First, take a couple of minutes to look over the Table of Contents at the front of the book.
You should do this with any book you have to get for college, because the Table of Contents will give you some idea of what’s in it and where you can find the material you need at three o’clock in the morning when you don’t remember (for example) whether you’re supposed to put your first name in an MLA style header.
We’ll get to what MLA style means later, and I’ll show you how to master its nit-picky, often arbitrary rules so that you can get an A on your paper. Of course we’re all supposed to want a profound, transformative, enlightening educational experience—but let’s face it: good grades are what will get you a scholarship, a reference letter, a reputation, and a degree that results in a job somewhere other than Burger King. So I want to show you how to get good grades. (It has nothing to do with how smart you are, by the way, so quit worrying about that right now.)
Then take a couple more minutes to look over the Index, which is at the end of the book. It’s an alphabetical listing of everything in the book. So to solve your three o’clock header problem, you could try looking up “header” or “MLA style” in the index. If it’s a well-written index, you’ll find both entries.
Crap. I realize I’ve just set myself the task of writing a good index!* (see footnote)
Then feel free to skip around. You don’t have to read this book in sequence, or cover-to-cover. Nobody has time to read everything, especially in college, where teachers often seem to forget that you might be taking other classes. It’s not uncommon to find yourself with two or three books to read over the weekend!
In order to survive, you need to learn how to scan. Pretend you’re shopping, and looking to see which aisles (or chapters) have the items you need right now. If you have lots of time, you can slow down and take it all in—but if not, you can grab what you need and get out of the store.
Here’s an overview of the three main “aisles” in this book:
The first section is about dealing with psychological stuff that can freeze you up or set you free as a writer. You might want to start there, if you already know that anxiety or perfectionism, for example, are problems for you. Or just take note that those sections exist, in case such things become problems anywhere down the line.
The second section is about the academic stuff. If I were you, I’d avoid this section as long as possible, even though that stuff is why you bought the book—but maybe you’re a better man than I am. I keep books like this in the bathroom or on my nightstand so that I’m reminded on a regular basis that I should be reading them, and to insure that when I do, it will be in small, manageable doses, or that they put me to sleep when I’m already in bed.
The good news is that you don’t have to actually remember any of the rules I will be explaining in the second section; that’s why you bought this reference book that can remember them for you! All you need to do is wrap your mind around the reality that the academic world has its own language, which you can practice over time. These words and concepts are how educated people recognize each other, kind of like gang hand signals. (As an experiment in power, you might try learning an intellectually fashionable word like hegemony, flash it in class, and watch your teacher’s reaction.)
The third section is a short guide to grammar and punctuation. Such guides are known as handbooks, and there are a whole lot of good ones already written. In the handbook section of this text, I’m only going to include an explanation of common errors, because understanding those will prevent about 90% of the problems you’re likely to have with college writing, and because you can get a more complete guide elsewhere, if you really want to know the difference between the indicative and the subjunctive.
(Relax—you don’t really need to. I can barely tell a verb from a noun, and I’ve edited books that have earned six-figure advances!) You can find handbooks in the reference section of your college library, in used bookstores, or online. If you want to buy one, just be sure it’s got the latest version of MLA and APA rules; these change infrequently, but significantly.
That’s it! Now put this book on your nightstand and go do something nice for yourself, because you deserve it. When you pick this up again, start with whatever section sounds most useful for what you need—or just start with the next topic, Self-Doubt, which I put first because every new-to-college student I’ve ever met has struggled with it.
*You wouldn’t use a line like this in an academic essay because “crap” is not Standard Written English, and because the thought is just an irrelevant comment from writer to self—but I left it in here because I want to model the writing process for you. In a first draft, anything goes! You need to allow yourself to be yourself on the page so you don’t freeze up. You can always go through in revision and clean up words like “crap”—or maybe you’ll decide to leave them in because you have a teacher who swears in class and has a sense of humor; sizing up situations like this is called audience awareness.
Note: in the published book, you will be able to find all these blue words defined in the Glossary. (In the e-book version, vocabulary and other content will be hyperlinked.) When you encounter a blue word you don’t know, you can check it out: building your academic vocabulary is like putting money into a savings account that pays interest–and this version pays a whole lot more than a bank does.