Writing Hints

We can make it complicated, but good writing follows some simple principles. In the bestselling book On Writing Well, William Zinsser summarized what we know about writing good sentences: “We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process than vague abstractions.” If you get stuck, go back to these basics. And what holds for good sentences extends to good paragraphs, papers, and books.

Sentences  |  Thesis  |  Paragraphs  |  Quotations  |  Papers  |  Common Errors  |  Imprecisions  |  Credits and Resources


Sentences

Sentences are the basic building blocks of anyone’s writing. Writers strive to make them clear and powerful, so readers understand the point. The best sentences contain these characteristics:

  • Action verbs in the active voice (as opposed to to-be verbs and the passive voice).
    • Verbs drive your writing. Weak ones sap all the energy from your ideas. Readers should be be able to see your verbs. Can you see someone “would-ing” or “was-ing?” Probably not. Can you picture someone “charging” or “deploying?”
  • Concrete, specific nouns (as opposed to abstract, vague nouns).
    • One way we slip into vague abstractions is using “nominalizations” (ugh!) or what Helen Sword calls “zombie nouns” (much better!) This happens when writers turn good verbs into bad nouns. They often become abstract and take all the action and life (hence: zombie) out of the sentence. (They also usually add unnecessary words and frequently turn the voice from active to passive.) So, turn “the dream of Martin Luther King” into “MLK dreamed,” or “the legislation of the politicians” into “Politicians legislated.”
One way to think about the points above is that your sentences should have a clear Character doing a clear Action.
  • Do not start with a long introductory clauses.
  • Include the fewest prepositional phrases as possible.
  • Begin with familiar ideas, and introduce new ideas at the end. (This goes for paragraphs, too.)

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A Special Sentence: The Thesis

This is the most important sentence you write. Make it good. Make it the best you can write. That will mean you will struggle and revise and scream and rewrite and then repeat that process many times. In your thesis, declare your main idea. A thesis should have these qualities:

  • Only a single sentence.
  • Uses action verbs and the active voice.
  • Specific and concrete.
  • It asserts, argues, interprets, or maybe evaluates.
  • It does not describe, organize, present, or even explain.
    • Those are all fine qualities in sentences but appropriate elsewhere.
A final word of advice. Often, you will not know what you are arguing until you have finished a draft. Don’t get hung up trying to craft the perfect thesis as you start out. Start analyzing the evidence; the thesis will follow (and change) as you figure it out through writing.

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Paragraphs

If sentences are the building blocks of your writing, paragraphs are the building blocks of your argument. They present a single idea, develop it with evidence and analysis, and connect it with your overall argument. The most effective paragraphs include these attributes:

  • A clear topic sentence (usually the first sentence) that announces what the paragraph will explore.
  • Evidence and analysis of the evidence.
    • Most likely, you will also provide necessary context for these elements.
  • A clinching statement that draws together the idea presented and explains its significance to your larger argument. (I call these “clinchers” and think they are essential.) In this way, they propel your paper forward.
In his book The Elements of Academic Style, Eric Hayot proposed the “Uneven U” as a model paragraph structure. I find it useful. He argues there are five types of sentences from most concrete to most abstract. He characterized them (I’m paraphrasing closely):

  1. Concrete, evidence, raw data or information (e.g., a quotation, statistics)
  2. Descriptive, summary (plain or interpretive)
  3. Conceptual, pulling together evidence, introducing an essential example.
  4. General, moving toward a problem, pulling ideas together
  5. Abstract, pushing toward solutions or conclusions

A writer will tend to start at 4, move down to 3, 2, 1, and back up until reaching 5. He included a visual cue.

This structure works for developing arguments within a paper in the humanities. (It also can be reproduced at the paper, chapter, or even book level, but that’s probably more complicated than you want to think about.)

Another resource for paragraphs–consistent with Hayot’s “Uneven U”–can be found in the handout “Arthur McEvoy’s Writing Heuristic” linked below in the Resources section.

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A Word on Quotations.

Quoting someone is probably the most common way to furnish evidence for your argument. Following standard practices will help you use them more effectively and aid readers in following your prose.

There are three elements to using quotations well: introduction, quotation, analysis. First, introduce your quotations, including the author’s name and source. It usually is helpful to identify the author’s authority, too. Your reader may not know that Joanne Jones is was an eyewitness or expert.

(e.g., In her autobiography, the Colville writer Mourning Dove stated, . . .; or, As the environmental historian Carolyn Merchant explained in her classic book, Death of Nature, . . . )

Next, include the quotation accurately and punctuated properly. Only quote what you need. Finally, because evidence does not speak for itself, analyze the quotation. Some of this work can come in the set up to the quotation, but most likely, you will need to explain what the quotation means in your own words and connect it explicitly to the argument you are making. This practice will ensure your reader understands how you are using the evidence and not misinterpret it. Also, incidentally, this analysis is where you are building your argument; without it, you are merely cutting and pasting others’ ideas.

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Papers

Overall, papers have recognizable parts: introductions, bodies, and conclusions. All are made out of sentences and paragraphs. But taken together, they include characteristics besides those explained in the sentences and paragraph sections.

  • Introductions frame the issues of your paper and why they matter. They offer your answer to a question (which is sometimes implied and sometimes stated). They establish the significance of the topic, an approach, and your argument. They catch the reader’s attention and make them want to keep reading and learning from you.
  • Body paragraphs develop sequentially according to some logic. Each contains an element of your overall argument. Each includes its own mini-thesis. Each presents both evidence and analysis.
  • Conclusions do more than simply summarize the previous pages. They clarify the answer you have offered. They emphasize the significance and larger implications of what you have offered. They make sure the reader goes away thinking about your interpretation and perhaps imagining how your thinking on this subject sheds light on another topic.

Ultimately, a paper’s overall structure ought to be clear and constructed so well that a reader annot imagine it appearing any other way. These pieces, linked together, will mean the paper is more than the sum of its parts

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Common Errors

Writers tread in tread in dangerous waters and easily find ways to make mistakes. It benefits you from figuring out some of your common mistakes. (I often mess up my subject-verb agreement when I insert a prepositional phrase in between the subject and verb.) Here is a list of some fairly common errors I see in student papers to give you a headstart on avoiding them.

Affect/Effect

Affect is a verb that means to influence or change. Effect is usually used as a noun meaning result.

Economical

Economical means prudent, thrifty, or not wasteful. It is not a synonym for economic, which means of or relating to the production, development, or management of material wealth.

Lead/Led

Led is the past tense of lead (or it is a chemical element).

Novel

A novel is a fictional book. It is not a synonym for book.

Then/Than

Often when comparing, people write “more then” rather than “more than.”

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Imprecisions

I have strong preferences about some writing matters. Although these are not grammatically incorrect, they lack precision, clarity, or logic (and they grate on me). It benefits you to avoid them, so you are precise, clear, and logical. An English teacher may not mark you down, but I will find you lacking attention and care to detail.

Contractions

Avoid contractions in formal academic writing.

Decades and Centuries

Since “1680s” means the years 1680-1689, it follows that “1600s” represents the years 1600-1609. Please do not use “1600s” to represent the seventeenth century.

Exclusive Language

As a matter of accuracy, as well as respect, use inclusive language. The generic male is usually inaccurate and irritatingly sexist. Although this instruction may seem like a matter of “political correctness,” it is actually matter of accuracy and discriminatory language. So, avoid “man” (and use humans) or “white man” (and use Euro-Americans) or fireman (and use firefighter), etc. (Even my fairly conservative English usage book agrees with this advice.)

First Person

In most formal writing, avoid the first person. The reader will know that it is you, the writer, making the argument. One main reason to avoid first-person writing is that it often adds unnecessary words.

Example:

In this paper, I argue that the Bill of Rights protects religious freedoms for Muslims.

The Bill of Rights protects religious freedoms for Muslims.

“Lifestyle”

This word has come to mean so much that it means nothing. It can describe preferred foodways, subsistence strategies, political arrangements, and who one sleeps with. Surely such a wide range of things cannot be described effectively by the same word. So, avoid it and be specific.

Names

In most cases, when introducing a person, use their full name (e.g., Phyllis Schlafly). Subsequently, use last names (e.g., Schlafly) only. First names are not used in practice except in rare cases when confusion is likely, such as a paragraph about family members who share the same last name.   

“Time Period”

Time period is redundant. Use time or period or era or some other description.

This and These

These words generally require nouns following them, lest the sentence be confusing.

Example:

John F. Kennedy was Catholic, and he resided in Massachusetts. This caused farmers to mistrust him. (Did farmers mistrust Kennedy because he was Catholic or because he lived in New England?)

Kennedy was Catholic, and he resided in Massachusetts. This religious preference caused farmers to mistrust him.

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Credits and Further Resources

I am somewhat of a constant consumer of writing books. I am almost always reading, or re-reading, a book on writing. Here is a short list of books that I’ve benefited from over the course of my student, teaching, and writing career.

  • Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (good basic primer on many grammar issues and style)
  • Joseph M. Williams, Style (this comes in a variety of editions with slightly different titles; probably the most formative book for me)
  • Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing; the author also wrote The Writer’s Diet and has developed a helpful online tool you can use to help you identify problems, so you can then solve them.)
  • Eric Hayot, The Elements of Academic Style (includes a useful concept–the Uneven U–to explain building prose and arguments)
  • William Zinsser, On Writing Well (straightforward, accessible advice on many elements of non-fiction writing)
  • Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (contains explanations of many challenging grammar issues)
  • Stephen J. Pyne, Voice and Vision (for the ambitious, looking for assistance on book-length projects)
  • Arthur McEvoy’s Writing Heuristics (an informal/formal handout with rules that seem harsh, but they work well; McEvoy mentored one of my mentors, so you will see some common advice here)

Serious writers will want to consult a usage book to help you write correctly and avoid unpreferred options. Usage guides remind us, too, that writing changes over time, and we must adapt. I have and use Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage.

Finally, it is easy to be intimidated by grammar rules that you may have forgotten (or never learned) from eighth grade English. Fortunately, the Internet provides many handy explanations for issues such as when to use “that” or “which” or how to punctuate quotations or how to properly use “good” or “well.” For instance, I find Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips clear, helpful, and correct.

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