Writing Tips

Writing Tips

There are many elements of writing a good paper. In this guide, I will address just eight aspects of this process. In addition to these eight rules, you need also to follow all normal conventions in writing (correct spelling, proper grammar, clear, concise sentences, active voice). If you have had trouble with writing papers in the past, I suggest that you seek help with your questions, drafts, or outline before the papers are due. In any case, review this sheet before you write your papers and then review it again after completing your first drafts. 

1. Avoid Global Openings.

Do not begin your papers with statements like: “Throughout history, people have struggled with the question of racism.” Instead, try for something that draws the reader into the specific subject on which you are focusing. For example, “After the Civil War, the governments of Southern States passed laws restricting the rights and opportunities of African Americans. In response, different African American leaders struggled to develop strategies to respond to these laws.”

2. Provide a Thesis Statement.

In your introduction, you will need a Thesis Statement. In one to three sentences, a thesis statement presents the main idea, argument, of your paper.

Your reader will take your thesis statement seriously. For example, let’s assume your thesis statement was: “The early civil rights movement was unified and effective but the later civil rights movement was splintered and thus did not have many successes.” I will then expect the paper to demonstrate that the early civil rights movement was “unified” and explain how it was “effective.” Then the paper will also need to show how and why the later civil rights movement splintered and achieved very little. If your paper covers LESS or MORE than your thesis statement, your reader will be confused. And we all want to avoid confusion when communicating.

3. Use Topic Sentences and Have Coherent Paragraphs.

Each paragraph in your paper should begin with a clear sentence indicating the scope of the paragraph and its role in developing your argument. For example, consider a paragraph that begins “President Diem’s rule was doomed by his inflexible pride and the unbridled ambitions of his family.” This paragraph would give an example of Diem’s pride, would explain the effect of his family’s ambitions on his presidency and would conclude by noting his murder by former aides disgruntled by his decisions and ruling styles.

In contrast, a less clear paragraph on the same topic might begin with “President Diem was doomed.” A truly confusing paragraph would simply start talking about President Diem without any indication of purpose. Remember that each paragraph develops your overall argument. As you write, check whether the information in each paragraph is relevant to your argument (and your thesis statement). If it is not, you may want to change your thesis or you may have gone off your topic.

4. Write in the Past Tense When Writing About the Past; Write in the Present Tense When Discussing a Text or Film.

In other words, use the appropriate tense. You should use the past tense in your papers. You are writing about events that happened in the past. Do not write, “The Beatles attract considerable attention from girls because they are talented and sexy.” If you were alive in 1964, you could have written this sentence, but is not appropriate (or even true) for 1999.

What about quotations you might wonder? Many people choose to introduce quotations in the present tense. For example: “During the early 1930s, Robert Goldberg asserts, ‘the [Communist] party positioned itself as the vehicle for men and women whose discontent was immediate and situational . . .’” This usage is acceptable but not required. You can write the sentence in the past tense: “During the early 1930s, David Goldberg asserted, ‘the [Communist] party positioned itself as the vehicle for men and women whose discontent was immediate and situational . . .’” I strongly suggest that you always use the past tense.

5. Use Simple, Clear Language to Express Your Ideas. Clarity, Clarity, Clarity.

The secret to learning how to write well and clearly is to begin by writing simply. Complex ideas occasionally call for correspondingly complex language, but the most effective writer is the one who can convey complex ideas in language that is simple, straightforward, and accessible. Writing clearly is as difficult as thinking clearly, and both are very difficult. Write to clarify your ideas at the same time that you consider with care the clarity of what you have written. That, in a nutshell, is the purpose of writing more than one draft of your paper. Begin by stating to yourself the point you wish to make. When you have formulated your point in words that make sense to you, put it down on paper as you have worded it to yourself. See if it makes sense when you read it out loud. You may have to revise your wording. If you do, you’ll follow in the steps of every good writer. Remember, choose simple words and phrases.

Once you have written a draft of your paper, it is a good idea to read your paper out loud to yourself or to a friend. You will better hear the lapses in logic, the phrasing in need of clarifying, and the absence of necessary information. This is the piece of advise that most students ignore, but the ones who heed it come back to me in astonishment at how much difference it made in their composition.

6. Use Short, Well-Chosen Quotations in Your Papers

The most effective papers will use short quotations from the assigned readings, especially from primary sources if those are available to you (documents produced in the past during the period you are discussing). These quotations must be indicated with quotation marks (“like this.”). In general, you should never quote more than a single sentence. If you do quote extensively, the quotation should be its own paragraph, indented on both the right and left sides. Short, well-chosen quotations will help support your argument and add vitality to your papers. You must have a good reason for any quotation you use. Is there something especially helpful about the author’s wording that bears repeating? Is it a quotation that supports your argument?

In addition, you should introduce every quote or incorporate it smoothly into the sentence. For example, Robert and Helen Lynd argue that most teenage girls in Middletown were “planning to work after graduation ... only 3 percent said definitely that they did not expect to work.” Or, for example: Some southerners argued that the recently freed slaves were a threat to “our Anglo- Saxon race and Anglo-Saxon government.”

7. Provide Citations for Your Papers in Footnotes or Endnotes.

You are required to cite the sources for the information, paraphrases, and quotations in your papers. For this class, you MUST USE footnotes or endnotes or parenthetical citations in your papers. These citations document the source of any paraphrase or summary, of any information that you did not know before writing the paper, and of any direct quotations. Bear in mind, however, that, since I assume you have little background in the subject, I will need to know the source of any specific information about your subject you provide in your paper.

Remember that the numerical reference to footnote or endnote should always appear at the end of the sentence. If you have more than one citation in the same sentence, combine them into one citation. The numerical references should run in consecutive order from 1 to 7 (or, however, many citations you need. You may have footnotes at the bottom of the page or put all the citations at the end in endnotes. If you do not have word processing software that easily accommodates footnotes, you will want to do endnotes.

8. Conclude Your Paper with the Significance of Your Argument.

The conclusion of your paper should emphasize the significance of the argument of the paper. You do not want to introduce a brand-new topic. You do not want to repeat your introduction. You may want to emphasize how your argument can help people to think about the past differently.

Remember, many writers only figure what their point is after they have completed a first draft. It is quite common to work out what a paper is arguing only after you have written the first draft of the conclusion. But you want to use that insight to revise your introduction! And even then you may need to write a different conclusion. Always compare your introduction and your conclusion. Your introduction should suggest the material in your conclusion but the two should not repeat each other.