Hey there guys! This week’s article is a guest post by Ransom Patterson.
Ransom is a sophomore at the College of Wooster majoring in English and has been an incredibly active CIG reader – leaving well thought-out comments on articles, listening to the podcast, submitting listener tips and questions for Q&A episodes, and more – all things that I’ve been incredibly happy and grateful to see.
Not only that, but Ransom has also taken the time to create his own website, portfolio, and blog using the personal website guide – and he did it when he was a freshman! I can safely say that Ransom’s got his sh*t together.
On his blog, Ransom’s been writing about grammar usage and other English tips – things that are definitely useful to students. Based on this work, I’m happy to bring you a guest post from him – enjoy his writing tips, and start crafting kick-ass papers!
I don’t know about the rest of you, but here at my school midterms are right around the corner.
For lots of you I’m sure that means a bunch of papers will soon be due. With that in mind, here are six tips to help your writing stand apart (note that 300% is merely an estimate of your improvement. YMMV).
1. Don’t Trust Spell Check!
We’re quite lucky that we have software that can catch our spelling mistakes.
Despite all its sophistication, though, it’s still no substitute for knowing proper usage. Computers are stupid; they can’t distinguish such subtleties as the difference between:
- “your” and “you’re”
- “its” and “it’s”
- “their,” “they’re” and “there.”
Don’t be the student who turns in a paper with these basic errors – always proofread your papers! Or visit your school’s writing center (see tip 5).
2. “Its” Does Not Equal “It’s”
Since spell check doesn’t know the difference, this rule bears repeating. It’s bad enough to make this error in an informal social media situation, but it’s a truly capital offense in formal writing (this mistake irks every English professor or teacher I’ve had).
So what’s the difference?
“Its” is the possessive form of “it,” as in,
“The corgi loved its lobster costume.”
Only use “its” when referring to something that you could safely call “it.” People generally do not fit this category, particularly in formal writing.
“It’s,” on the other hand, is the contracted (which is just a fancy way of saying shortened) form of “it is.”
Just as “you’re” is short for “you are” or “they’re” is short for “they are,” so “it’s” is short for “it is.” Only use “it’s” where you could also use “it is,” as in,
“Look at the corgi–it’s so cute!”
If you remember the difference between its and it’s, you’re certain to impress your professors.
3. When in Doubt, Stick to Third Person (Usually)
When you’re writing a formal paper, it’s generally best to stick to the third person.
Avoid phrases such as “I believe,” “I think,” or “you know.” Not only are these phrases inappropriately informal, but they also make your writing seem weak and wishy-washy. If you really think or believe something, show it with concrete evidence.
Writing Commons has a more nuanced view on this topic, but this observation is a good one for writers who are unsure:
“Why do teachers often counsel against using the first person in an academic paper? Used too frequently or without care, it can make a writer seem self-centered, even self-obsessed. A paper filled with “I,” “me,” and “mine” can be distracting to a reader, as it creates the impression that the writer is more interested in him- or herself than the subject matter.
Additionally, the first person is often a more casual mode, and if used carelessly, it can make a writer seem insufficiently serious for an academic project.”
Once important exception to this rule is if you are writing a personal reflection paper. The essays you wrote as part of your college application probably fit this category.
Knowing how to write about yourself is essential when applying to graduate school or filling out job applications, especially on those pesky cover letters. Talking about yourself can be uncomfortable and difficult, but it’s a skill you neglect at your peril.
4. Be F*cking Specific!
Compare the following two sentences and tell me which is more descriptive:
- The corgi liked her new ball.
- The corgi chased her new ball with relish.
Hopefully you would agree the second example is more descriptive and interesting than the first. This is because the second example is specific! Instead of vaguely stating that the corgi “liked” her new ball, the second example demonstrates that by describing a concrete action the corgi took.
Apply this principle to your papers, and you will be lightyears ahead of most students. As one of my current professors, Dr. Prendergast, puts it,
“If you’re having trouble meeting the minimum word count for a paper, it’s probably because you’re not being specific enough.”
Just remember: Show the reader, don’t tell them.
5. Don’t Fear Your School’s Writing Center
I imagine your school has some sort of writing center, a place where you can get knowledgeable people to help you make your writing assignments awesome.
Use this resource! (you’re paying for it regardless) There’s no shame in getting help, and it’s always good to have someone look over your work before publishing/submitting it. Even super famous authors have editors.
If you’re not sure if your school has one, just Google “Name of your school” + “writing center.”
6. Have a Point!
Ever get halfway through watching a movie and wonder, “What was the point of this film again?”
There’s plenty of action, the special effects are spectacular, but you’re unsure why you’re watching it (think Transformers 4).
Don’t let this happen to your paper. Don’t write just to fill space – begin with a point in mind and follow it through to a strong conclusion. This isn’t always easy, particularly if the paper is long, but it’s essential that you keep your point (or “thesis” in academic terms) at the forefront of your paper at all times. Every word you write should, to some degree, further this point.
This is why the stereotypical “Five Paragraph Essay” with the introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion is such a popular way of teaching students to write – it makes sure you establish your point from the outset, state three pieces of evidence in support of it, and then bring it to a (hopefully) strong conclusion. Don’t be a slave to this formula, but feel free to use it if you’re not sure where to begin.
Just remember, your professors hate reading pointless, meandering papers just as much as you hate watching Michael Bay’s pointless crap (was that too harsh?). Editor’s note: I love watching Michael Bay’s pointless crap because I am secretly a 5-year-old and ROBOT DINOSAURS
These are just a few tips to get you started. If you want more in-depth advice, I recommend the following blogs/sites:
These books are also excellent:
Good luck, and may the grammar gods smile on you in all your writing endeavors.
Images: Startup stock photos, corgi, transformers
Every essay or assignment you write must begin with an introduction. It might be helpful to think of the introduction as an inverted pyramid. In such a pyramid, you begin by presenting a broad introduction to the topic and end by making a more focused point about that topic in your thesis statement. The introduction has three essential parts, each of which serves a particular purpose.
- The first part is the “attention-grabber.” You need to interest your reader in your topic so that they will want to continue reading. You also want to do that in a way that is fresh and original. For example, although it may be tempting to begin your essay with a dictionary definition, this technique is stale because it has been widely overused. Instead, you might try one of the following techniques:
- Offer a surprising statistic that conveys something about the problem to be addressed in the paper.
- Perhaps you can find an interesting quote that nicely sums up your argument.
- Use rhetorical questions that place your readers in a different situation in order to get them thinking about your topic in a new way.
- If you have a personal connection to the topic, you might use an anecdote or story to get your readers emotionally involved.
- For example, if you were writing a paper about drunk drivers, you might begin with a compelling story about someone whose life was forever altered by a drunk driver: “At eighteen, Michelle had a lifetime of promise in front of her. Attending college on a track scholarship, she was earning good grades and making lots of friends. Then one night her life was forever altered…”
- From this attention grabbing opener, you would need to move to the next part of the introduction, in which you offer some relevant background on the specific purpose of the essay. This section helps the reader see why you are focusing on this topic and makes the transition to the main point of your paper. For this reason, this is sometimes called the “transitional” part of the introduction.
- In the example above, the anecdote about Michelle might capture the reader’s attention, but the essay is not really about Michelle. The attention grabber might get the reader thinking about how drunk driving can destroy people’s lives, but it doesn’t introduce the topic of the need for stricter drunk driving penalties (or whatever the real focus of the paper might be).
- Therefore, you need to bridge the gap between your attention-grabber and your thesis with some transitional discussion. In this part of your introduction, you narrow your focus of the topic and explain why the attention-grabber is relevant to the specific area you will be discussing. You should introduce your specific topic and provide any necessary background information that the reader would need in order to understand the problem that you are presenting in the paper. You can also define any key terms the reader might not know.
- Continuing with the example above, we might move from the narrative about Michelle to a short discussion of the scope of the problem of drunk drivers. We might say, for example: “Michelle’s story is not isolated. Each year XX (number) of lives are lost due to drunk-driving accidents.” You could follow this with a short discussion of how serious the problem is and why the reader should care about this problem. This effectively moves the reader from the story about Michelle to your real topic, which might be the need for stricter penalties for drinking and driving.
- Finally, the introduction must conclude with a clear statement of the overall point you want to make in the paper. This is called your “thesis statement.” It is the narrowest part of your inverted pyramid, and it states exactly what your essay will be arguing.
- In this scenario, your thesis would be the point you are trying to make about drunk driving. You might be arguing for better enforcement of existing laws, enactment of stricter penalties, or funding for education about drinking and driving. Whatever the case, your thesis would clearly state the main point your paper is trying to make. Here’s an example: “Drunk driving laws need to include stricter penalties for those convicted of drinking under the influence of alcohol.” Your essay would then go on to support this thesis with the reasons why stricter penalties are needed.
- In addition to your thesis, your introduction can often include a “road map” that explains how you will defend your thesis. This gives the reader a general sense of how you will organize the different points that follow throughout the essay. Sometimes the “map” is incorporated right into the thesis statement, and sometimes it is a separate sentence. Below is an example of a thesis with a “map.”
- “Because drunk driving can result in unnecessary and premature deaths, permanent injury for survivors, and billions of dollars spent on medical expenses, drunk drivers should face stricter penalties for driving under the influence.” The underlined words here are the “map” that show your reader the main points of support you will present in the essay. They also serve to set up the paper’s arrangement because they tell the order in which you will present these topics.
- A final note: In constructing an introduction, make sure the introduction clearly reflects the goal or purpose of the assignment and that the thesis presents not only the topic to be discussed but also states a clear position about that topic that you will support and develop throughout the paper. In shorter papers, the introduction is usually only one or two paragraphs, but it can be several paragraphs in a longer paper.
For Longer Papers
Although for short essays the introduction is usually just one paragraph, longer argument or research papers may require a more substantial introduction. The first paragraph might consist of just the attention grabber and some narrative about the problem. Then you might have one or more paragraphs that provide background on the main topics of the paper and present the overall argument, concluding with your thesis statement.
Below is a sample of an introduction that is less effective because it doesn’t apply the principles discussed above.
An Ineffective Introduction
Everyone uses math during their entire lives. Some people use math on the job as adults, and others used math when they were kids. The topic I have chosen to write about for this paper is how I use math in my life both as a child and as an adult. I use math to balance my checkbook and to budget my monthly expenses as an adult. When I was a child, I used math to run a lemonade stand. I will be talking more about these things in my paper.
In the introduction above, the opening line does not serve to grab the reader’s attention. Instead, it is a statement of an obvious and mundane fact. The second sentence is also not very specific. A more effective attention grabber may point out a specific, and perhaps surprising, instance when adults use math in their daily lives, in order to show the reader why this is such as important topic to consider.
Next the writer “announces” her topic by stating, “The topic I have chosen to write about…” Although it is necessary to introduce your specific topic, you want to avoid making generic announcements that reference your assignment. This technique is not as sophisticated and may distract the reader from your larger purpose for writing the essay. Instead, you might try to make the reader see why this is such an important topic to discuss.
Finally, this sample introduction is lacking a clear thesis statement. The writer concludes with a vague statement: “I will be talking more about these things in my paper.” This kind of statement may be referred to as a “purpose statement,” in which the writer states the topics that will be discussed. However, it is not yet working as a thesis statement because it fails to make an argument or claim about those topics. A thesis statement for this essay would clearly tell the reader what “things” you will be discussing and what point you will make about them.
Now let’s look at how the above principles can be incorporated more effectively into an introduction.
A More Effective Introduction
“A penny saved is a penny earned,” the well-known quote by Ben Franklin, is an expression I have never quite understood, because to me it seems that any penny—whether saved or spent—is still earned no matter what is done with it. My earliest memories of earning and spending money are when I was ten years old when I would sell Dixie cups of too-sweet lemonade and bags of salty popcorn to the neighborhood kids. From that early age, I learned the importance of money management and the math skills involved. I learned that there were four quarters in a dollar, and if I bought a non-food item—like a handful of balloons—that I was going to need to come up with six cents for every dollar I spent. I also knew that Kool-Aid packets were 25 cents each or that I could save money and get five of them for a dollar. Today, however, money management involves knowing more than which combinations of 10-cent, five-cent, and one-penny candies I can get for a dollar. Proper money management today involves knowing interest rates, balancing checkbooks, paying taxes, estimating my paycheck, and budgeting to make ends meet from month-to-month.
- In the first line the writer uses a well-known quotation to introduce her topic.
- The writer follows this “attention-grabber” with specific examples of earning and spending money. Compare how the specific details of the second example paint a better picture for the reader about what the writer learned about money as a child, rather than this general statement: “As a child, I used math to run a lemonade stand.” In the first introduction, this statement leaves the reader to guess how the writer used math, but in the second introduction we can actually see what the child did and what she learned.
- Notice, too, how the reader makes the transition from the lessons of childhood to the real focus of her paper in this sentence: “Today, however, money management involves knowing….”
- This transition sentence effectively connects the opening narrative to the main point of the essay, her thesis: “Proper money management today involves knowing interest rates, balancing checkbooks, paying taxes, estimating my paycheck, and budgeting to make ends meet from month-to-month." This thesis also maps out for the reader the main points (underlined here) that will be discussed in the essay.