Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Finals Week Hint: The Power of Formatting

It's finals week, so we're giving practical hints on how to write well under looming deadlines this week. Today's hint: Format your paper in a boringly standard way.

This is a purely practical suggestion, and we will admit here that it has nothing to do with the content of your paper. But hear us out on this. Let's do a thought experiment.

Imagine two papers with exactly the same content. Same name at the top, same intros, same body, same conclusions--exactly the same. Now: imagine that for the font of what we will call Paper A, I choose Times New Roman, 12 point. Times New Roman 12 point font is pretty much the standard font used at American universities, probably because it's the default font on Microsoft Word. (It's probably the default font on Word because it's very readable, though, so that's as good a reason as any to use it.) So let's say that's the font on Paper A. Let's also say I use one-inch margines on left and right and top and bottom, which is also fairly standard. Let's say I have page numbers at the top right. My name is at the top of page 1, and so is my teacher's name (spelled correctly!) and the date. I have a title centered above my first paragraph. I indent each new paragraph. All of these formatting decisions are just the standard way this stuff is usually done.

Now imagine what we will call Paper B. Remember: it has exactly the same sentences as paper A. But let's say that I choose a cursive handwriting kind of deal for my font. Or maybe that wacky font people use on invitations to children's birthday parties, where each letter is kind of different from the others, and occasionally there are teddy bears. Yes, that font is looking sweet! And I want this paper to be long, so I use two inch margins on the left and right. I like the way it looks when the paper is a column that just kind of goes down the middle of the page, and now my paper is, like, way longer! I don't use page numbers, because maybe then my teacher will just guess at how long my paper is, and maybe the teacher will guess that it's even longer than it really is! That would be cool. And after I print the paper out, I'll just write my first name by hand at the top of the first page. Sweet. Done with Paper B.

Conclusion of this thought experiment: Paper A is going to get a better grade. It has the exact same sentences as Paper B. But in a big stack of papers the teacher is reading through, the use of an odd font, distracting margins, no page numbers, and other odd decisions add up to a difficult reading experience. If your teacher has a difficult reading experience, he will think that your paper is not as good as the paper that is an easier reading experience. That is just the truth, dude. I don't know why I wrote dude there. I mean: We in the Writing Center don't know why we wrote dude there.

Your teacher might have specific requests regarding the formatting of your paper. Our advice in the Writing Center is to follow these requests. The teacher is telling you what kind of formatting makes papers easy to read for him. So maybe just format the paper that way, because you want your paper to be easy to read. Teachers are human beings. They appreciate consideration taken on your part to make things easier for them. If you format your paper correctly, you will do better on the paper than if you format it wildly.

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