Formatting versus Content: The Influence of Specific Formatting Requirements our Writing

By Gabby Tetreault

We’ve all been there. A professor assigns a paper, and along with the assignment comes a page-long list of formatting requirements that the paper must meet. The criteria are so specific that we wonder how we’ll be able to get our point across amidst the myriad of rules concerning word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph formatting. Our professors of course have a reason for doing this, and in the end, learning to adapt our writing style to match our professor’s desires has the potential to expand our abilities as writers. In the short-term however, the struggle we face is with trying to make our voices heard above all the clamor of formatting noise.

Being able to find their own voice in their writing is something that can be really tough for some writers. I’ve seen many students struggle to create a paper that fits the detailed format set out by their professors and still sounds like it’s coming from them. They might have really strong ideas or opinions about their topic, but as I read through their papers, those ideas are totally lost on me. It’s clear that words have been changed or removed to fit the specific criteria, but these changes are so prominent that they’re all I can focus on.

There are different levels of structural requirements that professors assign. The most difficult of these are the ones that focus on paragraph and sentence length (only 2 per page, no sentence over 3 lines, etc.), specific pronoun usage, and limitations on word choice. Some professors explicitly tell students they can’t use words that are “too big” or more than a few syllables, mostly because the professors assumes they’ll be used without any actual comprehension of what the words mean. Now this is not being done because professors want to give students even more to stress about; it is simply because they want to see the best papers that students can produce. This means clear, well-structured papers that can be easily understood, and formatting requirements are a common and viable way of achieving that goal.

In thinking only about the elements of structure that a professor assigns, students (myself included) often forget that there’s also an idea that the paper is supposed to convey. This push and pull between content and structure is what makes formatting so difficult. If students were just able to write and write without even thinking about their formatting, the ideas would probably be really strong, but they might not be understandable. However, when papers have specific formatting, focusing too much on that can also cause confusion. A well-structured paper that fails to include the writer’s idea is no better than a cluttered, incomprehensible paper with really strong ideas.

There must exist somewhere in the world of writing a balance between a student following his/her own path and creating a robotic piece of writing. Luckily, there are a few different ways that writers can go about trying to find this happy medium. For example, when I’m starting a paper, I usually make an outline before doing anything else. This allows me to get my ideas on paper in a way that makes sense to me, and then once I have that figured out I can try to rearrange the setup to meet any requirements my professor might have. Another idea is just a general “brain dump” on the page, where you can get all of your ideas on the page at once without any structure, and then see how they all fit together after. Professors are primarily concerned with the final product that they receive; the ways in which writers go about getting to that point can vary for each writer, meaning that writing in a disorganized way to get ideas on the page and then cleaning it all up for the final draft is an acceptable approach. These are only a few ways to go about finding a working balance, but hopefully they can be useful for writers in the future when faced with this problem.

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About BentleyWritingCenter

This is the official blog of the Bentley University Writing Center staff.
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