Writer's WebInterview Transcript, Common Mistakes in First Year Writing
Content by Astoria Aviles and Gabrielle Pound, Site by Megan Venable

Interview: Dr. Joyce MacAllister
Interviewed by: Gabrielle Pound

Question Two: Are there any specific patterns or mistakes whether grammatical or
stylistic—anything that you commonly see in your first year classes?


Well, as far as dealing with the content and the thesis, I find that most students
hate to move from generalizations. Again, back to that thesis statement with the code
words and key ideas. I keep trying to get them to limit them further. I think they like to
stay general because they are afraid that they will run out of things to say. If I say, you
know, turn in a paper of six to eight pages, if they stay high and general they try to cover
a lot of ground because they can continue to add to it. I think if I tell them to limit
something instead of saying “Black Beauty is a tale about horses” I try to say circle ‘tale’:
who tells the tale? Well Black Beauty is Anna Sule’s development. Of horses, what about
horses? Substitute horses with ‘the abuse of horses in 19th century England’. They have a
hard time doing that because when I say ‘limit the thesis further’ they interpret that to
mean ‘limit themselves’. That is a recurrent problem, getting them to be more specific
and getting them to add more details from the text they are referencing.
You don’t have to drop a fantastically exciting thesis that nobody has ever thought of to
get a good paper. Sometimes the kind of evidence that you pull from the text is the new
idea, the creative part of it. You could argue something that everybody would maybe
agree with but by showing different evidence, details and examples from the text—that’s
where the value rests. And it’s hard for them to see that. Again, they think that if they
have a great, big broad thesis they won’t run out of things to say.
As far as language and style, I think our students are pretty sophisticated sentence wise.
Common problems are usually logical problems. If I find sentence errors they would be
comma splices; they want to show that two ideas are related to each other and sometimes
they get in a hurry and forget to put a semicolon to divide them. But the reasoning is

I see failure to use parallel structure effectively. So are these items in the series
equivalent in value? Are they of equal weight? Therefore you want to express them the
same way. But I don’t have a lot of trouble with sentence level errors.
Paragraphs, now that’s another thing. Look at it visually, and I try to get them thinking
about the reader at the other end. If you are writing a paper of six pages, the reader
doesn’t want to wait, visually, through a page and a half paragraph. Every paragraph can
be divided as long as you tamper with it. At every stage I try and stress the rhetorical; be
thinking about what your reader needs. This is something that I think even upper level
students do. It’s very hard for them to realize that we don’t just talk at a wall but we are
trying to put together a message for someone to receive and understand.
Beyond that, I think, if they use generic terms like ‘society’ or something big like that, it
goes back to the thesis problems. The word ‘society’ is banned in my class. I go through
and circle it and things that are too general that maybe the reader might not understand.
That’s my way of saying: ‘What do you mean by this? Can you give us more? Can you
make it more detailed?’ Again it’s all related. Language and message, you know, we pull
them apart so that we can talk about something but they all overlap.
Specificity, we need more specificity.

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