The Importance of Manuscript Form

by Tina Blue
May 22, 2002

          In 1989, when my daughter was in third grade, she wrote a homework assignment in a spiral notebook and then ripped the page out to hand in the next day. 

          Her teacher quite properly reprimanded her and refused to accept the assignment.  Thus, at the tender age of eight, Becky learned what many of my college students these days seem unable to learn: all work should be submitted in proper form.

          Each semester I give my students an introductory handout, explaining such things as attendance and grading policies, required texts, etc. Included on that handout is a set of simple, precise instructions detailing proper manuscript form for my course.

          Just in case anyone loses his introductory handout (and about ¼ of the students in every class will lose it), I also have all that information, plus all other course materials, posted on two different sites on the Web: on Blackboard, where many instructors post their courses, and on a special Geocities site that I have set up for my courses.

          In other words, my directions for manuscript form are readily available, 24/7, for all of my students--even those who cannot keep track of essential course handouts.

          This link will take you to the page that has my rules for essay form:

          Now, except for the fact that I require extra-wide margins, since I write copious comments and corrections to help them revise their work before they get a grade on it, these requirements are pretty much standard. All of my students should have learned most of them before they ever got out of junior high. 

          No college student should be handing in essays written in pencil (or pink, green, or orange ink!), ripped out of spiral notebooks, written on both sides of the page, written all the way to the right edge of the page without regard for margins, or lacking such essential information as the course number, the assignment number, or the student's name.

          Furthermore, if the student writes on regular notebook paper, then it is standard procedure to skip lines, just as one double-spaces when typing.  Not only does that make it easier for the instructor to read the essay, it also allows room for comments and corrections.  And just as one would not type a paper on both sides, one is not supposed to write on both sides of the page.

          But even though I remind my students repeatedly that they must follow these guidelines (and of where to find them), and though I spend several minutes in class the period before the paper is due emphasizing how important manuscript form is, and though I ask them to double-check their papers for form at the beginning of the period when they are handed in, a significant number of students still hand in improperly prepared work.

          When they write an in-class essay, I hand out copies of the instructions for proper form, so they can have a checklist right there, even if they have lost their handout, but also so that they will understand that I consider proper form to be important

          Yet I will inevitably get several papers written in pencil or weird-colored ink, on both sides of the page, without margins, without double-spacing, and ripped out of spiral notebooks!

          Do you think I am too picky?  Probably a lot of my students think so.  But I don't think so.

          Quite apart from the fact that improper manuscript form greatly complicates the already onerous task of handling, marking, and sorting several hundred papers, and recording grades for them every semester, there is also the fact that one of the most important things a student should take from his education is a sense that he must do things properly, according to whatever rules pertain to the situation at hand.

          Most of the actual subject matter of their courses will fall out of their heads soon after they leave school--and in most cases much sooner than that.  But they should also be learning habits of mind and behavior that will enable them to adapt to the requirements of whatever job they end up in after school.

          Employers don't want excuses.  They want performance.  And they expect their employees to work according to specified standards.  The same student who turns in sloppy, improperly formatted essays is likely to turn in reports or other projects that do not meet his employer's standards.  At some point these kids have got to grow up and do things the way they are supposed to be done.  At some point they will have to accept that the rules that everyone else is required to follow are not just suggestions for them to consider or ignore, depending on how they feel.

          Of course, part of the problem is that most students don't take most of their classes all that seriously.  They've always gotten away with ignoring the rules, so it comes as a great shock to them when they encounter a teacher who actually
them for not following instructions.  And of all the classes students don't take seriously, English has got to be the worst.

          A year ago, after I had spent a fair amount of time in one "Introduction to Poetry" section harping on how appalled I was that so many students were either unable or unwilling to follow simple formatting and style instructions, an architecture major came down to my office to discuss the C- he had gotten on his first essay. He told me he had never gotten such a low grade before.

          I pointed out that he had violated every single style, structure, and formatting rule on the checklist, and I told him that in addition to all those errors, his paper also violated all the rhetorical conventions of the type of essay we were writing in that class.  The C- was actually a very generous grade.  I was going easy on them because it was their first essay for my class.

          He was shocked that his grade had been lowered for such things.

          I asked him, "If you were to turn in a chatty, self-referential biology lab report, one that ignored all the structural and stylistic conventions that govern lab reports, what sort of grade would you get?"

          He admitted that he would get an F.

          "Well," I pointed out, "different kinds of papers have to adhere to different rhetorical conventions.  This paper was not supposed to be about you.  It was not a personal essay assignment, but a formal critical analysis of a work of literature.  So besides not formatting the paper properly, you wrote the wrong kind of paper, even though I provided sample essays and warned in class against precisely the sort of paper you wrote."

          The young man admitted that I had in fact provided very clear instructions, but he didn't think that I would lower his grade if he just wrote how he felt about the poem, since that's what he had always been allowed to do in English classes.  And, he said, no other English teacher had ever lowered his grade just for not following formatting instructions.

          Well, I blame wishy-washy English teachers for their willingness to accept any sort of blather in any sort of form, and give it an A or a B.  But I don't think it's just in English classes that we have this problem.  I hear plenty of complaints from teachers in other subjects about students' refusal (or inability) to follow the simplest standards of form and style.

          For example, recently I was looking over about a dozen long research papers for a 600-level bibliography and methods course in the history department.  Understand, these are advanced history students--seniors, and graduate students--most of whom intend to become professionals in the field.  Every academic discipline has a style sheet that it  follows for formatting footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographical citations.  In languages and literature we follow the MLA Style Sheet (MLA stands for Modern Language Association).  Some other disciplines also use the MLA Style Sheet, but many follow different style sheets.  Historians are among those that do not use the MLA Style Sheet.

          Most rhetoric texts provide at least two or three different style sheets, and most students still have a rhetoric text left over from their freshman composition courses.  But even if a student does not have such a text, a large part of the purpose
of a bibliography and methods course is to teach the students how references are to be cited in their academic field.  They are provided with explicit instructions and models for citing different kinds of sources.  And a significant part of their grade will be determined by how carefully they cite their sources.

          I could not believe what I saw in these research papers.  Not one student followed any recognizable model for notes or bibliography!  They promiscuously mixed note and bibliography styles, and did virtually nothing right in either form.

          For example, both notes and bibliography entries are supposed to end with a period.  These students seemed quite oblivious to that fact. 

          Footnotes and endnotes are supposed to follow natural order for names (John Smith), but bibliographical entries are supposed to use reversed order (Smith, John).  In most papers, the two forms were mixed without regard to whether the entry was a note or a bibliographical citation.  What's more, the students were not even consistent in their errors. One entry would be done one way, a second entry another, and subsequent entries in a wide variety of other ways.

          Page numbers are not supposed to be preceded by p. or
  Not only did every one of the students use p. or pp., but every time they did so, they used the wrong one, apparently not understanding that p. is the singular and pp. the  plural form.  An entry like Ibid. must be italicized and capitalized, and as an abbreviation, it ends with a period.  Most of the students came up with entirely idiosyncratic forms: IBID, IBID., IBID,
, ibid, ibid, ibid., ibid, Ibid, etc.  I did not find a single correct Ibid. Not one.

          Obviously, despite the professor's insistence that they format their notes and bibliography entries properly, these students either could not or would not do so.  Either they could not wrap their minds around the notion that such things matter, so they didn't even bother to check their citations against the style sheet provided, or they simply do not know how to follow a model to format something correctly.

          Whether the problem is carelessness or incompetence, it is most certainly a problem!  The fact that so many college
students don't follow explicit instructions for preparing their formal academic assignments should be a matter of concern.  Either they are not educable, which of course I prefer not to believe, or they are so lazy, spoiled and self-centered that they don't feel obliged to follow any rules.  That is also troubling, because a large part of functioning as an adult consists of doing what you are supposed to do, the way you are supposed to do it.

          This problem starts early, because these kids are being allowed to get away with ignoring details and rules in most of their classes, so they are not developing the mental attitude that attends to details or that takes rules of form seriously. 

          But details and rules of form do matter, and when they get out into the real world, their inability to do things right and to follow directions will come back to haunt them.

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