Writing Without Reading

I wrote this for The Peak. It was published on November 28, 2011, to much fanfare (maybe). It was edited by Kelly Thoreson, features editor. This is the original version, not edited by her (it is a little longer).

Writing Without Reading, the James Plett Way

Managing both a social life and a work life (both in Skyrim and in the “real world”) with school isn’t easy. As young scholars we try to imagine that we’re cloistered in this magnificent ivory tower on top of this god forsaken mountain, when in reality, we totally aren’t. For the first few weeks of class, it’s ok – you’re doing introductory stuff so you can afford to blow it off by not doing the readings and showing up to class late (if at all), but if you keep that up, it’ll catch up with you pretty quickly.

But you know that and that’s why, even though it’s the last week of classes and you don’t know anything about anything (putting you in the same category as MBA students), you’re sitting around reading The Peak. You’ve got a stack of unopened books sitting at home, you’ve been to just a few classes, and you have an essay due but you don’t understand one out of every three words in the assignment outline. You’re screwed. Right?

You would be if I wasn’t here. Presented for the first time ever is my quick and dirty guide to succeeding without reading everything. Follow these steps and you’re guaranteed to get an A/pass with credit.

Go To Class
Yeah, maybe this is closing the barn door after the horse has taken off and ruined your crops or something (or whatever it is horses do when they escape), but such is life. If there is one sure-fire way to succeed in class, it’s to actually go to class. Counter-intuitive, I know.

In my first year at SFU, I and my two friends would drive in from Surrey for an 8:30 class. Rather than actually go to class, two of us would ditch, sign out a laptop at the library and play SNES roms of Metroid and Killer Instinct. Needless to say, I did awful that semester and my pal dropped out. If you’re going to be on campus, go to class. And when you’re there, pay attention. Don’t sit there on Facebook like some dork (another pro-tip? Lecturers know when people are paying attention or not; expect that to be reflected, in some way, in your final grade). And if you can’t handle a morning class, one, you’re a wuss, and two, just don’t take it.

Finally, don’t download the slides and lecture later instead of going to class, that’s stupid. Just go to class.

Wikipedia
I shouldn’t need to explain this, but I do. Look on Wikipedia but whatever you do, do not quote it. Don’t  quote it directly, don’t quote it indirectly, don’t paraphrase it, don’t do any of that. There’s two really good reasons why you shouldn’t: one, it’s probably not allowed. Two, and even more important, whoever is marking your paper has gone over the Wikipedia for whatever you’re writing on, guaranteed. If they catch you plagiarising, you’re screwed. So just don’t do it.

Read a Little
Now that you’ve hit the Wikipedia, you’ll know of a few key spots that you should read. Do that. It might take an hour or two, tops. You’ll be glad you did.

Avoid Circumlocution
Circumlocution is a fancy word for beating around the bush. There is one sure-fire way to tell if someone knows what the hell they’re talking about, and that’s basically by how straightforward the argument is. If you find yourself using a lot of fancy ten-dollar words, talking in circles, and using tautology (the repetition of a statement or fact in a way that is not helpful), odds are you’re circumlocuting. If you’re circumlocuting, you’re demonstrating you don’t know what you’re talking about. And that will kill you on your paper.

Be Specific
Believe it or not, when you use concrete examples, write in a clear and concise style, and sound like you know what you’re talking about, people notice. You want to get bogged down in the small details here (unless the scope of your argument demands otherwise), because paying close attention to minute details is proof you’ve read what you’re talking about (especially when you haven’t). See, you’re never expected to know everything about everything. You should have a good understanding of the overall thing that you’re talking about, and you should have a solid understanding of a few small things contained within.

Think of it like a movie: you remember one or two scenes and the general plot, that’s about it. Writing an essay on some stupid book is pretty much the same. Vaguely allude to the plot, concretely reference a scene or two, and you’ve got it made.

If You Don’t Know What It Is, Find Out (Or Don’t Use It)
I worked as a Peer Educator in the Student Learning Commons at SFU for a year, and if I learned any one thing, it is that people use words and grammar without any care for how they’re actually supposed to be used. People put quotation marks around things just for fun, sprinkle semicolons over their papers like it’s going out of style, and use a thesaurus on every other word in order to sound smart, despite the fact that very few words in the English language mean the exact same thing as another word.

If you use it in your paper, you should know exactly what it means. Every word, every hyphen, every parenthesis, every comma, every god-damned semicolon. If  you aren’t linking closely related independent clauses with that semicolon, you’re using it wrong. If you’re using commas because that’s where you’d take a breath, one, what the hell are you thinking, and two, you’re stupid.

There are tons of resources online and in print that explain how to use semicolons, colons, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes (etcetera), how to write effectively, how to properly cite your sources, you name it. There’s no excuse for ignorance.

Hand It In On Time
You may be tempted to e-mail your professor and explain how your grandpa croaked so you need extra time to write your paper on Henry James and his love of pedantry (you don’t know what that word means so look it up). Don’t.

When you hand in your paper by the due date, your marker is reading it with every other paper. Sometimes there are only a dozen others, sometimes there are ten dozen others. If your paper is amazing, it’ll shine. If it’s mediocre, it’ll blend in.

If you hand it in a week late, your marker may only be reading that paper. So it has to stand on its own. Now, given that you’re reading an article about how to bullshit your way through your final paper, it probably won’t be able to stand on its own. Just guessing.

So the moral, here? Hand it in with every other plebe in your class.

In Conclusion
That’s it. This is all I’ve learned in my years at SFU. Some of this is obvious, very little of it is mendacious (look it up), and it’s all awesome.

Final tip?  Never end a paper with anything like “in conclusion”. If it’s the end of your paper, why do you need to tell the reader that? Obviously it’s “in conclusion”. It’s like writing “The End” at the end of a movie: obviously it’s the fucking end, the credits are rolling.

addendum:

I will be honest — this article isn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Things just didn’t click right, I guess. I like it fine enough though. Some of this is practical advise that I’ve used and is helpful — as I point out, very little of it is tending towards mendacity and/or cheating, which is great. There are obviously ways to “cheat” in university that I don’t mention here. A lot of this article is about stuff that’s very important to me, most notably good grammar and punctuation use.

I’ll admit that I make mistakes too. I misuse commas and semicolons and misspell words and all sorts of general writing no-nos. It happens. But I still hate it. Working as a tutor at SFU was one of the best things I’ve done, but also one of the most frustrating. People would approach me with horribly written papers and it was my job to sort through their mess. Often it would be an EAL (English as an Additional Language) student asking that I “edit” their paper even after I tell them that we don’t do that. Our mission was to help students help themselves, not to edit their papers, but that’s what they expected of us.

So I’m a little touchy when it comes to grammar. If you’re handing in an essay or whatever as a professional, polished piece of work and it’s riddled with apostrophe, comma, and semicolon errors and filled with typos, you’re a jerk and I hate you. Also — oxford comma 4 lyfe.

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