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Writing Acceptable English:
A Century of Re-gress

Written by: William Harris Prof. Em. Middlebury College

For the New Century:

It is time to go back to the rigorous days of the last generation of high school and college teachers , the "Wielders of the Red Pencil" and the eagle-eyed searchers for micro- discrepant detail. We can now do it much more effectively than they did, with the aid of our new computer technology. I have several suggestions:

First, require a 3 page paper each week, due Friday with no excuses about a grandmother's recurrent death. This is submitted in electronic format, inserted in a folder which contains that week's writing from the class. Unless there is an objection, all students should be able to see each others writing, especially in the corrected versions. Isn't learning from your peers part of the American system of education?

Second, the teacher pulls up the student's paper on screen, and start to edit. I have used the following system and find it easy and effective with standard KB keystrokes:

a) For a word misspelled or wrongly used in the context, highlight it and make it bold.

b) For bad grammar, in any of its infinite varieties, make it underlined .

c) For something which is stylistically inept or just plain unclear without being technically wrong, use the italics

d)Then draw a line across the page ---------------------- below which you can write a note about the corrections, and ideas about improving style, suggests of all sorts. I think that a computer "mini e-mail" of this sort is more personal than a penciled word or two of advice, since it can be easily expanded if there is something pertinent to be said.

e)But then the student must correct the paper and turn it in as a new copy, which is so easy to do electronically that there is no excuse at all for ignoring this stage. If the corrections are minor and local, the page can be corrected on screen just as it stands by deleting and substituting. But if there are more corrections, it would be a good practice to Copy/Paste the corrected paper down to a place right below the original, and then go about the corrections and improvements on a new copy. When that copy is brought up the best that the student thinks possible, it can be highlighted entirely and reformatted to BOLD, as a way of signaling that the correction is done and this is the new copy for the teacher to read. For the teacher this is not only a sign for Work Done, but also easier to read in the bold font.


We have been complaining and recently whining about the deplorable state of our students' writing abilities. Enough if this! We haven't been making much headway with our complaints. But there is something very valuable in the American character which can be summed up in the words : NEVER GIVE UP!

We have been through fires, earthquakes, Depressions and more Wars than we like to recount, but we have never lost sight of the idea of things getting fixed. Improvement is part of what we are about nationally, we have been successful in almost every area we have committed ourselves to, and I am sure the "Crisis of Writing" is the next item on the firing-line. Something has to be done, and the people who have to get it done are you teachers who are reading this paper on your computer screen. There are three components involved here, all within your power:

1) Get rigorous with student writing assignments, get the students to flow out several pages a week, without fail.

2) Get rigorous with your electronic substitute for the red pencil. You can now do that work in a quarter of the time it used to take, no more long Sunday afternoons and evenings with piles of paper to be carried back and forth. If you and your students don't have computers available and network connections, go out and get them. The schools do have money if you talk out and make your needs clear.

3) Set a standard for each student in terms of what you believe that student's ultimate capacity is. Press on hard for excellence, for the kind of writing which will later make the student a desirable employee, a literate and coherent scientist, and perhaps even a teacher like yourself sitting before a computer handing on to the next generation the lessons which your students are now learning from you.

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