I just got a job as a writing tutor, and it inspired me to start a series of writing masterposts! From teaching college composition for two years at grad school and from working as a consultant at my university’s Writing Center, I’ve come to learn a few things about writing I’d like to share. Some of these tips may sound basic, and some may be fresh to you. Some may meet you exactly where you are. Regardless, these are some of the foundational aspects of good college writing.
I. Content & Style: Avoid Fluffy Language
Perhaps this is a symptom of trying to meet page minimums, but some students tend to inflate sentences with unnecessary adjectives. Similarly, they may puff up an essay with a useless statement, like, “Depression affects people in various ways.” What follows a sentence like this is usually a cataloging of the various/numerous/diverse ways in which depression affects people. Kill the middleman: that useless sentence. Be assured that most readers are astute enough to infer that depression affects people in many ways when you list said ways.
Language that sounds like that of a motivational speaker is maddening to most college instructors. “If you are true to yourself, you will be happy in life.” “Friends and family are the most important way to get the emotional support you need.” These are platitudes and overly generalize. Broad claims make for unoriginal writing; be specific and back up your claims with a logical argument, providing evidence for your opinion. Broad generalizations like, “Since the dawn of time, people have loved art” are just padding and detract from more interesting ideas you may have.
II. Description: Be Concrete and Concise
An easy way to avoid vague fluff is to use concrete images and concise language. First, if you can say something in five words instead of ten, that’s great! Go with the five. Second, concrete details provide a more refined image in the reader’s mind (car vs. Ford Taurus, for example) without the use of adjectives and adverbs. And try to avoid adverbs when you can. Show how a person is running “quickly” instead of telling the reader the person is running quickly. Is there sweat? Is this person bumping into others? Are the legs pumping like pistons? Specificity makes for much more interesting writing.
III. Organization: Make a Backwards Outline!
The best thing about outlines is that you ultimately do not have to follow them. Many people use the drafting process to think and come up with their best idea in the middle of the paper. But often the papers that are turned in are first drafts, so that great idea—around which you ought to have centered your paper—remains in the middle, not standing front and center and lacking enough space to develop further. If you’ve allowed yourself enough time to make a second/final draft, post-organize your paper. Map out the flow of your ideas and ask yourself if this is the best order and arrangement possible. Yes, revision is more work, but it is worth it. It is so, so, obvious to professors when a paper has not been properly organized.
IV. Grammar: Comma Splices
The most common grammatical error students make is the comma splice. A comma splice is the attachment of two sentences with only a comma. For example: “Harvey and Tim built a raft, they took it out on the river later.” ARGH. “Harvey and Tim built a raft” is a complete sentence, as is “they took it out on the river later.” How do you fix a comma splice? Well, there are three ways:
Use two separate sentences: “Harvey and Tim built a raft. They took it out on the river later.”
Add a conjunction after the comma: “Harvey and Tim built a raft, and they took it out on the river later.”
Use a semicolon: “Harvey and Tim built a raft; they took it out on the river later.
Standard/Edited (American) English grammar is the grammar of (American) academia and will be for a while. Also, simply, spelling and grammar mistakes only work to undermine your writing. If you have brilliant ideas, you shouldn’t obfuscate them with lousy grammar.
V. Language: Build Your Vocabulary
What does “obfuscate” mean? Well, when you encounter unfamiliar words, look them up and commit their meaning to memory. Practice using them, when appropriate. Of course don’t bloat your language so that your prose reads like a thesaurus. Your writing should sound intelligent/formal (with the help of new words), yet not awkward and stiff with the clumsy handling of “big” words.
VI. Scoring: Read What You Wrote Out Loud
This is pretty basic. Listening to your own writing will help you determine if it sounds stiff and/or unnatural or just awkward as hell. You can read your writing aloud to yourself, but it is best to hear another person read it. I refer to this section as “scoring” because writing has a musical aspect, too. Your use of language should be pleasing, made so by choosing the right word for the right moment, by opting for combinations of words that sound harmonious, and so that your delivery of ideas is arranged to have the most powerful impact. Choose a tone suited to your subject, and know thy audience. What will sound good to you may not sound so good for your intended audience. Adjust the score accordingly.
VII. Research: Do More of It Than You Think You Need To
Often you will be assigned a minimum number of sources for a research paper. Let’s say five, for example. Go for eight or nine. Of course you should avoid using redundant sources (a book on Samuel Beckett’s stage directions and journal article about Samuel Beckett’s stage directions). Find as many perspectives as possible; it’ll only make your arguments stronger. Plus the more academic writing you read, the more naturally it’ll come when you have to do your own.
VIII. Go Weird or Go Home
Another reason more using sources than required can help: finding unique perspectives/approaches to a subject. You may encounter some ideas that counter popular assumptions (peer pressure has some positive impacts; depression can sometimes benefit cognitive function; anti-drug education actually increases drug use). Another interesting tack to take is to go with a subject that often makes people uncomfortable, such as child sexuality, masochism, and alternatives to capitalism.
Strange, uncommon arguments are more interesting than broader overly researched topics, such as nature vs. nurture. A paper on the deliberate use of plot holes, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and their effect on narrator reliability would be far more interesting than the representation of capitalism in Animal Farm by George Orwell. The more complex and difficult the argument you choose the more critical thinking/writing skills you demonstrate. Weirdness is rewarded in academia, by getting your professor’s attention, by getting published in critical journals, etc. In this case, the axiom of “Be unique, and stand out in the crowd” stands true.
I hope this was helpful! Message me or send me an ask if you have any questions.