Most of the requests I get for proofreading or editing assistance come from students. Undergraduate to graduate, they're all looking for help to make their papers "sound" more professional. On the whole, these papers and essays boast effective substance and powerful messages. Sure, there are minor punctuation or grammatical issues, but by and large, those elements do not usually detract from the quality of the paper. No, what undermines the writing is the style and tone.
What do I mean? Well, in a recent essay by an honors student applying for a graduate studies program, the message focused on her intention to initiate a research project about male sexual assault victims and under-reporting. Incredibly interesting stuff! When speaking with her, not only is she knowledgeable, she also has a solid plan for how to facilitate her research. Her paper however, while very well written, "sounded" immature. Simple syntax and unvaried sentence structures. Elementary and uninteresting diction. My input had nothing to do with the substance of her paper. Rather it required little more than combining sentences and ideas, and suggesting higher-level word choices. Her feedback? "Oh my! This sounds so much more "professional!"
In my opinion, this indicates a gap in our writing education processes. We focus on the mechanics of spelling, grammar, punctuation while neglecting style and tone. We need to encourage students to consider their audience when working through the invention-research-drafting-revision-completion steps. Who are they trying to impress or convince? If they are writing for their peers, by all means, write in the vernacular of their peer groups. For their instructors? Pull back on the casual tone. Submitting a research thesis for an academic review? Those readers are not your friends and may well be looking for reasons to discount your efforts.
Students should be able to communicate effectively through their writing. This doesn't necessarily mean $100, multi-syllable words or complex sentences which would require an entire sheet of paper to diagram (remember that?). It means learning to argue without being confrontational or emotional, learning to tailor the message to the audience, expanding vocabularies, obtaining an understanding of how language works, and ongoing curiosity.
Understanding there is a gap between creative or personal writing and professional writing is fundamental to making strides as careers progress. The written word may be presented online instead of in longhand but it is still written. Emails, white papers, memorandums, procedurals, the list goes on, provide supervisors, future employers, co-workers a glimpse into how you present yourself. If your tone and style read as immature or unprofessional, chances are that is how others will perceive you.
When and if I get a classroom of my own, you can bet this is a message my students will hear clearly and often.