METM10 presentation     Thread: Promising practices

What makes writing good? A look at our criteria for excellence in modern English writing

Mary Ellen Kerans -” Barcelona, Spain

Background: When the cartoon character Snoopy typed out the first line of his -œdark and stormy night- novel in the 1960s, readers knew his effort was doomed. The cartoon is now familiar throughout the world, yet English students often miss the wry suggestion that Snoopy is failing from the start. Realizing this requires sharing certain assumptions about what makes writing good.

Editors and translators bring personal, cultural and disciplinary assumptions into play when revising manuscripts and negotiating a style that preserves a client's voice, yet will meet authentic readers' expectations. It is of great help if we can calmly discuss criteria for excellence and uncover our clients' assumptions and preferences.

Purpose: I will present introductory seminar tasks I have used to help groups of postgraduate students and faculty in disciplines as wide-ranging as medicine, engineering and education to calmly explore criteria for excellence in English and in their own languages.

Session content: I will show tasks on slides that help academic seminar participants unpack the assumptions underlying humor in the familiar image from Peanuts and then link them to their reading of Mark Twain's parody of learning to write badly in school: Chapter 21 of Tom Sawyer. Written after the death of the original author of the -œdark and stormy- opening lines, the chapter brings out memories of school writing that can be contrasted with professional writing for a real discourse community. The tasks also lead to discussion of some of our most enduring criteria for excellence in English: conciseness of message and tightness of style and expression of a fresh voice and perspective. Through humor, discussants are primed for follow-up lessons on some of the features of persuasive writing in academic disciplines and a look at peer review processes that researchers can apply in practicing internal peer review.


Mary Ellen Kerans has been an English language instructor (MA, Teachers College Columbia University) specializing in academic writing and English for specific purposes in the health sciences throughout much of her career. She has been editing and translating for publishing scientists since the 1980s, acquiring first-hand experience of their collaborative writing processes and their doubts about what will help make their writing better.