person narratives, instructional essays, compare and contrast papers, argumentation, and a longer research project similar to a term paper. I hoped my students learned a good deal from writing their paper; I know I learned a lot from reading them.
George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’ Essay Offers an Example of Good Writing
For example, for the narrative section of the course, my students read George Orwell’s classic narrative essay “Shooting an Elephant.” As a young man, Orwell served in Burma (now Myanmar) as a police officer in the British Empire.
Orwell’s opening words immediately got my students’ attention: “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”
In addition to the ironic opening line, the essay reveals the author’s personal angst. He did not want to shoot the rogue elephant in front of the local residents who hated him. But Orwell was forced to kill the animal or lose face with those he was assigned to oversee. The narrative was Orwell’s way of criticizing British imperialism by describing what today would be called a no-win situation.
Many of My Students Thought It Would Be Easy to Mimic Orwell’s Writing Style
My students enjoyed reading the essay. After all, many of them knew Orwell as the author of “Animal Farm” and “1984,” two outstanding anti-fascist novels, which are still popular and relevant today.
Orwell’s straightforward narrative gave them the notion that it would be easy to emulate the famous British author. They were wrong, of course.
Many of my students tried to write a memorable essay opening like Orwell’s and could not. In fact, they often did not know how or where to begin.
Finding Inspiration for Your Academic Writing Isn’t Easy
As the American novelist Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
That applies to the opening, the body, and the conclusion of any essay or other writing.
Thanks to the computer, students can “brainstorm” ideas by simply putting down everything that comes into their head. Somewhere in that random pile of accumulated thoughts, they will find meat for their essay. If they are very lucky, they may even create a memorable, Orwellian-style beginning.
Penn and Faulkner Offer Valuable Writing Advice
Novelist and writing coach Joanna Penn advises: “It doesn’t matter if the words aren’t very good – they probably won’t be, but that’s okay because you can make them better when you edit them later.”
My students also thought the instructional assignment – explain how to do something you are familiar with – would be a piece of cake. Wrong again.
Being so familiar with their topic, they often left out important steps, like greasing the pan before baking the cake. When one student read her instructional paper in class, her classmates asked many questions about the recipe that she failed to address.
Had she asked a family member or friend to read her paper before turning it in, she could have made sure that all of the steps were included. When I asked her if she enjoyed reading cookbooks, she admitted that she hadn’t read any.
One final tip on writing from Nobel laureate William Faulkner: “Read, read, read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”