Feedback on writing exercises
I have made brief individual comments on work handed in, but please also read the notes below.
General comments relating to more than one exercise:
- In my feedback on your work, I've sometimes used an underline
(generally a wiggly underline) to indicate text which I find not fully
fluent or otherwise problematic. If I give alternatives to
the underlined text, these are only suggestions. If I combine the
underline with one or more question marks, I didn't understand what
- If you claim that a writer has made an error, you should say what
that error is (just as you would with any other sort of exercise).
For instance, say `the main verb is missing'.
- Be aware of dialect differences. There are a number of fairly
subtle differences between British and American English, for instance.
- One thing I mentioned in the lectures, but perhaps did not
emphasize strongly enough, is that you should not use `he/him' (or
other gendered pronoun) to refer to a generic individual. For example, avoid
sentences like `If the reader checks carefully, he will see an error.'
It is unacceptable in most academic writing. You may have been taught
that the male pronoun refers equally to males and females in such
contexts, but that is not consistent with modern English usage.
Generally, it's best to rewrite to avoid a pronoun altogether. It is
grammatical to use `they' with singular reference in English, but some
people insist this is incorrect, so it's better to avoid that (unless
you like having these sorts of arguments).
- Make sure you get `it's' and `its' right! This is a particularly
stupid aspect of English spelling, but it's the sort of thing that
some people get really upset about. Luckily, it's really easy to
check this when you proofread something. If you can say `it is', then
you can use `it's'. If you can't, it's `its'.
- Related to the above, some editors and referees
very much dislike the use of
contractions, such as `it's' and `can't', in academic writing.
Inexperienced writers sometimes use contractions
in the middle of a formal piece of text, which reads badly.
It may be better to avoid them until
you're a confident writer of academic text.
Feedback on Exercise 2
This was generally done very well. Some very good points were raised,
including several which I hadn't thought of myself, but completely agreed with.
Part of the point of this exercise was to get you to think about the
readership of a piece of writing. In this particular case, the
objective of the writing was unclear, which is one of the reasons for
the problems with the text. In fact, different people had different
theories about who the web page was intended for and this led to
different suggestions for changes. Any real rewrite would have to be done
after clarifying the objectives with whoever is responsible for the page.
My own minimal edit is given below. For the exercise, it was
reasonable to do more than this, but there are various
possible alternatives, depending on what you see as
the precise point of the text.
Welcome to the Cambridge School of Technology.
The term 'School' in Cambridge usually indicates an administrative
grouping of related departments. The School of Technology is one of
six Schools, each of which has an elected supervisory body, the
Council of the School, comprising representatives of the constituent
faculties and departments. The Council acts as a co-ordinating
organisation for its group of departments and is an intermediary
to the central University bodies for academic administration.
The mission of the School of Technology is to provide a focus and
framework for its constituent departments to formulate and express
views related to technology, both inside and outside the University.
Technology is recognised as having its own priorities and its own
criteria for success. The technology departments recognise a duty to
influence and be influenced by society at large and to work towards
the creation of wealth and an improved quality of life. Institutions
within the School are: the Department of Chemical Engineering and
Biotechnology, the Computer Laboratory, the Department of Engineering,
the Judge Business School and the Cambridge Institute for
I would additionally point out the following:
The following comments relate to specific points about the language used:
- The welcome line does not really fit in style with the rest of the piece.
- The material at the beginning is (probably)
irrelevant to most likely readers.
webpages like this are an example of a genre where quick skimming is the norm,
so one has to be especially careful about the beginning of the text.
- The institutions making up the School should (probably)
be listed first (with hyperlinks).
- The mission statement should be rewritten if at all possible (see comment below).
- Several people said that `co-ordinating' was misspelled, but it's
perfectly acceptable, at least in British English, and is actually preferred
over the variant without the hyphen by the Plain English campaign.
- `within and without' is used in a rather unusual way in the text:
it's a use of `without' which is perfectly normal in
Sottish English and is accepted by some other British English speakers.
It is reasonable to suggest it should be changed, but `within and outside'
is not a very good reformulation - `inside and outside' would be better.
- The particular use of `School' in the text requires a capital.
- `University', when used (as in this text), to stand for `The University
of Cambridge', should also be capitalized.
- `and filters much academic business' is not well-written, but is not
ungrammatical (at least in my dialect).
- Several people used a first person plural pronoun (`our', `we')
in the middle of their text. While this is perfectly acceptable,
and could well be a good thing to do to show engagement,
it is stylistically marked (`marked' in this context
means something like notable or even slightly unexpected)
in the middle of some rather formal text,
so it would be worth commenting on explicitly.
- Many people, quite rightly, complained about the overlong
(and otherwise problematic)
sentence regarding the School's mission and rewrote it. However,
one has to know the status
of statements like this before simply rewriting them, since
it could be some piece of text agreed by a committee. (For what it's worth,
I don't think it is the current `official' mission statement of the School.)
- Several people added statements about the purpose of the School.
This was a good idea in principle, but the problem is the same as for the mission statements - i.e., this is the sort of thing that has to be officially agreed.
Comments on other exercises to follow