Writing Tips

This is a series of writing tips from the instructor of this course, written for the 2016-2017 edition. They have been posted in reverse chronological order, so I recommend that you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page (I know, bad web design) and read them in numbered order from bottom to top.

Tip 27 (2017 Apr 4): Define your terms.

Whenever you use a word or phrase whose meaning might be contentious, unclear, or obscure, take a bit of effort to explain what you mean by it. The definition could be parenthetical — inserted into a sentence like this — or it could be a complete sentence by itself, even a couple of sentences or a whole paragraph. In fact, it might be an entire essay. To make a definition even more effective, add an example or two.

When you are writing an essay for an exam, examine your assigned essay topic closely. What are the key terms in the topic you are supposed to write about? Which of them do you need to define? Often explaining what those terms mean can be key points in your essay.

A definition can be much more than a quotation from a dictionary. Essentially, it involves you explaining what you mean by the words you have chosen. By defining your terms, you clarify, fill out, illustrate, and support your ideas.

Tip 26 (2017 Mar 30): Plan your time.

As we have noted below in Tip 12, the writing process involves a stage when you gather information and ideas and plan how to present them, a stage of writing them out in continuous prose, and a stage of going back over what you’ve written and making revisions so that your writing is better. This works very well when you have days to write an essay.

When you have minutes to write an essay, it still works well, but of course the whole process becomes much more condensed. Note how long you have to write the essay. Then quickly divide up your time into those three stages. Spend some time jotting down your ideas and organising them. It helps if you can identify what your main ideas are; these can become the core of the topic sentences in each paragraph. Write your essay. Save some time at the end (maybe 5 minutes, probably not more than 10 minutes) to read over your essay and make any minor changes necessary.

As you probably realise, when you have a deadline that’s minutes away, you can’t really afford to make major changes to your essay, and you very probably don’t want to abandon your first effort three quarters of the way through and choose a different topic. In other words, you will have to commit. This makes the planning stage of writing even more important. Make sure you know where you are going before you write down your first few sentences.

If things get desperate and you realise you will run out of time, do your best to write down your last few ideas in point form. The person marking your essay will obviously not be able to give you full credit for your eloquent conclusion, but you will at least be able to communicate some sense of your ideas and the structure of the rest of your essay.

Tip 25 (2017 Mar 28): Be specific.

The final few Writing Tips in this series will focus on the sorts of things that one should think about when writing that rather artificial exercise, the in-class essay for an examination.

This is one of the most important, and it applies to all writing, not just exams. Always try to be as specific as you can. You are trying to communicate information to your reader. Vague references are not information. And the more specific your information is, the more useful it will be for your reader.

Here are some specific things to watch for.

References to time. Give dates, years, centuries, historical periods: “in 1989,” “in the middle of the fifteenth century,” “in the late Middle Ages.” Avoid “back in the day,” “in olden times,” “back then,” and other meaningless vague phrases. “Today,” “at the present time,” “now” are all right as long as you actually mean it.

References to place. Give countries or regions, and even cities or towns if appropriate. If you refer to “the world,” make sure you actually mean the entire world, not just your little bit of it.

References to people. Give names of individuals; identify groups, preferably by the way they identify themselves or by the way they are identified by responsible scholars. If you need to, identify them by place and time. If you use very general terms, like “everyone,” “people” (without specifiers), or “we all,” make sure you really mean all people everywhere and throughout all time. Otherwise, specify. And, of course, don’t use “society” without specifying which society you are discussing.

Here’s an example of a horribly vague statement (I really have seen sentences like this in student writing): “Back in the day, people in society could buy books only if they were rich.”

Here’s a properly specific statement: “After the introduction of print technology to Europe in the fifteenth century, books became less costly and thus potential readers further down the socioeconomic scale, such as tradespeople and university students, could afford to buy them.”

Tip 24 (2017 Mar 20): Ask yourself if you really need “society.”

The quotation marks in the heading above indicate that I’m referring to the word “society,” not the concept. (Whether or not you need society itself, i.e. the company of other people, is another issue altogether and I’m not going to discuss it here.) The problem is that “society” is one of those words that is used so often in student writing that it can become meaningless. Take, for example, the phrase “in today’s society.” Why can’t you just write “today”? What do you gain by referring vaguely to “society”? Absolutely nothing. Here “society” is an empty word, so take it out.

Here’s another one: “Technological improvement is important to society.” Now take out the reference to “society”: “Technological improvement is important.” See? You don’t need the reference to “society” at all.

Another problem with “society” (the word, not the concept) is that it is so vague. I frequently see statements like this: “Society needs more affordable access to education.” What society are you referring to? Surely some societies need affordable access to education more than other societies, and perhaps there are social groups who don’t need it at all (maybe they can already afford all the education they want). Are you really thinking of all human societies everywhere in the world and throughout all of human history? People living in the Andaman Islands? Nomadic yak herders in central Asia before 1000 BC? If not, you need to specify exactly what society you have in mind. And if you didn’t have any particular society in mind, but just an empty word in place of an idea, then you need to replace the empty word with a meaningful one. Maybe “Canadian students of all socioeconomic backgrounds need more affordable access to education.” Maybe “People in developing countries need more affordable access to education.” Maybe “Residents of rural Saskatchewan need more affordable access to education.” Or whatever. But not “society,” which means nothing in that sentence unless you can be more specific.

So a good rule of thumb is this: First, check to see if you need the word “society” at all by taking it out and noticing if the sentence loses any meaning. Second, if you are going to use the word “society,” you should almost always specify what society you mean.

Tip 23 (2017 Mar 14): Go ahead, state the obvious.

First, often the obvious needs to be stated.

Second, you need to start with the obvious before the not-so-obvious will make sense to a reader. A good writing strategy is to start from what the reader knows and move to what the reader doesn’t know.

Third, what may seem obvious to you, especially after you have been beating your head against an essay for days, may not actually be obvious to your reader. If you have constructed your argument well, by the end of the essay, your reader will be thinking, “Well, it never would have occurred to me before I read this, but now that I’ve read this brilliant essay, the conclusions it comes to seem perfectly obvious.” If you can get your reader to that point, you have probably written a brilliant essay.

Tip 22 (2017 Mar 9): Nobody produces perfect first drafts. Not even you.

If you think that there is any good writer in this world who gets inspired and sits down with quill pen in hand or in front of a keyboard and dashes off a work of genius before the next coffee break — if you think that, stop deluding yourself now. Good writers, nay, even great writers, don’t work that way. Their writing processes look pretty much like yours: they have trouble choosing a topic, they can’t figure out how to start, they get writer’s block, they get frustrated, they rip up false starts, it always takes them longer than they expect, the book they needed in the library is taken out by someone else, they have three other things due the same day, their children get sick, they can’t find the right word, they produce rambly paragraphs that get derailed and need to be rewritten, it’s three in the morning and nothing makes sense any more, they forget how to spell “onomatopoeia.”

So a good writer does not find writing any easier than anyone else; actually, good writers probably find it harder because they have higher standards. So what makes them good writers? It’s not because they don’t have those challenges; it’s because they’ve figured out how to deal with them.

I’m telling you this for two reasons:

  1. To warn you that writing is always hard work. There are no shortcuts.
  2. To assure you that if you are willing to put in the hard work, you can be a good writer. You don’t have to have a certain genetic profile or a certain kind of expensive education. You need to read lots, write lots, think hard about what you read, and learn from everything you write.

Tip 21 (2017 Mar 7): If using a website as a source, read the URL.

The URL (Uniform Resource Locator) is the “address” of the webpage. URLs follow conventions that can reveal some important information about the website you are on.

The stuff between the double slash (//) and the first single slash (/) is the domain name. Note the abbreviation after the last dot: this is the top-level domain.

  • A two-letter code tells you the country of origin. For example, public institutions in Canada often use “.ca” — e.g. www.usask.ca, the website of the University of Saskatchewan. But a “.ca” domain will not necessarily belong to a public institution; for example, the URL of my research project website is medievalcodes.ca.
  • If the domain name ends in .org, it is probably the website of an organisation.
  • If the domain name ends in .edu, it is probably the website of a university in the USA.
  • If the domain name ends in .com, it is probably the website of commercial entity, such as a private business. Use such websites with care; they are probably trying to sell you something.

If the URL includes a tilde (~), it indicates a private site even if it is hosted on the server of a public institution or an organisation. There’s usually no guarantee of the credibility or reliability of such individual sites and the hosting organisation will assume no responsibility for their content.

Tip 20 (2017 Mar 2): Use primary sources.

These are the “raw materials” that you are discussing and analysing. In a traditional literature class, they are the texts on your reading list. In this course, they are often the physical documents you are writing about. It is possible to write a research paper (depending on your topic) without secondary sources, which are books, articles, and other materials written by other people about your topic, but it is practically impossible to write a good research paper without primary sources. They are your main source of evidence. If you are writing about a literary text, quote it. If you are writing about documents, give specific examples, and perhaps even include pictures or submit a sample of the document with your paper.

Tip 19 (2017 Feb 28): Pay some attention to appearance.

Theoretically, this is the stuff that doesn’t really matter — your font, your margins, the quality of the printer, whether you keep the pages together with a staple or a paper clip, etc. After all, it’s the quality of your ideas and the quality of your writing that I am evaluating. However . . .

However, one of the fundamental things we are learning in this course, I hope, is that appearance does matter, that design makes a difference, and that documents convey information at least as much as text conveys information. I will do my best, when I grade your papers, to focus on your ideas and your writing, not on the high quality of the paper you chose. But I can’t guarantee that there might be subconscious factors that will affect the way I read your ideas and writing if you pay attention to visual formatting, or if you are sloppy about it.

More importantly, the care and attention you pay to details like layout and, yes, typography are also a reflection of how you approach writing. When you are composing your paper, making rough notes, writing that first draft, even making revisions, you are encouraged to be as sloppy as you need to be; don’t focus on your font size when you need to focus on constructing a persuasive argument. However, when you are producing the final document for submission, take a bit of effort to make it look good. It’s like dressing appropriately for a job interview: you are communicating your professionalism to your audience. Most importantly, you are communicating your professionalism to yourself, setting high standards for your writing. These are skills not just for this course, but for your life and your future careers.

Appearance isn’t everything, but it is something. Using a fancy paper clip or a special font will not save your paper if your writing is bad or if your ideas are ill-founded, and please don’t spend extra money on fancy stationery. But someone who produces good writing will usually also take the care to make their writing look good — will reprint the page that got the coffee stain on it, will make sure that the margins follow the guidelines specified, will indent paragraphs properly. If you want to impress a prospective employer, you will probably not show up at your job interview with holes in your jeans and a hangover, but will make sure you are clean, neat, and professional. If you want to impress your reader, take a bit of time and effort to make sure your documents are clean, neat, and professional as well.

Tip 18 (2017 Feb 14): Know the basic genres of research sources.

This is mostly useful when you are trying to figure out how to document your sources with a standard citation format. But knowing the basic types of scholarly sources is also useful for understanding the range of options available to you when you do research.

The three main types of print sources are:

  1. Books. These are also called “monographs” in the scholarly world. They are written by an author (or sometimes authors) who is responsible for all the content. Titles of books are put in italics.
  2. Book chapters. Some books are actually collections of essays by different people. These have editors, and then authors for the individual chapters. Think of each chapter as a work in itself, but put in a larger container (the book). Titles of individual chapters are put in quotation marks, and the title of the book is still in italics.
  3. Journal articles. Academic journals are usually published at longer intervals than non-scholarly periodicals like magazines. A magazine might be published weekly, but an academic journal is usually published quarterly (four times a year), biannually (twice a year), or annually (once a year). The journal’s editor is not usually noted in citations unless it is a special issue of a journal. The articles in an academic journal are written by different authors; the titles of the articles are put in quotation marks and the name of the journal (the container) should be in italics.

A university library catalogue lists books, but usually not book chapters or journal articles. To find these, you should use a bibliographic database such as the MLA Bibliography, or the U of S Library’s USearch function.

If you are citing a journal article that was published in print form but you accessed it online, cite it as if you were using it in print form.

Tip 17 (2017 Feb 9): Recognise the differences between scholarly and non-scholarly sources.

Not all information out there is created and published in the same way. An important distinction to make is between scholarly and non-scholarly research sources. What makes a source of information scholarly is, essentially, a combination of the credentials of the author and the publishing process. The scholarly community has developed, over centuries, standards and procedures designed to encourage reliable information to be published and questionable or non-reliable information to be screened out. Its methods are obviously not foolproof (lots of garbage has been published even in scholarly sources) but they are implemented for good reasons.

So check the credentials of the author. A good scholarly source will always identify the author, so that you can do so. Obviously a grade-6 student doesn’t have the credentials of a professor of economics when it comes to, say, explaining capitalism. Most scholarly sources are written by professional academics because they have had years of training to become knowledgeable in a specific field of expertise, and they also get paid to put extensive amounts of time and energy into this sort of writing. But note: an expert in one field of knowledge may not be an expert in another. Just because I have a PhD in English literature does not mean I am an expert in economics — actually, it probably means I’m not, and if you have passed a first-year economics course, you probably know more about economics than I do.

So there is also a system of publishing to ensure that scholarly sources have high standards for accuracy and good research. The most reliable scholarly sources are published after peer review. This means they have been read through by at least one other expert in the field (usually at least two) before they are allowed to be published. University presses and scholarly journals all use this peer-review system. That is why checking the publisher of the book, or the credentials of the journal, is important.

Non-scholarly sources may not be written by people with academic credentials, and they are usually not peer-reviewed. This does not mean that they are less valuable or less reliable than scholarly sources. You should certainly feel free to use non-scholarly secondary sources when appropriate. But the system of checks and filters used by scholarly publishing won’t be there, so you do have to exercise your own judgement about the reliability of non-scholarly sources.

Tip 16 (2017 Feb 2): Citations contribute to your argument.

Most students think that the main purpose of citing your sources is to ensure that you aren’t found guilty of plagiarism. Although it is true that this is one good reason to cite your sources, it is not the main one.

Citations support your argument. Look at it this way. If you make a claim and it doesn’t have a citation after it, you are implying that the claim is completely your idea, that you made it up. In many cases, I hope that you are writing your own ideas. That’s great. However, what about a claim like “Using a phone while driving increases your chances of causing a traffic accident”? Without a citation, that’s not sound evidence. How does your reader know you didn’t just make it up? Why should I believe you? But now add a citation: (McCartt et al. 100-101). Now you have evidence. Your reader can find the article by McCartt et al., read all the evidence presented there, and decide that your claim is well supported. You have just strengthened your argument considerably.

That’s why you should choose your sources carefully, document them thoroughly, and cite them accurately. Any failure to do so significantly weakens your argument; conversely, if you handle your sources well, your argument will be much stronger. And, of course, you’ll be exercising basic academic integrity by giving appropriate credit to the sources of your information, ideas, words, or images.

Work Cited

McCartt, Anne T., et al. “Cell Phones and Driving: Review of Research.” Traffic Injury Prevention, vol. 7, no. 2,  2006, pp. 89-106.

Tip 15 (2017 Jan 31): Choose research sources carefully.

The SF writer Theodore H. Sturgeon once said, famously, that “ninety percent of anything is crud.” Popularised as “Sturgeon’s Law,” this claim (sometimes with a slightly stronger word replacing “crud”) has been applied to mass media in the past and most recently to the information content of the Internet. Sturgeon’s Law can’t be proven, of course, since it is ultimately subjective, but I darkly suspect that it is true of all the stuff floating around out there (well, maybe not the exact percentage) that you could use as research sources for your next academic paper.

If you are more likely to find crud than credible or useful information when you do research, then it is one of the basic skills of research to evaluate your sources thoughtfully and in an informed way. I may provide more specific tips about this issue later, but for now, here are two good non-crud places on the Web to go:

University of British Columbia Library, “Evaluating Information Sources”: http://help.library.ubc.ca/evaluating-and-citing-sources/evaluating-information-sources/

Purdue Online Writing Lab, “Evaluating Sources”: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/553/1/

Tip 14 (2017 Jan 26): Read like a writer.

Every good writer I have met, among professional as well as student writers, reads a lot. There is no better training for writing than to read extensively, across a wide range of different text types, and thoughtfully. Find an example of writing that you consider effective — that is, you enjoyed reading it or were impacted by it in some way. Now look at it closely: why did it work so well? What things did the author do that you might be able to implement in your own writing?

One reason so many students struggle with academic writing is that they never read it in order to learn writing technique — at most, they use academic texts as fodder for research papers, which means that they are reading these texts for content and not for style. So now consider an academic source that you found useful for your last research paper. What do you notice about how it organises information, how it constructs an argument, what kinds of evidence it uses, how it employs citations, what kinds of vocabulary it uses, and how it establishes credibility? You can even analyse an example of academic writing that you found less useful — it was badly organised, difficult to understand, pretentious, unconvincing, unreliable, or pointless — to learn what not to do in your own writing.

Not only should you write for actual readers, you should read like an actual writer. It will take time to build up experience in this way, but it is probably the single most effective thing you can do to improve your writing skills.

Tip 13 (2017 Jan 24): Check out library resources.

The University of Saskatchewan library has a resource guide for the discipline of English. And in that guide is a special section on the History of the Book. How did I not tell you this before? Sorry.

Tip 12 (2017 Jan 17): Think of writing as a 3-stage process.

People who teach writing often break it down into a process with three stages. It works. Think of your writing process for an academic essay like this:

  1. Prewriting: this is where you focus on your topic, gather your materials (i.e. “do research”), and organise your ideas. Most people don’t spend enough time on this stage, and that is why they get stuck later.
  2. Writing the first draft: if you have done a good job in the Prewriting stage, you should be able to roar through this stage quite quickly. Produce a complete first draft as quickly as you can. Don’t get distracted by fiddling with your spelling or looking up unimportant details — you can deal with those later, in stage 3. The purpose of stage 2 is to form your ideas into an argument and get it written down. If you get stuck at this stage, you need to go back to stage 1 and work some more at getting more information or thinking through your ideas in more detail.
  3. Revision: go through your paper at least two times, working on a different level of revision each time. First, deal with matters of structure and content. Make sure your paragraphs are well-formed, your ideas are in a logical sequence and are connected into an argument, and that all your statements are accurate and specific. Second, proofread the paper for “technical problems” like spelling, grammar, punctuation, and accuracy and completeness of citations. Then you should be done. Make sure your name is on the first page and that you have a title, and hand it in.

Most people don’t spend enough time in stages 1 and 3 and spend too much time in stage 2. It helps to plan out the process and schedule time for each stage. The University of Saskatchewan even has an online Research Paper Planner tool to help you do this. Try it out for your next paper.

Tip 11 (2017 Jan 12): Avoid directionless direction words.

When writing about history and/or technology, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using two words that should be used very carefully and attentively: progress and advance(ment). They are both decent English words, and they both mean something. And that’s the problem.

Both those words, used to describe a historical or technological development, rely on a spatial metaphor. Both of them presuppose that you know where you are heading (or want to go) and are getting closer to that place. If I know what my goal is, I can write meaningfully that we are making progress toward that goal or that we are advancing toward it. But if I don’t state where we are supposed to be going, the words progress and advance mean nothing. Heading in any given direction is not, in itself, progress. Change is not necessarily an advance. These words presuppose that the direction or the change is positive. But maybe it isn’t. And if it is, you need to explain why.

As I am sure you are all aware, most technological innovations (a useful term which simply means “new things”) or changes have positive and negative dimensions. Often there is a lot of controversy over whether an aspect of a new technology is positive or negative, or whether the positives or the negatives are greater. Unless you are prepared to take a stand and argue that a technological change or development is (a) positive and (b) moves us closer to a stated goal, then don’t use direction words that have no sense of direction.

Tip 10 (2017 Jan 10): Turn off your grammar checker and spellchecker (you can turn your spellchecker on again later).

The most important aspect of writing is your ideas. Word processing software has no features that will help you with those. In fact, those little coloured squiggly lines that word processors put below words or phrases that they think you have spelled incorrectly or are ungrammatical — those might distract you from dealing with the ideas and information in your writing. So find out how to control those tools in your word processor. I recommend turning them off by default. That way, you can focus on your ideas for most of the writing process, without getting sidetracked into correcting spelling mistakes.

Grammar checkers tend to be notoriously unreliable for English. At least, they always give me horrible suggestions, and tend to miss actual grammatical problems. If you find they actually help you, okay, but otherwise leave them turned off.

Spellchecking can be useful. Turn it on only at the final stage of revising your writing, when you are proofreading for what I call “technical problems” — spelling, formatting, punctuation, and the like. Never trust the spellchecker to automatically replace words it thinks are wrong; go through the instances that it flags and make the corrections yourself. Remember that computer software doesn’t actually know how to write meaningfully and effectively. You do.

Tip 9 (2016 Dec 6): Write for actual readers.

Who are you writing for? Or, to put it another way, who do you expect will be reading your work? This is a fundamental question that should affect practically all of your writing choices. With the possible exception of private diaries, writing is usually meant to be read; primarily, it is supposed to be communication. Good writing keeps the reader in mind.

Many of you have commented, when writing about your blog posts, how that assignment has forced you think about who might be reading your post and how that might affect your style of writing. For example, if you are writing something that will be posted on the public Web and that anyone might read, you may have readers who will be turned off by a lot of technical jargon unless you explain it. So you may take extra care to avoid technical terms or at least to explain them.

Now apply this principle to “traditional” essay assignments for your university courses. In these cases you have the advantage of knowing exactly who your reader is, and if you are paying attention, you probably know a bit about that reader’s background, ideas, and preferences. Use that knowledge to your advantage. For example, if your professor has introduced a technical term in the course, then obviously your professor knows what that word means, and you don’t have to explain it unless a definition is a critical part of your argument. When writing about literature, don’t write long plot summaries about a text that has been assigned in class: your instructor has read the book, obviously. Present your ideas about the book instead.

I often read student writing that feels like it is written to no one. Such writing usually fails to be engaging; in other words, no one will want to read it. I will read it, to be sure, but only because I’m being paid to. So spare both of us the pain: consider your reader(s) when you write. We will all be happier.

Tip 8 (2016 Dec 1): You should have a thesis, but don’t obsess about your thesis statement.

This may seem revolutionary if you have been taught that every essay needs a one-sentence thesis statement at the end of your first paragraph. You won’t go too wrong doing that, but here’s the radical idea: you don’t have to. Lots of very good essays don’t follow the one-sentence-thesis-statement-at-the-end-of-the-first-paragraph formula (henceforth “the thesis statement formula” to save us all that hyphenated pain). The thesis statement formula is a device that is taught to beginning essay writers to ensure that they actually create a focussed thesis, turn it into a statement, and put it in a predictable place. But a good writer doesn’t have to follow the formula.

You can state a thesis in lot of ways. It doesn’t have to be entirely encapsulated in one sentence. A complex thesis often takes more than one sentence to explain. In fact, an essay may have more than one main point or thesis. As long as your essay forms an argument that leads to clear and definite conclusions (see Writing Tips 3 and 7 below), you are fine. Also, you don’t have to state your conclusions right up front in the first paragraph. Maybe you want to leave the reader in suspense and make the clearest and most comprehensive statement of them at the end of the essay. That’s fine too. Again (see Writing Tip 1), your structure should follow your ideas, not a formula.

Tip 7 (2016 Nov 24): Turn your topic into a thesis.

A topic is a phrase, but a thesis is a statement. The thesis is the shining, earth-shattering, profound, astonishing, utterly convincing conclusion to which you want your readers to come by the time they finish reading your essay. The topic is just the roadmap or the tourist brochure; the thesis is the place where you want actually to arrive.

For example, a topic might be “the advantages and disadvantages of e-books.” Notice that this is (a) a noun phrase without a verb in it, and (b) it doesn’t assert anything. Now you could try turning it into a thesis like this:

“E-books have advantages and disadvantages.” This could be a thesis, but it is a pathetically weak one. It lies limply on the page, sloshing around gently in a puddle of its own wishy-washiness. Anyone could make a statement like that without firing more than about half a neuron (I know that’s not possible, but you get my point). So let’s try again.

“E-books have more disadvantages than advantages.” Now you are saying something meaningful, courageous even. You are making a stand. You are taking an intellectual risk that now you will need to justify. This is much more likely to produce a strong piece of writing. If you wanted this thesis to pack even more punch, you could specify what the major advantages and disadvantages might be. (This might take you more than one sentence, but that’s okay; who said a thesis has to be just one sentence long? I rant about this in Writing Tip 8, above.)

“E-books will have more disadvantages than advantages as long as their publishers design them to be awkward imitations of print books.” Now this is a really intriguing thesis. It goes beyond the topic to suggest a line of argument and then put a twist in it. It may take you more work to get to this point, but if you write an essay that produces a thesis like this as the place you want your reader to go, and you can present clear and well-organised evidence to get the reader there, you have probably written something good.

Tip 6 (2016 Nov 22): Start each paragraph with a topic sentence.

Every paragraph you write in an expository essay should start with a topic sentence that states what the rest of the paragraph is about. I don’t subscribe to every so-called rule of writing out there, but this one actually works; it is a fundamental method for organising ideas in a written text.  The topic sentence should be as specific as possible to the material in the paragraph; if your topic sentence could apply equally to every other paragraph in your essay, it’s too general, or your essay is exceptionally unorganised. One way to make sure that your topic sentences are doing their job is to extract every one of them in order. When you do so, the result should be, essentially, an outline of the argument of your essay.

Then the rest of each paragraph should be clearly related to the topic sentence. Checking to make sure that your paragraph follows the topic sentence is a very good way of making sure that the paragraph has coherence — that it doesn’t switch topics halfway through or ramble about, mentioning random and irrelevant things. Essentially, paragraphs are ways to organise your ideas and supporting evidence into manageable clumps of information. Topic sentences label those clumps and ensure that they stay together.

Tip 5 (2016 Nov 15): What to do when you get your paper back.

  1. Take a deep breath. If you need to freak out (for whatever reason), do so in a reasonably civilised manner. If you’d like to come and see me about your mark, please don’t do so until after you have done the rest of the steps below.
  2. Please read my comment page attentively. I spend only a couple of seconds typing in your mark (but a lot more time thinking about it). I spend most of my marking time thinking about and composing the comments on your paper. They provide, I hope, more helpful feedback than a mere number could do.
  3. Go back over your paper and look at the comments, corrections, and suggestions with which I have marked up the text of the paper. Make sure you understand them all.
  4. Think about what you did well. This is as important as thinking about things that need improvement. Learn from what you are good at.
  5. Think about what you need to work on for the next writing assignment. It is probably best not to try to fix everything, but to focus on the fixes that (a) would have the greatest impact on improving your writing, and (b) are easily to remember and implement, such as making sure your citations are accurate. In my comments, I try to point you to the areas in which you should be investing the most effort to improve your writing.
  6. If you have any questions about my suggestions or comments, please feel free to come and talk to me.

You will get a lot more out of your education if you do not focus merely on grades, but focus more on what you can learn.

Tip 4 (2016 Nov 1): Avoid VUGs.

VUG is an acronym I invented for “Vast Unsupportable Generalisation.” VUGs are sweeping claims that you couldn’t possibly find enough evidence to support, and even if you did, you couldn’t present all the evidence convincingly within the word limit of your writing assignment. It doesn’t really matter whether the VUG is true; the point is that your sceptical reader is not likely to assume it is true, because you can’t support it.

An example of a VUG is a statement like “Since the beginning of history, people have always looked for better ways to communicate.” Any time you try to fit all of human history, or the entire universe, or anything else that huge, into one sentence, you are probably creating a VUG. Are you seriously going to show me evidence of this statement for every single human being since the beginning of history? I doubt it. And if you can’t supply the evidence to support this claim, don’t make it. Furthermore, this statement is demonstrably false; what about the people who try to confuse others rather than communicate with them, or antisocial people who don’t want to communicate with others, or people who simply don’t care about looking for better ways to communicate and muddle along with the methods they are used to? In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that most people aren’t spending their waking hours trying to find better ways to communicate. All it takes is one counterexample to falsify a VUG.

It is better to be more modest but more accurate in your claims. Go back to the topic of your essay. Chances are you haven’t been asked to write about human communication since the beginning of history (and if that is really your topic, give up now). So don’t bother trying to make a statement about it. If you must make a statement about an idea that huge, at least qualify it so that it’s more reasonable. Take out “since the beginning of history” and that deadly absolute “always.” Try something like “At various points in history, some people have tried to find better ways to communicate.” But even that sentence isn’t really specific enough. What points in history? What people? So revise it again, and now we’re getting to the real information: “The invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, in the middle of the fifteenth century, made mass-produced written communication more viable than ever before.” That’s much more meaningful than a VUG.

Tip 3 (2016 Oct 27): Construct an argument.

It’s rather unfortunate that we use the word argument to refer to the structure of an academic essay, because it makes us sound like we are always trying to pick fights with other scholars. So let me be clear that what I mean by argument, in the context of a writing an academic paper, is simply that the paper leads the reader to well-supported conclusions. There are two parts to this idea. The first is that the paper should include evidence to support its ideas. Depending on the topic and on what you want to do with it, this evidence could take many forms: quotations from other texts, paraphrases or summaries of what others have written, images or multimedia, information of all kinds, personal experience, previously published research, your own analysis, etc.  The more specific, appropriate, and accurate the evidence is, the more valuable it will be for supporting your conclusions.

The conclusions are your ideas about the material you have assembled as your evidence. They don’t even always have to be very conclusive: perhaps they are a series of intelligent questions raised by the material. (But it is a good idea at least to try to answer some of the questions.) In most university writing assignments, you are not going to solve the problems of the universe in 2000 words, so your conclusions don’t have to be be of cosmic import. They just have to be well-supported and thoughtful. It helps if they are interesting, at least to you. Conclusions should answer the question “So what?” Often the conclusions are called the thesis of an essay, but I deal with that in Tip 7 above.

Tip 2 (2016 Oct 25): You can use 1st-person pronouns. Sometimes.

First-person pronouns refer to you, the writer: they are words like “I,” “me,” and “my.” The simple guideline is this: Use them when you are writing about yourself. Don’t use them when you’re not.

Example: You are trying to argue that T. S. Eliot made his poem “The Waste Land” deliberately hard to understand. Don’t write, “I think that Eliot’s notes to his poem do not aid understanding.” Of course you think that, because you are writing it. Take out the filler phrase and write, simply, “Eliot’s notes to his poem do not aid understanding.” That’s much more direct and clear.

But now suppose you want to use your own experience as evidence for this point. Because you are now writing about yourself, it is appropriate to use the first person, e.g.: “The first time I read the poem, I found Eliot’s notes at least as incomprehensible as the poem itself.” Trying to avoid first-person pronouns in a sentence like that is going to involve you in horrible grammatical contortions.

A lot of students have been taught that the first person is not appropriate to formal writing. Stop worrying about how formal your writing should be. Focus more on making sure that your writing is clear, thoughtful, well informed, and organised.

Tip 1 (2016 Oct 20): Start with ideas.

I’ve met many students who seem to think that writing means following a formula, e.g. “in an academic essay you need an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph.” Don’t think like this. The problem is that this approach starts with a structure and then you have to squeeze your ideas into it. This is exactly the opposite of what should happen when you write. The point of writing (in this course, anyhow) is to communicate your ideas. I want to read your ideas. So start with your ideas. The structure of your essay (or blog post, or whatever it is) should reflect your ideas, not the other way around.

If you start with ideas, you will learn how to adapt to different formats and expectations. If you start with a structure, you’ll be thrown for a loop every time someone asks for a different kind of structure, and it will also be much easier to fall into the deadly trap of writing something with no ideas in it. Learn this: there is no such thing as a “normal essay.” An essay is a shortish thoughtful piece of nonfiction prose that tests your ideas (the word comes from French essayer, to try). It’s an art form. I don’t want you to follow any specific format. I want to read your ideas.

By the way, if your 2000-word essay has only five paragraphs, chances are your paragraphs are going to be too long and rambly. The five-paragraph structure might have been fine for a shorter high school assignment, but it usually doesn’t work very well for a serious university paper.