Top Ten ways to fix writing problems

   On a course evaluation form in a class I recently taught, a student wrote: "Change the professors attitude toward the neccessity of gramer skills. There seemed top be much more comments about grammer than need be."

   Sadly, that student believed I was concerned only about grammar, and he obviously did not share my passion for it. That is clearly evident in the number of errors in his note!

Be articulate, clear and persuasive

10. It is polite to point!
     If your paper does not grow out of a workable thesis statement, it is likely to drift. A good thesis does two things: it will state in affirmative terms what you intend to prove in your paper (its main point), and it will lay out a plan for accomplishing this. Here's an example thesis: "World War 1 resulted from a series of tensions that developed among European nations at the turn of the century. Among these were imperialism, militarism, and an unstable alliance system."

9. Sometimes it pays to be narrow minded.
     Students often try to do too much with a particular piece of writing (short essay or longer research paper). The average term paper cannot possibly contain everything there is to say about a subject. Look again at the sample thesis above. It narrows the discussion to just three aspects of World War I.

8. Sink rocks, don't skip stones.
     Pursue a few things in depth. No one wants to read something that merely mentions a slew of things. It is better to say a lot about a few things than a tiny bit about a lot of things. So, examine a limited number of issues in detail. Think of the difference between skipping a stone across a pond versus heaving in a big rock. Rocks make big waves; little stones barely trouble the surface.

7. Oh yeah, says who?
     Do not use a quote unless you make clear in the text who it is you're quoting. You cannot accomplish this with a footnote alone. Identify the speaker in the text. Example: According to historian Mary Beth Norton, "The prosperity of the late Gilded Age largely ignored industrial workers."

6. So what?
     Your research will turn up data that is significant as well as data that is simply trivia. It is your job to sift through and analyze material. A particular detail might intrigue you, but if it doesn't relate closely to your thesis, it's not relevant. Anticipate your readers' "so what?" questions. Unless you say why something is important, it may be seen as simply random information.

5. Finish your veggies ... and your thoughts!
     Tell the entire story, and tell your reader why you have included what you chose. Things may be clear in your mind, but your audience can only read what's on the paper. They cannot read what's in your mind.

4. One good example is worth a thousand colorful adjectives.
     Be specific. Every time you make a point, use an example to illustrate it. Any hack can open a thesaurus and find adjectives to string together. Good writers make their work come alive with examples that make ideas tangible and real. Don't tell me something was "really bad." Explain what made it bad.

3. Who in the world are "the people?"
     Avoid constructing categories so general that their comprehensiveness renders them questionable and even meaningless. Be concrete and specific. For example: "The Indians" is a vague phrase. "Cherokees in southwest Georgia in the 1820s" is specific. Or, the "American people" or "French people" or "Japanese people" as a whole have never agreed on a single thing. So, do not say they did. Tell me which people you mean.

2. Don't put socks in your underwear drawer.
     The vast majority of "organizational" problems occur when writers do not keep related material in the same place. Thoroughly discuss a topic, then move on to a different point. For example, if you're discussing Natives and slaves in a paper, discuss each separately. Don't begin to discuss Natives, switch to slaves, and then jump back to Natives. Your paper should be like an orderly chest of drawers, with each distinct item in its own place.

1. Proofread and edit.
     Careful proofreading and editing is the number one way to improve your writing. Sadly, few students do it well. Careless errors, clunky phrases, spelling mistakes, and deplorable grammar abound. Student writers sometimes think they're done once they put the final period on the page. Not so. Read your work. If what you've written sounds wrong to you, it's not going to sound any better to anyone else. Remember: Not knowing how to spell something is not a sin. It is a sin not to look it up.

Based on material by Rob Weir, Bay Path College. To e-mail, click here. Published in The Teaching Professor June/July 1998. Used by permission.

Characteristics of a piece of inappropriate student writing

  • Has an inappropriate tone such as:
    • Too personal
    • Disrespectful or sarcastic
    • A preachy ending
    • Pompous or artificially "academic" sounding
    • Too chatty or colloquial
  • Does not follow assignment directions
  • Does not seem to be arguing anything
    • Is rambling or even incoherent (rambles on and on without saying much of anything)
    • Has no thesis statement
    • Is full of vague assertions
    • Says thing that are inadequately supported with examples, hard data, or evidence of research
  • Sounds like an exercise (does not explain things for a more general audience than me — the professor — nor does it take itself seriously as a piece of writing someone would actually want to read)
  • Is poorly organized
    • Does not follow an introduction-body-conclusion structure
    • Too wordy or redundant
  • Is poorly presented as an academic paper (No title, no page numbers, or other necessary aspects of paper format)
  • Does not use the correct style (APA, MLA, Turabian)
  • Sounds plagiarized
    • Does not properly document secondary source material (from web-pages, journals and books)
    • Does not document secondary source material
  • Uses screwy sentences that make no sense
  • Overuses to be verbs
  • Contains jargon
  • Uses faulty parallelism
  • Overuses passive voice
  • Misuses terminology particular to a content area
  • Is full of spelling errors or irritating mechanical errors
    • Sentence fragments
    • Comma splices
    • Run-ons and fused sentences (joining 2 sentences together with just "and" or nothing at all)
    • Apostrophe errors
    • Mixing up or misspelling of simple words (confusing their, they're, there; too, to, two; its, it's; etc.)
    • Incorrect verb forms (He had went)
    • Subject/verb agreement errors (such as leaving off the -s for third person singular present tense)
    • Has repeated or illogical tense switching

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