Style and Mechanics
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation have only trivial importance insofar as they represent standards of language that are arguably motivated politically and economically. However, accepted standards of such mechanical details represent expectations of the widest range of the community of people worldwide that read English. Choosing to disregard or violate these conventions can oftentimes distort or block communication such that writers either communicate unintended ideas, or even ideas contradictory to their intents.
An important element of style in writing concerns variety of phrasing and word choice. While clarity in writing is of greater value than variety, it is still important to provide an interesting discussion to readers. Sophisticated writers have learned to make themselves clear without undue repetition that bores readers. Good writing needs to maintain a balance of simplicity and elegance that produces ultimate clarity without loss of interest or variety.
Obviously, mechanical and stylistic errors that lead to miscommunication must be regarded as more important than those that are merely distracting, but all such mistakes affect readers of academic work adversely. The main categories of such style and mechanics issues (from greatest to least importance) are as follows: communication, grammar, spelling and punctuation, the writing checklist, variety of sentence structure, and variety of word choice.
Well written communication provides confidence in readers that they have understood exactly what writers intended to say to them. To the extent that readers are unsure of the intentions of writers, the writing is not as good. When readers cannot make sense of what writers intend to say, the communication fails. In situations of such failure to communicate, there are usually other criteria discussed above that have also received less than excellent marks, but occasionally work that is stellar regarding most of the above criteria will stumble a great deal in this area. Occasionally, this will be in situations where students speak and write English not as their native language; at other times, students may have formed bad habits of disregard for standards of style and mechanics in previous educational settings, or they may even be untaught in these areas.
Mechanics (grammar, spelling, and punctuation)
There are accepted standards for Canadian academic writing, with a range of acceptable variations within these standards. Good writers take time to find out and follow such standards because they want their writing to communicate well and be as free from distracting readers as possible. Often poor writing is characterized by casual (or in some cases, almost defiant) disregard for many of these standards for writing.
Most people who evaluate writing came through educational systems where it was unthinkable to consider writing without having a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a handbook of English academic writing on the desk with them. In the present day, much of this reference material is online, and students do not need to keep hard copies of such reference material on their writing tables (if they even own them!). However, students seem to be unwilling to take the time to consult these references, even though they are readily available online. It is as if students think that they no long need such helps, that their work should be evaluated based solely on the ideas and as if there were no relation between idea and expression. Experienced and successful writers know that high quality thinking is always intimately connected with the hard work of editing to bring their writing into conformity with accepted standards.
Variety (of sentence structure and complexity)
One mark of excellent writers is that they provide variety in the way they communicate to readers. Less experienced writers often fall into traps of repetition and set patterns; the run-on sentence (and...and...and...) is a common example of this. They have their favourite ways of expressing ideas and they use them in ways readers notice (and quickly find distracting). Unacceptable work often displays little or no variety of structure or complexity to provide interest to readers.
A major consideration of lesser quality writing is the saving of time in the task. More experienced writers know that writing takes time, hard work, and patient editing if excellence is to be the final product. Less experienced writers believe their work is excellent without editing, and take no time or effort to think whether there may be other, better ways to communicate what they have to say.
Vocabulary (variety of word choice)
English has a rich vocabulary, with many close synonyms that allow many choices for terms used in discourse. The best writers are concerned to vary the words used in communication, believing that such variety communicates subtlety and nuance, enriching readers in their consideration of topics discussed. Less experienced writers are merely concerned to get their assignment done quickly and with as little effort as possible, while writers of even less quality have no control of such vocabulary. The poorest writers often believe that there are simply no other words to use than what they have chosen.
While factors of style and mechanics are not as important as the other criteria used to evaluate essays, they are still an important consideration in the overall evaluation for two main reasons. First, if an essay were excellent according to all the other criteria, but were significantly irregular and repetitive in regard to style and mechanics, the overall effect would be considerable enough to move an essay out of the category of excellent work. Secondly, inattention to proper standards of style and mechanics tend to go along with inadequacies in other areas. For this reason, style and mechanics evaluations have tended to give students some smaller things to work on in addition to bigger considerations.
Sometimes students are only given big items to work on. They may receive a comment like “paragraphs chaotic,” “inadequate personal contribution to the discussion,” or the like. Students may be unsure exactly what to do to correct such flaws in their work. If, however, the student receives some comments like “spelling is flawed,” “unclear sentence,” or “don’t use secondary sources,” they have some small things to work on that may bring some of the larger items more into focus as they work at correcting these mistakes. Making sentences clear may help students to see where their thinking, and not just their sentences, were fuzzy and incomplete.
All course instructors have the prerogative to set particular standards for writing in their courses. Some professors choose not to establish such standards, and this can leave students unsure of the situation. In the author’s courses, he has found several features of inconsistency to be distracting as he reads essays. As a result, he provides a writing checklist of the major common flaws found in written work. It is assumed that students will have consulted this checklist and will have made every possible effort for their work to conform to these expectations. A completed checklist is expected to accompany the essays turned in for the author to grade, and it is reviewed in detail as part of the evaluation of essays students turn in.
Excellent writers always check to see what standards they can find for writing assignments beyond the general requirements of such references as dictionaries and language handbooks. Adequate writers require their own writing to be consistent with regard to any such standards, but may not take sufficient time to make sure their work conforms in every detail to established standards. Inadequate writers pay attention neither to the checklist nor to writing consistency and may even appear deliberate in their non-adherence to the checklist.