In Over your Head: The Pitfalls of Trying to Sound like a ProfessorWriter's Web
(printable version here)

As David Bartholomae addresses in "Inventing the University," students often struggle to write within the confines of specific academic discourses. They may recognize that there is a certain style to academic writing, but not having full authority over that discourse, students approximate, trying to sound professor-like while muddying their argument. Writers are most likely to fall into this trap in their introductions and conclusions. Focus on what you are specifically addressing in the essay!


  • Too many verbs of being
  • Too many sweeping statements that are too far from the governing claim
  • Misuse of synonyms
  • Sentences that sound impressive but don't say anything substantial to add to the argument of the work
  • Overly complicated syntax that may result in run-ons or fragments

In order to avoid the problem:

  • Read your writing aloud: sentences should sound the way you speak formally, and then you can gradually and meaningfully increase the register (level of formality) of your writing.
  • Unpack "suitcase terms," broad, sweeping terms like "society" or "the individual." Specify to whom or what you are referring.

Example with commentary:

Student Elizabeth Sims has provided two versions of an introduction to an essay written for Joe Essid's "Invented Worlds" course.

First draft:

The significance of the word 'individual' varies dependent on the person. While it is typical to find people who claim to be unique, it is rare to find someone who truly goes against the norms of conventional living. This rare individual is typically alone in his quest to live according to his own standards because few people share his dedication to an alternative lifestyle. Their solitude points to the conclusions that these individuals are simply one of a kind and therefore eternally alone in the world. However, through the analysis of the individuals Robert Maitland in Concrete Island and Chris McCandless Into the Wild, one can find many shared goals, ideologies, and characteristics. For both characters, the isolation and resulting freedom from expectations are catalysts for full submersion into their alternate lifestyle. The commitment to their alternative lifestyle is based on their underlying belief that one holds himself to a higher standard when he operates alone rather than in a group. Both characters find a need to consistently test their capabilities and subsequently prove their control over any situation. Maitland and McCandless repeatedly find ways to prove to themselves the virtue of living isolated from family and responsibilities and the resulting control that they gain through this lifestyle.


Robert Maitland in Ballard's Concrete Island and Chris McCandless in Krakauer's Into the Wild both create a sort of new world by living apart from the civilized world and creating a new standard of living based on their own personal ambitions. Their strong commitment to isolating themselves from the civilized world stems from their underlying belief that one holds oneself to a higher standard when one operates alone rather than in a group. In order to commit to their isolated world, both characters abandon their family and friends to free themselves from all expectations and responsibilities ties with relationships. Once Chris creates his invented world, he proves his commitment by vehemently resisting help from outsiders. Although Robert shares Chris's desire to be self-sufficient, Maitland's injury forces him to rely on his companions more than he wishes. The enticement of their new way of life is their ability to constantly create inventive ways to test their willpower and subsequently prove their control over their situation. Both characters share dangerous tendencies to overestimate their capabilities, which lead to subsequent failures, and in Chris's case, death. They find strength in living as an individual and repeatedly find ways to prove the virtue of living isolated from the civilized world. They both successfully invent worlds that free themselves from the limitations of living with other humans and allow them to grow as an individual.


Elizabeth offers this explanation of the changes she made to the introduction:

Initially, I made sweeping statements in my introduction to make it seem more relevant and applicable to everyday life. I cut out my generalizations, and then I was able to incorporate all major points of my essay so my reader would feel guided when reading the rest of the essay.

Elizabeth, taking on large concepts like "the individual," and making sweeping claims like "it is rare to find someone who truly...," begins the first draft of the introduction too broadly. Elizabeth attributes this error to her attempt to locate her argument in a relevant, academic discourse. However, by cutting many of her generalizations and beginning by introducing the characters and the works at hand, she offers her reader a much more concise starting point for her essay. For example, instead of discussing an "alternative lifestyle," by rooting her introduction in the works at hand, Elizabeth's revision offers the idea of "creating a new standard of living based on...personal ambitions." Such changes offer clarity to the reader and allow Elizabeth more control of her language and argument.

Back to 'Clarity and Style'
Writer's Web
| Writing Center | Make an Appointment | Library

Copyright Info