Tips on Writing

College is a time like no other in one's life. In addition to learning professional skills necessary for a career, college should offer the opportunity to dedicate the majority of one's attention toward becoming an articulate and eloquent force of logic and reason. This aim is partially accomplished through knowledge acquisition, but simply cannot be truly obtained without the additional skill of writing.

Writing is not simply the act of making words appear consecutively on a document, nor is writing just the jotting down of some loose associations. It is much more a method of clearly and concisely formulating thoughts and ideas, and supporting them with strong evidence. Therefore, do not take writing lightly. If you do not take your writing seriously, there is no reason to believe that the reader will.

Writing is a skill that takes dedicated and purposeful practice. This is why I require students in my courses to complete some writing-based assignments. My hope is that students will find these tasks challenging, intriguing, and helpful in their educational growth. It is also the reason that I have created this page with some suggestions for how to improve your writing generally.

The Purpose of Writing

Take a moment to reflect on the process of writing. It is not something that comes naturally to many people, and perhaps that has something to do with the fact that writing has been around for a relatively limited amount of time in the evolutionary process. Like most creatures, humans tend to feel things first. We humans then have to put into words why we feel the way we do. That is a difficult skill for many people, and yet it can bring to light desires and values of which we were previously unaware. The dissection of these thoughts and ideas is powerful in helping us understand ourselves, but by accurately communicating our thoughts to one another we avoid confusion and reach an understanding of each other.

It is arguably far more difficult to write than to talk about our thoughts and feelings, because in writing we do not have the additional forms of communication as with body language, tone, and verbal emphasis. All of these reasons make it even more crucial to take writing seriously--what we write is like a permanent transcript of our thoughts and ideas.

Here are some tips that I hope are helpful in building stronger writers. Many of these are my opinions, and others are stylistic recommendations from formal organizations.

Understand the Point of the Writing.

Some assignments are supposed to assess your knowledge of complex material, whereas others are there to test your ability to dissect competing viewpoints. Other writings may be for the express purpose of sharing your own personal opinion. Know the difference, and then do not confuse these.

Omit Sections That Do Not Actually Address the Issue at Hand.

For example, if you are writing an essay analyzing the legal procedure following a case of hospitalization, then it would not be relevant to also write:


"When I was first reading through the description of Ursula, I thought it was really sad that all of that happened to her."


Unless your assignment is specifically to reflect on your feelings, this statement does not seem relevant for an academic analysis.

Never Rely on the Reader to "Know What You Mean." Instead, write what you mean.

Your job as the writer is to clearly communicate what you mean in such a way that it is almost impossible to misunderstand or fall short of understanding. Do not just jot down your first pass of ideas and assume that "they'll get it." Read what you have written, trying to misunderstand it. If you cannot misunderstand it, then you may have done a good job writing.

Specifically, it will help to define your terms. Too often, a developing writer uses a loaded phrase or term that actually is not clearly defined. When the term is not clearly understood by both the reader and the writer, then all of the writing that depends on that term is prone to misunderstanding.

For example, "Proper healthcare is an aim of social justice." This brief sentence uses terms that are loaded in mystery. First, what does the writer think that "proper" means? Is that state-of-the-art healthcare, basic services, services including dental and vision, or something else? Additionally, the term "social justice" can be used by just about anyone to mean just about anything, and so the writer should spend some space clearly describing what they mean by that phrase.

Proofread and Edit Multiple Times.

If you do nothing else I recommend, please at least read through what you have written before you turn it in. This process serves multiple purposes. First, it allows you to find typographical errors and misspellings, or other problems that will jump from the page when your reader sees it. Second, it allows you to find ways to make your point even clearer or more concise. You should read through each sentence thinking to yourself, "Is there a way that I could make this sentence even better (i.e., clearer, stronger, or more concise)?"

Example: First draft- "The history of Britain is a long one that is also very interesting." There are unnecessary words, and the cadence of the sentence is choppy.
Second draft- "Britain has a long and interesting history." Concise, and directly to the point.

Avoid Words and Phrases That Do Not Actually Mean Anything.

Ensure that the words and phrases you choose actually communicate something to the reader. Frequently, students add in flowery-but-useless language in their writing. Here are some examples:


Useless inclusion of "being."


"That being said..." This use of the word is awkward and does not actually mean anything. First, because a sentence does not "say" anything--it "states" something. Second, what the writer is probably trying to communicate instead is something like "although the thing I just wrote is correct, there are a few exceptions." Thus, why not just write that or something like it?


Awkward: "Serial killers are typically male. That being said, some serial killers are female."
Better: "Serial killers are typically male. However, there are notable exceptions..."

"Being that he was there for only one day..." This is grammatically awkward, as the word "being" does not actually communicate the meaning the reader intends. There are many clearer ways to phrase this, so use one of them. "Given the fact that he was there for only one day..." "Because he was there for only one day..." "Considering he was present for a single day..."

"His being there was a mistake." This is awkward. Why not just phrase it clearly? "His presence there was a mistake." "He should not have been there."

Example: "At the end of the day..."
Unless you specifically are referring to the last portion of a 24-hour-period, this phrase is just fluff. Usually, what the writer means is something else, so why not use the accurate phrase?

Needlessly fluffy: "At the end of the day, the jury is the group who decides guilt and innocence."
Better: "It is ultimately the jury who decide whether a defendant is guilty."

Example: "When it comes to..." is also often meaningless. My question is "To what does 'it' refer in that phrase?"

Needlessly fluffy: "When it comes to police interview styles, some are better than others."
Better: "Police interview styles differ in many ways, including in their effectiveness."

Avoid Overly Flashy or Presumptuous Words

Some writers seem to choose words or phrases that sound fancy, but actually are incorrect, meaningless, or presumptuous.

Example: "myself"

 

This practice is more common with speakers, but people frequently misuse the word "myself." Although it may sound formal, the appropriate use of "myself" or "yourself" is limited to very specific circumstances when the subject of the sentence is referring to itself.

Correct: "May I introduce myself?"

 

In this case, "I" is the subject, and "myself" is the object of the sentence. Because the object and the subject are the same person or entity, a reflexive pronoun is appropriate here.

Incorrect: "If anyone would like to chat, please see myself after class."

 

In this case, "anyone" is the subject, and "myself" is the object. Because they are not the same entity, the use of the reflexive pronoun is inappropriate. Instead, this sentence should read, "...please see me after class."

Example: "Amongst" and "whilst"

Although this is certainly a stylistic choice, I recommend avoiding using words for reasons that are purely to come across as flashy. Instead, choose words for their precision in meaning. An excellent example of this issue is when I see writers use the words "amongst" or "whilst" when the words "among" and "while" are perfectly correct. In United States English, these words ending in "st" may sound fancy, but that is all. I find that their use nearly always subtly communicates to the reader a lack of substance.

Correct Use of Modifiers

A modifier is a word that changes the meaning of another word in the sentence. You might say "I want to have a black coffee." In that case, "black" is not just an adjective, but it also modifies the kind of coffee requested, making it a modifier. Normally, that type of modifier is not misplaced in writing. However, some modifiers are often misplaced. For example, "only" is a common modifier that is nearly always misplaced. "Only" should come immediately before the word it is supposed to modify, and not at any other point. Here is an example:

Incorrect: "Such a view can only be held by a psychologist."

 

Because the "only" precedes "be held," this sentence means "A psychologist can only hold this view." That is, a psychologist cannot do anything else with the view, except to hold it.

Presumably, what the writer means to state is "Such a view can be held only by a psychologist." In this case, the "only" restricts the "psychologist." It could now be rewritten as "Only a psychologist can hold this view, and no one of another profession."

Incorrect: "I only want to take one class."

 

Because "only" precedes "want," it modifies the meaning of "want." That is, the sentence seems to say, "The only thing I want is to take one class," or "I do not need to take one class: it is something I only want." Instead, the person probably means, "I want to take only one class." This latter sentence makes it clear that the person means that the number of classes they want to take is one, and not more than one.

In conversation, modifiers like this get misplaced all of the time, so keep an eye out for it in your writing.

Contractions Are Not For Formal Writing.

A contraction is a word that is formed when two words are merged together and shortened by removing at least one letter. For example, the words "can" and "not" can be merged into "can't."

When talking, we frequently contract words because they sound more natural. This practice comes across as overly casual in formal writing, however.

 

Overly casual: "The participants didn't share their history of mental illness."

 

This sentence would sound more professional and formal as "The participants did not share their history of mental illness."

Unless you do so with specific purpose, such as in a quotation or because your writing is for a less-formal outlet, do not use contractions in formal writing.

The Oxford Comma is Your Friend.

As I noted above, clarity is vital in writing. One place where it is important to avoid ambiguity is in giving lists or sequences. To ensure your reader follows your meaning, use commas between each item in the list, including the last two. Sometimes the meaning of the sentence is clear from the context, but sometimes it is not, so always use the comma, known sometimes as the "Oxford comma," between those last two items.

Unclear: "Serial killers often use hands-on methods of killing their victims, such as strangulation, stabbing and bludgeoning."

This sentence could be misunderstood by reading that there are two methods of killing: (a) strangulation and (b) stabbing with bludgeoning.

Clear: "Serial killers often use hands-on methods of killing their victims, such as strangulation, stabbing, and bludgeoning."

The sentence above includes the Oxford comma between "stabbing" and "bludgeoning," and so it is clear to the reader that they are two separate things.

Never Use "Should of,"  "Could of," and Others.

Although it sounds like we say this in spoken English, there is virtually no reason to ever use these words next to each other. What we actually speak is "should've," "could've," and "would've." But do not write these either (they are contractions). Write out the full words, "should have," etc.

Avoid Using Words That Are Absolute, Unless You Mean Them Absolutely.

It may be tempting to use words that leave no room for exception, because they come across as strong and confident. However, if used when they do not apply, these words can undermine the argument.

Words like "never," or "everyone," or "always," or "will," and so on leave no exceptions to the statement in which they are used, but in reality, there are often exceptions. Therefore, avoid these words unless you are certain they apply.

Absolute statement: "Everyone wishes to live in harmony with those around them, and so..."

But no, actually not "everyone" wants to live in harmony with those around them. Terrorists, warmongers, psychopaths, narcissists, sadists, and many other sorts of people do not want to live in harmony with others, so do not incorrectly state that they do.

Before using a word that means something absolute, carefully consider whether it is actually true.

Subjects and Verbs Must Get Along.

Another common error is when writers use the wrong verb conjugation for the subject of their sentence. Nearly always, they will use the singular form of the verb when they have a plural subject.

Incorrect: "The shock and awe of the situation was overpowering."

Shock and awe are two things, and thus the verb needs to match the plural subject, as "are." The word "situation" is singular, which is why it may seem natural to use the singular form of the verb immediately following it. The problem is that the verb is not in reference to "the situation," as it is not the subject of the sentence.

Correct: "The shock and awe of the situation were overpowering."

Incorrect: A small proportion of people are prone to schizophrenia.


Correct: A small proportion of people is prone to schizophrenia.

Connect "This."

A common error in writing is to assume that your reader is always following your train of thought. In this vein, some writers will talk about some subject in a sentence, and then in the next sentence will continue to refer to it as "this," assuming that the reader still knows what that means. Rather than make such assumptions, it is good practice to just state again to what you refer. 

Example: "Psychologists and psychiatrists often disagree about the underlying epidemiology of a certain disorder. This leads to further confusion for the course of treatment."

In the second sentence, it seems likely that "this" means "this disagreement," but because the writer did not state that clearly, the reader may misinterpret the meaning. Maybe it means "this underlying epidemiology," or "this disorder."

 

Rather than leave an unspecified "this" in a sentence, simply connect a word to it to help the reader keep on the same page as you.

Organize.

A frequent shortcoming I see in developing writers is that they do not organize their thoughts. Maybe it is because texting and Twitter have tossed aside all decency in this regard, but organization is vital toward good formal writing. If you want to make a strong point, it is much easier to make that point when your reader can follow your thought flow.

A paragraph is a group of two or more sentences that are linked together through a common theme or focus. Paragraphs cover an idea or theme, and then they transition the focus of the reader into the next idea or theme. Perfecting thought flow is tricky as writers often struggle to decide exactly how ideas are related, or how best or thoroughly to describe an idea. That is also why it is a necessary skill in becoming a better writer.

If you find that one sentence does not seem to have the same focus as both the sentence that precedes it and the sentence that follows it, consider rethinking whether it belongs there.

Example: "Blood spatter pattern analysis is important in forensic investigations. The direction of the impact can be inferred by the shape of the blood drops. It is important to photograph spatter patterns before swabbing them."

In the example above, each sentence has something to do with blood spatter pattern analysis, but it is not clear what they have to do with each other. The reader wonders "Why would knowing the direction of impact be important? What does photography have to do with the direction of impact, and how does that make it important in investigations?

To assist with organizing your thoughts, try creating an outline of your paper before you sit down to write it. An outline is sort of like a scaffolding of your future writing: You will decide what are the main points you want to get across to your reader, how you plan to support those main points, and in what order you will do that.

Download an example of an outline here.

Topic Sentences Matter.

When you start writing the actual paper, you can use the outline to guide you. It may be helpful to think of each bullet point in your outline as a topic sentence (although some of the sub-points will be supporting sentences).

A topic sentence is the first sentence or two of a paragraph. The topic sentence has several purposes: It should forecast to the reader what the focus of the paragraph is, it should also summarize the main point of the paragraph, and it may also give the reader a road map of the next few things the writer will cover. Here are some examples of good topic sentences:

Example 1: Psychotherapy may take on several different forms, but each approach shares three main elements. These elements are: (a) offering hope, (b) offering new perspective, and  (c) a warm, trusting relationship.
(The rest of the paragraph will further describe each of these three elements of psychotherapy).


Example 2: Andrea Yates's actions were the result of a culmination of several psychological and circumstantial factors.
(The rest of the paragraph will outline these factors.)

One piece of advice I like is to write your paper in such a way that a reader could read just the first sentence of each paragraph and still have a good idea of the main arguments of the paper, and see the logical flow of ideas.

Contrast these good examples of topic sentences with a poor example:

Poor example 1: "Another important thing to know about psychology is that it has been around for a long time and also works with children."

(This sentence brings up two different ideas, so that it is not clear what the rest of the paragraph will have as its focus).