Monday, September 8, 2008


[Advice for students, at work perhaps on the first essays of the semester.]

According to a 2006 survey developed by OfficeTeam, 84% of executives polled consider one or two typos in a résumé sufficient to remove a job-candidate from consideration. Translated into academic terms, one or two typos in a paper would equal a failing grade.

I'm not sure how much I want to trust this poll: the sample is small (perhaps only zealots chose to reply), and NO TYPOS ANY TIME might apply only in some Platonic ideal (or nightmare) of a workplace. Still, this poll is a reminder: the world beyond "school" is tough, with standards sometimes far more stringent than those of the strictest professor. Here are a few details to get right, always, when you're writing in college. They might be details that no professor or teaching assistant will ever take time to comment on. But they're important, even if no one seems to be watching.

One: Use one space after a period.

Two spaces were the norm when everyone produced monospaced text with a typewriter. Using one space is a good way to show that you’re at home in print (where additional space after a period now looks like an unnecessary gap) and in HTML (where the second tap of the spacebar doesn’t register). If you were brought up with "two spaces" and find it a difficult rule to break, use search-and-replace in your word-processor to find and eliminate extra spaces.

Two: Two hyphens equal an em dash.

On a Mac, the em dash is a cinch: just press Option-Shift-hyphen. Off a Mac, set up your word-processor to replace two hyphens (--) with a dash (—). In print, the em dash—a really useful mark of punctuation—does its work without additional spaces, as in this sentence. In HTML, proper dashes (like proper quotation marks) don't display properly on all systems and sometimes make a mess of line length and word-wrap, so double-hyphens preceded and followed by spaces -- see? -- seem to be fine.

Three: Take care with your titles.

Use the same point-size that you're using in your essay (a jumbo title looks silly). Type your title without quotation marks (unless the title includes a quotation), and don’t capitalize entire words. Capitalize articles, prepositions, and coordinating conjunctions only if they’re first or last words. If you're using a quotation, type the words just as they appear in the source, adding an initial capital letter in brackets if necessary. If you need more than one line, break your title across the lines in a logical way. Not

"To be or not to be": Hamlet's Soliloquy and Modern
"To be or not to be":
Hamlet's Soliloquy and Modern Introspection
Four: Take care too with the titles of works you're referencing.

Titles of longer works that stand on their own — a long poem, for instance, or any book — should be underlined or italicized; titles of shorter works such as a short poem, a short story, or a song go in quotation marks: Homer's Odyssey, Marcel Proust's Swann’s Way, William Blake's "The Tyger," Eudora Welty's "Why Live at the P.O.," Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo." For more complicated title questions, consult a standard source (Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Handbook, Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association). One more small but important point: novel is not a synonym for book. The Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, is not a novel. Swann's Way is.

Five: Take care with spelling proper names.

If you're writing about, say, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, keep the author's last name handy to copy and paste, or add it to your AutoCorrect entries, so that you can have it appear by typing its first few letters. You especially don't want a misspelling or typo in your professor's name or your own name. (I've seen both, many times.)

Bonus advice: Staple! Or use a paper clip if you're asked to.

Some professors and teaching assistants will not notice or correct these sorts of details. Others might notice and grumble. And with some academics, anything goes. So why bother? Because in doing so, you cultivate a habit of careful attention that will serve you well in the world beyond the classroom, where anything won't go.

comments: 3

Anonymous said...

I think it's a matter of remembering who/what you're writing for. If you're just dashing off an email to a friend or colleague typos don't matter, but in an assignment or job application, they do.sxoehwd

Whenever I read job applications, I wince when I see spelling mistakes. And even though I tell myself that perfect spelling does not equal higher intelligence, I cannot help but think less of candidates who don't bother to check their work (proofread, use spellcheck). I agree that a habit of careful attention is very very worth cultivating.

Anonymous said...

Hah, speaking of typos, for some strange reason it appears that the word verification I had to type in appears at the end of the first paragraph of my first comment! I'd argue that typos and so on aren't necessarily as important in blog comments (although I do try and be careful when I comment, because I want my comment to be comprehensible!).

Anonymous said...

I disagree, CW. Mistakes often creep into more formal writing as a result of habitual shortcuts and nonchalance. Why not develop strong writing habits whenever possible? If you worry about the little things in informal writing, it's less likely you'll slip up when formal communication is required.