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The WAC Academy

Writing Across the Curriculum

The WAC Academy

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   - Participants
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   - Participants
   - Papers

   - Participants
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   - Participants
   - Papers

Twenty Rules for Good Writing: A Grammar Review
Dr. Nancy House
School of Art and Design

The Twenty Rules for Good Writing is an exercise I have used at the beginning of my writing intensive class to review basic grammar.  Writing consists of two aspects, the content and the mechanics of writing that includes spelling, grammar, word usage, punctuation and subject/verb disagreement. A paper may contain good ideas, have well argued positions, as well as a sophisticated synthesis of ideas.   Recurring lower order concerns such as wrong tense use or subject/verb disagreement will ruin this same paper.  John Bean (2001) wrote that these errors are “violations of the structural conventions of standard edited English” (p. 248).  

College students often know what is correct, but through disuse or the adoption of slang or colloquialisms, they have forgotten some basic rules. Using the computer for word processing can compound the problem of word usage and subject/verb disagreement.  Under the Tools icon of Word, is the Spelling and Grammar tool.  This tool purports to correct spelling as well as grammar.  In my own practice this is most useful as it does indicate when words are spelled incorrectly, or when the verb and subject are not in agreement.  The tool does not correct for word usage as in to, too or two.  It purports to correct for grammar, but is it faculty’s or facultys’?  Both forms are indicated as being incorrect.   

As a one-credit-hour course, ART 2123 meets 50 minutes a week. In this class students will write a minimum of 17 papers. They observe in art classrooms in k-12 schools and write about what they saw, including how the teacher related to the students, how the lesson was taught and classroom management techniques. These future art teachers write a paper titled Why I Want to be an Art Teacher.  As a result there is not time to spend a great deal of class time on the ‘recurring lower order concerns’ of writing.   I found it effective to begin the semester by having students briefly introducing themselves and quickly complete the first project.  Working in pairs, students were to read and correct as necessary “20 Rules for Good Writing” (attached).  Unbeknownst to the students, each sentence contained the error described in the rule.  William Safire referred to these as “fumble rules” (Safire, NY Verdana,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif, Nov 4, 1979, p. sm 4).   For instance, the sentence “Don’t abrev.”  should be “Do not abbreviate”.  

After working on the 20 rules and making the necessary corrections, students read sentences in turn and make the necessary corrections.  If students are unable to make the necessary corrections, the entire class works to correct the sentence. In this manner, we quickly work through the list of “20 Rules.”   While correcting the sentences, I often hear students remark “Oh, I remember that,” reiterating that this works as a good review of the mechanics of writing.

Another benefit that comes from this assignment was that students laugh together while working with the sentences, they learn the names of the other students and they relax.  Evidence in support for this activity derives from Brookfield (1994) who found people learned better if they felt part of “an emotionally sustaining peer learning community” (p. 212).  In his research, students felt part of a peer learning community when they discovered they shared common concerns and they became familiar with one another.

When my students wrote their first composition about “Why I want to be an Art Teacher”, they are aware of writing mistakes to avoid.  In addition they are better prepared for peer editing as they read one another’s paper, reading for content and technique.

The “20 rules” has proven to be an effective exercise to use in my one-credit-hour course.  Not only does it provide a quick review of what Bean refers to, as lower order concerns of grammatical errors, misspellings, punctuation mistakes and awkwardness, the students quickly form a peer learning community.

Note.  I want to thank M. Parker for the information about fumble rules.


Bean, J.C. (2001).  Engaging ideas.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Brookfield, S. (1994).  Tales from the darkside: A phenomenology of adult critical reflection.  International Journal of Lifelong Education. 13(3) 203-216.


20 Rules for Good Writing
-Old Farmer’s Almanac, 1975

  1. Each pronoun agrees with their antecedent.
  2. Just between you and I, case is important.
  3. Verbs has to agree with their subject.
  4. Watch out for irregular verbs, which has cropped their way into our language.
  5. Don't use no double negatives.
  6. A writer mustn't shift your point of view.
  7. When dangling, don't use participles.
  8. Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.
  9. Don't use a run-on sentence you got to punctuate it.
  10. About sentence fragments.
  11. In letters themes, reports articles and stuff like that we use commas to keep a string of items apart.
  12. Don't use commas, which aren't necessary.
  13. Its important to use apostrophe's right.
  14. Don't abrev.
  15. Check to see if you any words out.
  16. In my opinion I think that an author when he is writing shouldn't get into the habit of making use of too many unnecessary words that he doesn't really need.
  17. And of course, there's that old one: Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.
  18. Passive voice should be avoided.
  19. Check speling and punctuation.
  20. Last but not least, lay off clichés.

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