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Writing Styles: Focus on Function Rather than Form

Writing Styles: Focus on Function Rather than Form

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By Dr. Gary Deel
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

This is the second of two articles examining the various writing styles required of college students.

In the first part of this two-part series, I discussed how rules for writing papers are too rigidly construed and applied. In this part, I will discuss another major area where writing style prescriptions often create more frustration than they alleviate — attribution.

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The purpose of attribution is clear: to give proper credit to cited authors for their work, and also to properly cite those works so that readers can locate the sources to dive deeper into different discussed thoughts and ideas.

Teachers Undermine the Purpose of Attribution When They Focus More on Format

Yet high school and college teachers undermine this intent when they focus more on the form of the rules than on their true purpose. For example, here is a citation for a book in three different writing styles:

APA: Sagan, C. (1995). The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Random House.

MLA: Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1995. Print.

Chicago: Sagan, Carl. 1995. The demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark. New York: Random House.

Notice two things about these citations. First, all three contain some of the same basic information, including title, author, year of publication and publisher. Second, the information is in a different order and format for each style guide.

A student writing a paper using APA style would be expected to deliver APA-formatted citations. If he instead delivers MLA citations, he might well be penalized by his instructor. But if the aim of references and citations is simply to give attribution and to provide enough information so that readers can identify the source in question, then what tangible difference is there between APA and MLA here? The answer is none whatsoever.

These criticisms of writing styles are not new. In 2011, Kurt Schick, who teaches writing at James Madison University, wrote a critical article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He noted how much time we educators waste teaching the minutiae of writing styles, how pointless these nuances are and how much more we could accomplish if we focused on encouraging ideas instead of detailed format prescriptions.

We Must Recognize How Counterproductive These Formatting Efforts Are

So what can we do to correct this problem of attribution nuance? The big step comes in recognizing just how counterproductive these formatting efforts are. We need to realign our focus in course design, teaching and writing feedback to emphasize the points that truly matter.

When reading a student’s paper, we instructors should ask ourselves: Is this clear to me? Can I follow it? Does the organization and flow of the narrative make sense? If the answer is yes to all three, then whether the student’s formatting comports with APA, MLA, Chicago or none of the above is irrelevant. If it’s clear, it’s clear.

And if, while reading a student’s paper, we can follow which ideas she attributes to which sources at which parts of the narrative, her mission has been accomplished. The syntax should not matter if we can get from A to B with the information provided.

Suppose the student uses a simple footnote numbering scheme, with reference to URLs that direct readers to the websites where source information can be found. This approach might not be acceptable under any of the established writing styles, but is anything more really needed? If it does the job, why would we insist that the student’s format is unacceptable?

To be fair, we might want to see the inclusion of author and/or title information as well. But this would not be for the sake of following an arbitrary writing style rule. Rather the inclusion would help if the URL should break at some point. Then readers could still identify the source. Again, the focus is on clarity.

As an educator, it’s my opinion that we would do well to abandon the dogmatic adherence to the formal writing styles that have been embraced for generations, more for the sake of tradition than actual value.

We have only so much time with our students. There is only so much we can teach them before they move on to the next phase of their education and their lives.

Proper Attribution and Clarity in Writing Are Necessary Skills for Students to Acquire

Teaching students about the general need to organize their thoughts and ideas is objectively important to clarity in writing. Teaching them about the general need to give attribution to others when we use their work is essential to ethics in writing. Teaching students to provide adequate source information so readers can find what they’re looking for is critical to thoroughness in writing.

But none of these lessons requires entrenched adherence to unbending writing style rules. In the context of “the big picture,” 99 percent of students who learn the various writing style rules will find them utterly useless immediately after they conclude their college careers.

For the one percent of us who continue in academics and professional writing, we will maintain a working knowledge of writing style rules only insofar as they are necessary for us to do our jobs, not for some extrinsic value they might provide.

If we can recognize that the intentions behind writing styles are much more important than the formulaic prescriptions, then perhaps we as educators can begin to teach function over form in writing.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others. 

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