Getting an A on an English Paper
Rutgers University – Newark
Part of good writing comes from developing a mature and confident
critical voice, and that comes only with time.
It's not surprising that freshmen, even those who did well in
high school English, often need time: time to learn what a
college-level English paper should do, time to eliminate all the
little mechanical errors, and
especially time to develop a clear and sophisticated tone.
Once again, there are no shortcuts. You can, however, get better
more quickly if you supplement a lot of writing with a lot of
reading. Read the best stylists whenever you can. Alexander
Pope gave similar advice to critics almost three centuries
You then whose Judgment the right Course wou'd steer,
Know well each ANCIENT's proper Character,
His Fable, Subject, Scope in ev'ry Page,
Religion, Country, Genius of his Age:
Without all these at once before your Eyes,
Cavil you may, but never Criticize.
Be Homer's Works your Study, and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night,
Thence form your Judgment, thence your Maxims bring,
And trace the Muses upward to their Spring.
In other words, before you can write good criticism, you have to
absorb the styles of the best writers. Pope recommends Homer and
Virgil: they're fine, but I suspect you have small Latin and less
Greek. I'll recommend some personal favorites who had the decency
to write in English, and who can, I think, improve a writer's
- George Orwell. Almost everything he wrote can serve as a
model of clarity, but his famous essay, “Politics and the English
Language,” is the best thing ever written on prose style.
- Paul Fussell. His Great War and Modern Memory is one
of the best books of scholarship ever written — and oh, how
- Vladimir Nabokov. Both his novels and his autobiography,
Speak, Memory, show what you can produce with a complete
command of the language and a playful intellect.
- Calvin Trillin. A smartass humorist — not exactly a
model of academic prose, but witty as all get-out, and with a
gift for choosing exactly the right word.
For counterexamples, check out the winners of the annual Bad Writing
, which awards a booby prize every year to the
worst published academic writing they can find.
to Grammar and Style
includes a lot of notes on developing an
effective style. Read the whole thing, but especially Audience
from Jack Lynch's guide,
Getting an A on an English