Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Nitpicker's Revenge: Presentation Matters

When Margaret Hundley Parker teaches writing at the college level, she finds that the papers submitted by students often fall prey to the most basic errors of presentation. Here she reveals five persistent formatting flaws in student papers and explains how to fix them.

I kick it old school. Or maybe I'm just a dinosaur on her way to extinction, but I like students to turn in actual papers. I collect even the early versions because I know that one draft dashed off in an all-nighter fueled by Mountain Dew and popcorn is likely to be riddled with errors. Jack Kerouac may have written On the Road on one long thin scroll, but woe is the college writing student who turns in a final revision that way. It's like coming to class in pajamas (yes, they've done that, too). Good content can get lost in bad presentation. That's why I'm a stickler for formatting.

Even if a paper is submitted online, presentation matters.  It's all part of the education, like learning to ditch the fuzzy slippers before school. At the end of a semester, after practically tattooing style rules on students' forearms, I still get papers with erratic spacing, no headings or titles, and inappropriate fonts and colors. Of course if the paper is a train wreck, good formatting can't save it, but below is a plea to writing students, with five of the easiest formatting flaws to fix, using the go-to style for English papers, MLA.

Rule #1: No Freestyle Formatting

Yes, I know, there are printer problems and whatnot, which is why you should not print out your paper five minutes before class. Check for consistency. If the formatting jumps all over the place, chances are the ideas do, too. Block paragraphs are taking over the world, thanks to more online writing, but for college papers, I prefer indented. (The exception is to indent block paragraphs for quotes more than four lines long, of course, but I'm not getting into citations here.) When some paragraphs are indented and others are block, or when paragraphs are spaced erratically for no reason, I have a hunch that I'm about to spend more time grading a paper than a student spent writing it. Not good.

Rule #2: Don't Space Out

Notice the white space on the paper, and give your essays room to breathe.  A one-inch margin around all four sides is standard. Otherwise you're cheating the page count and it just plain looks weird. Also, I need room to chat with you in the margins. Especially in early drafts, I like room to decorate your paper with IRREG, FRAG or WHAT THE HECK. And always double space for the same reason.

Rule #3: No Headless Headings

Strange things happen inside teachers' book bags, so please include headings with your name and page number. Sometimes there's no name anywhere. It's a stretch, but forgetting to put a name on a paper seems to represent something — an assumption that the reader knows you and what you're talking about, which is a problem with the writing, too. Of course, many times it's just an oversight but I don't like taking the time to figure out who wrote what.  Even if submitting a paper online, your name should be on it. If you staple the pages together as you should, include page numbers anyway. It's handy for grading and for reference.

Rule #4: Trounce Tiresome Titles

Center the title of your paper and don't underline it. Create a title that means something, that gives the reader some insight into what's coming. Please move beyond "This Is My Final Revision." The title is part of the paper. Many students, when reminded they need to add a title, write something like "Paper on Edwidge Danticat's Krik Krak" or even "Research Paper on Poe." Both are a bit too vague for a 2-3 page paper. A too-vague title usually introduces a scattered essay. Instead, be specific with something like "Voodoo Symbols in Danticat's '1937'" or "Colors in Poe's 'Masque of the Red Death.'"

Capitalization rules are slightly ornate: in a nutshell, words in titles should be capitalized, except articles, prepositions, and conjunctions.  I understand when students get the capitalization wrong in titles, but I'm surprised when college students capitalize seemingly random Words. The russian Dancer pranced on the planet Earth. It leads me to a discussion about common versus proper nouns, which is met with heavy sighs.

Rule #5: Free the FUNKY FONTS

I admit, in an early class for my MFA in Writing, I thought that it would be COOL to use FUNKY and Crazy Fonts for a story. It wasn't. Use the 12-point size of a font such as Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. Use serif fonts — the little curls at the top and bottom of the letters lead the eye down the page. I've had design students get carried away with Helvetica. Not good for longer papers. Also, no pink ink please.

There are more, oh so many more formatting ills to cure, but these five are easy to fix. So students, your prose may soar like Kerouac's, but keep your presentation precise.

Margaret Hundley Parker's work has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, Oxygen.com, Bust and performed at the North Carolina Literary Festival, CBGBs, and the 24-Hour Plays, to name a few. She has been an editor at FIT magazine and Road & Travel. Her book, the KISS Guide to Fitness, was published in 2002 by Dorling Kindersley. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, and through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

Margaret takes a common-sense approach to teach rules of grammar.
It's Only Rock and Roll
Don't learn grammar from rock stars, Margaret advises.
The Pronoun Problem
Margaret tackles the lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun.