Top Ten ways to fix your writing problems

On a course evaluation form for a course I recently taught, a student wrote: "Change the professor's attitude toward the necessity of grammar skills. There seemed to be much more comments about grammer than need be."

Sadly, that student believed I was concerned only about grammar and other writing issues, and the student obviously did not share my passion for them.

Be articulate, clear and persuasive

10. It is polite to point!
If your paper does not grow out of a workable thesis (or main point) statement, it will likely drift. A good main point statement 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 in a 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. Do not try to accomplish this with just a footnote. Instead, identify the speaker in the text like this: 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 very significant as well as things that are 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 that your readers will ask "so what?" questions. Unless you say why something is important, readers may see it 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. However, your audience can only read what's on the paper. They cannot peer into 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 come up with a string of adjectives. Good writers make their work come alive with examples that render 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 indigenous people and slaves in a paper, discuss each separately. Don't begin discussing indigenous people, switch to slaves, and then jump back to indigenous people. 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 likely will not sound any better to someone 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. Originally published in The Teaching Professor. Used and edited with permission.

Characteristics of a piece of inadequate student writing

     -- Howard Culbertson

Writing with pizzazz

How to write clearly and persuasively

Doing something with pizzazz means to do it with flair, energy and excitement. Though few of us aspire to winning Pulitzer Prizes with our writing, we do want our writing to be a credit to us.

In her book Writing on the Job: Quick, Practical Solutions to All Your Business Writing Problems, author Cosmo Ferrara tells how to add pizzazz to writing:

Adapted from an article in "The Office Professional," Used with permission and under the "fair use" provisions of U.S. copyright acts.

How can I be a better proofreader?

Want to eliminate small, annoying errors in your writing?

Like most college professors, I've seen lots of hilarious errors in student-written papers. Here are two recent ones which would have been caught by good proofreading:
  • "There were a lot of times where Jesus would speak to huge crows such as at the Sermon on the Mount."
  • "What struck me most was they way they embarrassed the gospel"

Eliminate distracting errors

Do you proofread your writing? If you don't take that last minute look for mistakes before handing in papers, you may let some errors slip by that will affect your grade. Just depending on a computer spell-check will not be enough.


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