Essay #4 Tip Sheet

Essay #4: Responding to College Freshman Writing

Begin by reading:

How to Say Nothing in 500 Words” by Paul McHenry Roberts

The writing assignment:

Choose one (and only one!) of these topics:

Writing schedule:

  1.  Think  Monday, October 24 through Wednesday, October 26
  2.  Gather  Thursday, October 27 through Tuesday, November 1
  3.  Draft  Thursday, November 3 through Tuesday, November 8
  4.  Peer Edit  Wednesday, November 9
  5.  Revise  Thursday, November 10 and Friday, November 11



Your essay will need a thesis and a structure. It also needs an introduction which makes sense even to a stranger who has not read the Roberts article. Do not assume that every possible reader has a copy of his article and of the assignment sheet.

Sloppy reading

Every time I use the Roberts essay, I have students who assume that Roberts is the hapless student who wrote the football essay and got a poor grade. They miss the fact that Roberts was, in fact, the teacher who wrote the article and not the student.

I think I know why.

Throughout the first part of the essay, Roberts sets up a fictional writing situation and addresses the reader as “you.”

In informal high school lingo, “you” pretty universally means the speaker; it’s a fake first person, so when Roberts says, “After dinner you get out the portable typewriter that you got for high school graduation,” Roberts means (in high school lingo) that Roberts was doing it.

Often, in the same high school lingo, “you” means the whole population in general (and not necessarily a single person). It’s a synonym for “everyone.” That may be the reason one student recently took the essay to mean that the whole class got a “D” for writing that essay. (The whole class worked on that same essay? The whole class postponed the writing to go to a game and to go to church?)

Going for conventional English usage: If we take “you” in the more traditional sense to mean “the person who is reading this piece” (or perhaps the imaginary college student who is reading the piece and putting together that very sad essay) rather than Roberts himself or the whole group of college freshmen, the whole thing gets clearer.

More reading problems:

Student arrogance

Do not assume that you personally know everything there is to know—and that your guesses are absolute truth. Several of my students, after reading this article, wrote that the comment, “There was one case where a high school star was offered a convertible if he would play football for a certain college” was obviously untrue because they had never heard of such a thing. (And of course, because they had never heard of this sort of scandal, the paper deserved its “D” grade.) As a matter of fact, this sort of thing did happen, though the most memorable example was in basketball, not football. The college was Kansas University, the student was Wilt Chamberlain, the year was 1955, and the car was an Oldsmobile.¹ The scandal, widely reported in the media, was a major reason for NCAA regulations that prevent such things from happening now. The Roberts article was written in the mid 1950s, so this was hot current news for him; the fact that it all happened 45 years before you were born doesn’t make it less true. The fact that you never heard of it and cannot imagine it happening doesn’t make it less true.

A bit of plain academic curiosity would have kept these students from looking like fools.

  1. I did not know this one either, but it seemed worth checking out, and I half-remembered hearing about a basketball scandal, so I used Google to search for “college basketball, convertible, recruiting, scandal.” I knew the approximate date Roberts wrote his article, and I simply dug through a dozen or so Internet hits. That’s how research works.

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Revised 7/28/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: