Writing tips for students

Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in West Virginia. She received an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University in 2005 and currently an Assistant Professor at Pierpont Community and Technical College. She also teaches community creative writing classes and workshops. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Switchback, r.kv.r.y., Ardor Literary Magazine, Superstition Review, Paste, Willow Springs Review, and The Kenyon Review Online, among others. Natalie is the winner of the Glimmer Train New Writers Contest and the Betty Gabehart Prize. She is also an active book reviewer whose work has appeared in Los Angeles Review, Fjords Review, Paste, Shenandoah, Harpur Palate, and Mid American Review. Additionally, Natalie serves as a literary editor for the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, is the High School Workshop Coordinator for the West Virginia Writers Workshop at WVU, and is co-host of SummerBooks: A literary podcast.

In this age of text messaging and statuses of 140 characters of less, it’s easy to forget that written communication is still something to take seriously. You must remember that your writing is a representation of yourself, and therefore should always be professional and polished when communicating with your college instructors.
I’ve taught college level writing for a decade, and we spend so much time every semester talking about audience. My students understand that when someone communicates, he or she must think about whom they are communicating to and the appropriate way to shape the communication for that specific reader or listener. When they write essays, they practice appealing to a certain audience, and do a good job; however, all of that knowledge seems to go right out the window when it comes to communicating with me—their instructor—through email. Following are some do’s and don’ts to remind you as a new college student how to appropriate correspond via email with your college instructors.
DO appropriately greet your instructor. Even though an email is more casual than a former business letter, you should still include a salutation. Some instructors are expecting more formality than others; this is something you will have to gauge in each class. Typically a “Dear Professor X” or “Hello, Professor X” would be fine. You might not want to write “Hey, Professor” unless you’re sure your instructor is okay with that. (The same goes for calling your instructor by his or her first name.)
DO remember that text talk is appropriate only for texting your friends, not for emailing your instructor. No “U” for “you” or “IDK” for “I Don’t Know”. Even if you are sending the email from your phone, take the extra moment to write in complete sentences.
Along similar lines, DO make sure your spelling and grammar is correct. Of course, you aren’t getting graded on your email correspondences, but remember what I said earlier: your writing is a representation of you. Do you want that representation to be positive and careful, or negative and sloppy?
DO NOT attach and send files with no email text included. Not only is this confusing for your instructor—what is this file? What do you want her to do with it?—it’s also presumptive and a bit disrespectful. You cannot expect that your instructor will accept, open, and spend her time—which is most likely after regular classroom hours—figuring out what to do with this document. My experience is that students are sending files usually because they want their instructors to take work that is late or that can’t be turned in in person. If that’s the case, you certainly should take a moment or two in order to communicate what you’re hoping your professor will do, and gracefully ask her to consider accepting your work. Another reason never to send a file without accompanying text: sometimes viruses attach themselves to your email and send to recipients in your address book without your knowledge. On the recipient’s end, the message looks as though it’s coming from you, the well-meaning student. If she opens that file, though, the virus could also open and attack the computer.
DO use an appropriate tone with your instructor. You want to be professional. Friendly is fine. Don’t be too casual (your instructor cares about you, but is not your friend of family member). Remember, also, that tone is sometimes hard to read in an email. Sarcasm might come across as anger, and sincerity might come across as sarcasm. Pay attention to tone, and make sure that you don’t come across to your instructor in a way other than how you intend
DON’T email angry. DON’T say anything to your instructor that you wouldn’t say in person. I cannot stress too strongly how important this is. If you are upset about a grade, you should, first, take a day or so to think about your instructor’s comments and really reflect on your own work. If you still feel that the grade is unwarranted, you should make an appointment to go into your instructor’s office and talk to her face-to-face. If that is impossible because you are taking an online class, craft your email respectfully and be prepared to provide evidence from your work to show your instructor why you’re questioning the mark. Sending an angry, accusatory email might make you feel better in the moment, but I can guarantee that it will not work out well in the long run.
Finally, DO remember that your instructor wants to help you. She wants to answer your thoughtful questions and see that you really are engaged with her class. DON’T be afraid to send an email, but DO make sure you treat it just as you should any piece of writing. Be careful and considerate. Revise and Proofread. If the message is not worth this work, then perhaps it is better left unsent.

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