CGU Professors' Responses to Student Writing

compiled by Writing Center Staff

These responses were collected from a series of Talking about Writing workshops and faculty interviews in which professors were asked what they look for in student papers and what common problems they find. 


What professors look for:

  A Clear, Strong, Focused Thesis

Common Problems:

  • No point, no clear purpose
  • "It takes too long to figure out the writer's purpose."
  • Topic too broad
  • Unclear, undefined terms


  • "Be direct." Get to the point early.
  • Economics professor: "Have clarity and conviction. If you know what you want to say, you can say it forcefully in your writing; if not, then no amount of effort devoted to the writing can make it communicate something other than your own confusion."
  • Management professor's criteria for judging a paper: clear, strong position, comprehensiveness of the literature search and quality of the analysis


Substance: Originality and Depth of Analysis

Common Problems: 

  • Lack of originality
  • Too much description (summary); too little analysis.
  • English professor: overquoting or relying too heavily on what critics say and on plot summaries instead of original analysis.
  • Unsupported assertions 


  • "Have the courage to put yourself on the line."
  • "Don't hide your voice in other people's words."
  • Politics and Policy professor: "It's important to introduce the chorus of others' voices, but it's critical to introduce your own voice, even if it's just a note. Voice comes through in how you select priorities, synthesize, and hone your style as well as through direct assertions. Have an original way of seeing and saying something." 


Definition:  The logical ordering of the arguments with a clear and connected sense of direction 

Common Problems: 

  • Poor organization, illogical argument, disjointedness
  • The "information dump" paper
  • Students turn in as final papers first drafts that are unorganized masses of researched material.
  • Weak connections
  • "No transitions, so I don't know where the paper's going." 


  • Religion/Archaeology professor's suggestions: Get at the problem right away.  Relate it to the larger field.  Give the methodology you will use.  State your conclusion so that it advances knowledge in the field. 


Common Problems: 

  • Everything is too long!
  • A Psychology professor's complaint: "Lots of extra words or sentences that repeat ideas without adding useful information."
  • The paper's too long for the assignment.
  • Sentences are too long and hard to read.
  • Phrases are too wordy.
  • "Unreadable academese" and "overblown rhetoric." 


  • Some professors prefer a rich vocabulary; subtle, complex sentences; and lengthy paragraphs.
  • Others ask for "short, straightforward, simple, decisive sentences" with common words in concise paragraphs. These divisions are not necessarily based on academic discipline, though there are more humanities professors in the first category and more Management and Information Science professors in the second. Both types, however, agree on the need for a clear, succinct, precise style.
  • Write with active sentences, avoiding passive verbs unless necessary. "They are distancing and more complicated to read."
  • Choose precise words.
  • Be concise: "Short and sweet."
  • Politics and Policy professor: "Get rid of all the adverbs."
  • "Minimize jargon," say the psychologists. Some professors hate jargon; others say it's okay if correctly used, with the audience in mind. 

Acceptable Grammar

"Acceptable" means that it does not impede comprehension or distract the reader. Some professors are more bothered than others by grammatical or mechanical errors. 

Common Problems (These are the ones professors specifically mentioned in order of frequency):

  • sentence errors (run-ons, fragments, comma splices)
  • spelling: "It bugs me when folks fail to run a spelling checker."
  • subject-verb agreement errors
  • wrong words: affect-effect; criterion-criteria; datum-data; less-fewer
  • tense and point-of-view or number shifts
  • paragraphing: "Not starting a new point with a new paragraph but rambling on in one long paragraph."
  • capitalization errors
  • poor vocabulary
  • lack of parallelism
  • awkward constructions
  • dangling modifiers and mixed metaphors (from an English professor) 


Appropriate Documentation 

Common Problems: 

  • Inadequate documentation (plagiarism)
  • Inconsistent form 
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