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Teaching Writing Should Emphasize Clarity over Style Rules

By Dr. Gary Deel
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

This is the first of two articles examining the various writing styles required of college students.

Imagine if tomorrow all law enforcement officers began pulling over and ticketing drivers for driving over the speed limit, no matter how slightly. Driving 46 mph in a 45 mph zone? Ticket!

Start a degree program at American Public University.

If you’re like most drivers, you’d probably find this idea unfair and unreasonable. But why? Technically, the posted speeds are the legal limits. Any speed above that limit, no matter how slight, is a traffic violation. There’s no debate about it. Yet the vast majority of us routinely break the law by driving over the speed limit.

Why do we do that? Generally, it’s because we like to get where we’re going as quickly as possible. Also, we know that most police forgive driving slightly over posted speed limits. Why do the police do that? For the most part, it’s an acknowledgement of the purpose of speed limits – to encourage drivers to drive safely.

Police Regularly Allow for a Little Variability in Deciding Whether to Ticket a Speeder

If drivers who drove 46 mph in a 45 mph zone regularly ended up in hellacious accidents, police would likely ticket without any leniency. But this kind of thing doesn’t happen often, absent other circumstances (e.g. weather, intoxication, etc.). So police officers regularly allow for a little variability in how they judge speeding. The exact amount varies from officer to officer and road to road. In any event, the key is that is an indispensable factor in determining when to ticket someone.

Why am I sharing this perspective on speed limit laws and flexibility? Because it’s a helpful analogy to the topic of writing style rules.

High school and college students everywhere are being forced to navigate tedious writing style rules. Many of today’s teachers are behaving like cops who enforce speed limits to the letter of the law and without regard for the larger context.

Each year, teachers spend countless hours struggling to educate their students on the writing style their classwork requires: APA, MLA and Chicago, among others. Each style has its own thick handbook of printed rules and regulations on the proper style for writing papers. And each one is different.

Writing Styles Are Designed to Provide Consistent Standards for the Sake of Clarity

Writing styles are designed to provide consistent standards for the sake of clarity for readers. Clarity is the focus. Clarity is the key. Yet the amount of time we commit to teaching students these styles and pointing out their mistakes suggests that we are far more concerned with strict adherence to the rules than we are with clarity of thought.

When grading formal research papers, it is not uncommon for college instructors to deduct points for writing style errors; the student’s work does not conform to the rules of whatever writing style is required for the course. But little — if any — thought is given to whether the writing is nonetheless clear to the reader.

If the student challenges the teacher, the response tends to be “those are the rules,” without any consideration of whether the student has otherwise achieved the objectives of such rules.

There Is More than One Legitimate, Recognized Writing Style

The fact that there is more than one legitimate, recognized writing style proves that there is more than one legitimate and recognized way of writing clearly. But academicians tend to get so stuck on “the rules” that they never stop to question whether the rules actually serve their purported purpose.

The nuances of the various writing styles are detailed and tedious, but they are generally designed to meet two key components. The first component is to provide a structure for the paper. This component sets forth the rules about the basic organization of information within the paper: title page, abstracts, tables of contents, spacing, margins, headings and text formatting, among others.

For example, suppose a student submits a paper with a date on the title page. APA style does not call for a date, but MLA does. Unfortunately for that student, his class uses the APA style. So the student is unambiguously in violation of an APA rule.

Yet ask yourself: What tangible difference does this slight deviation from the rules make to the clarity or readability of the paper? Precisely zero. It is in fact a distinction without a material difference.

Again, the fact that there is disagreement between widely accepted styles is evidence of their limited usefulness. Surely there is more than one way to create a clear and effective title page.

Even Rules on Which There Is Fairly Strong Consensus Have Their Limitations

But even rules on which there is fairly strong consensus have their limitations. Consider that APA, MLA and Chicago styles all require margins of one inch on all four sides. But what if (gasp) a student set the margins of her paper at 0.75 inches? Or 1.25 inches? That would make her paper impossible to follow and read, right? Of course not! This rule, like most, is intended to encourage a general format for professional papers. It does not purport to set an orthodox standard that admits no exceptions.

The second component that writing styles generally cover is the organization and formatting of references and in-text citations for sources used. The goal is to provide clear attribution of sources that readers can recognize and locate if need be.

We will discuss these rules, and how their rigidness has led to immense frustration for both students and instructors in the second part of this article.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes at American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies.

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