2015 marks my sixteenth year teaching college freshman in writing-intensive courses. And not just any freshmen -- the top high school graduates of my state. Here's how the first few assignments of any given semester goes. They write informal reading responses for me that I love -- natural voice, clear presentation. Then I give them their first formal writing assignment. And all of a sudden, they write like space aliens forced to learn English through a 19th century grammar text and a thesaurus. Out of 500 words, fully half will be empty verbiage. Dangling introductory phrases appear out of nowhere. Idiomatic prepositions get mangled. Sentences run on and on, liberally sprinkled with commas -- or curiously devoid of a single pause. Avoidance of first person leads to pretzeled contortions -- or extraneous "I believe thats" and "In my views" pepper every other sentence. There is not a sentence to be found that would ever come out of a human being's mouth.
I find my hardest teaching task is getting these students to see and hear the impracticality of their writing. They are mortified when I point it out; it's obvious upon even a cursory second look. Yet the task of formal writing somehow makes it impossible for them to give that second look to themselves. I labor to get them to turn in clean, simple drafts. They have been rewarded for writing in this way, I suppose, and so that is the spigot that gets turned on whenever paragraphing and word counts are among the expectations. I wish I knew the magic words to get them to approach these formal writes in the natural, conversational, clear way they write informally.