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How to fix your writing problems

How 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.

How to fix your writing problems?

Be articulate, clear and persuasive

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

  • Has an inappropriate tone such as:
    • Too personal
    • Disrespectful or sarcastic
    • A preachy ending
    • Pompous or artificially “academic”
    • 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 or “main point ” statement
    • Is full of vague assertions
    • Says thing that are inadequately supported with hard data, examples or evidence of research
  • Sounds like busywork exercise (does not explain things for a more general audience than he 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)
  • 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)
    • Repeatedly or illogically switches from present to past and back again

— 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:

  • Turn being verbs into doing ones.
    Verbs such as is, are, were, and has been make your writing sound flat and bureaucratic. To turn dull writing into engaging prose, change being verbs into doing ones. For example:
    Being verbs: “I was at the church last week, and was given a tour of the building.”
    Doing verbs: “I visited the church last week and toured the building.”
  • Write concretely, instead of abstractly.
    Expressing your thoughts concretely gives the reader a clear picture of what you are saying. Having trouble thinking of a concrete phrases to replace abstract ones? Then, think of how you would communicate that same ideas in a conversation. We tend to speak in a more concrete manner than we write.
  • Write precisely.
    Imprecise writers use extra words and syllables. Precise writers use fewer words to communicate the same ideas. As you proofread, look for places to substitute one word for two of them or a shorter word for a longer one.
  • Ask rhetorical questions.
    As you write, think of the questions that might pop into your readers’ minds. For example: “What purpose do rhetorical questions serve?” Because human beings are curious, rhetorical questions encourage people to continue reading. They will start looking for an answer to the question you have posed.
  • Personalize large numbers.
    When readers think information affects them personally, they will pay more attention. Engage your readers by expressing numbers in human or visual terms. Here’s an example:
    Original sentence: “There are 200,000 car accidents due to drunk driving in this country each year.”
    Improved version: “One in three car accidents in our city involves a drunk driver.”
  • Write in the active voice.
    Passive sentences: “At last week’s meeting, it was agreed that the old software must be replaced.”
    Active voice: “At our last meeting, we agreed to replace the old software.”
    If you need to conceal the identity of the person or group involved, use the passive voice. Otherwise, write in the active voice.

How can I be a better proofreader?

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.

  • Never proofread anything immediately after you have written it.
    Take a break after you’ve written something. When you come back to it, the document will look fresh and you’ll be more likely to notice mistakes.
  • Try proofreading from the bottom up. This will force you to focus on individual words rather than on meaning.
  • Read your papers out loud.
    Not only will you catch typographical errors by reading aloud, you are more likely to hear incorrect or awkward phrasing.
  • Use your computer’s spell- and grammar-check features.
    Most word processing programs highlight spelling and grammar mistakes on screen. Grammarly is an app that will be helpful!
  • Proofread twice.
    • First, read a paper through for content. Ensure that all of the information is correct.
    • Once you are satisfied with the content, read through the paper again, checking spelling and grammar.
  • Don’t do all your proofreading on the computer screen.
    Mistakes are easier to catch on paper (what some call “hard copy”) than they are on computer screens.
  • Develop a buddy system in which someone else proofreads everything you write.
    You know what you meant to say. Thus, although your eye sees an error, it may not register in your mind. Since your brain “knows”what is supposed to be there, another person proofreading your written work will often spot more errors in you writing than you can