One of my colleagues who teaches developmental math courses is always dismayed when his students give him assignments. He tells them to put the assignments on graph paper. They don't. Never mind whether you like the look of graph paper or whether you understand the reason behind the assignment—the man with the red pen who is trying to decide whether to pass you has asked for something. Maybe it would be a good idea to give it to him.
Most of us in the teaching profession are used to students who can't follow the simplest instructions. I ask my students to use the MLA Page Format. I get fancy type, huge margins, and colored ink. I ask my students to choose between two essays to analyze. I get a discussion of a book I've never heard of. I ask for 1000 words minimum. I get 650.
Analyzing your audience
When you write something for Freshman Comp, the assignment may specify an audience, but you should always remember that the teacher is going to read this thing and try to decide what grade to give you. Don't tempt the teacher to say, "Here's a fool who can't follow the most basic instructions." Specifically:
- Due date. Assume it's cast in concrete. Assume that you need to solve any problems that get in the way of meeting the deadline (computer ink, roommate disasters).
- Assignment length. Assume that's also cast in concrete. A typical college assignment is more than 1000 words (that's more than 3 pages), and a typical freshman semester will assign about twenty pages of total writing. That's more than you have ever done in your life. Most of your high school essays were probably in the 250-500 word range (if they were that long). Take a deep breath. Visit the Writing Center, and assume that you really do need to meet the assigned length.
- Topic and treatment. Some teachers allow latitude; some don't. If you really don't want to write the assigned topic, talk to the teacher and see if there's a possibility of changing things. Whatever you do, don't simply scan the assignment, pick up on one key word, and start inventing. You have to actually read the assignment!
- Other stuff. Depending on the course and instructor, you may have to include a Works Cited page, a summary of reading, or some other extra material. Nobody will give you a good grade if you're simply too lazy or disorganized to do these things.
None of this guarantees a good grade; I've seen plenty of neat, pretty papers that fulfilled the assignment but were really insufficient quality. On the other hand, why on earth jeopardize your grade? This isn't (as I said about another issue) the deep magic. It's simply doing the basics.
Read your professor's assignment sheet or syllabus. I did a Google search for other professors' assignment statements. Here's an assortment:
- Failure to conform to formatting requirements can result in return of the paper for corrections or mark deductions.
- A warning: too many of my students in the past have treated this as a trivial assignment and have not executed it carefully. The impact on their final grade was less than trivial.
- Read these instructions before you begin.
Read them after you begin.
Read them before you turn the paper in!
Many students lose marks because they do not follow directions.
You get the idea. It's not just your teacher. All teachers have requirements that you are supposed to meet.