Updated: March 7, 2016
This will be the subject of a professional development talk I want to give students in the upcoming fall semester. I am releasing a draft of it here for some preliminary feedback from friends and colleagues. Comments are definitely welcome.
Writing is difficult. Few of us can reasonably claim to be experts at it, especially in a peculiar and irregular language like English. Academics try to overcome this by writing every day.1 What about students, who I conceptualize as apprentices at their craft? Sometimes the path to becoming a good and clear writer is not clear. I can conjecture about the nature of English instruction in high school as well as the introductory undergraduate level, but I will withhold cynicism here. Further, different fields have different norms. A student who wrote for the school newspaper may find certain conventions do not apply in the academic context. Whatever the case, the path of development toward good writing is not clear for students. However, it is important. A student with a political science degree and no skills in written communication will find the job market difficult to navigate.
Advice on What to Do (“Dos”)
I cannot stress this one enough. There is a reason why this is the first piece of advice in this entire document. In their research activities, professors typically write four hours a day. Much of this (at least, the important parts of it) will be in the editing phase. Students do not appreciate this, especially in their end-of-the-semester papers. At the most, students will give a cursory glance for major spelling errors. The editing phase is so much more than that. After writing a section of a paper (for example), look over it and ask yourself the following questions. 1) Does this make sense to me and the reader, who I must assume does not know the material and cannot assume I know it either? 2) Did I accomplish what this section was supposed to accomplish? 3) Do I need everything I wrote here or can I remove/streamline parts of this section/paper? It might invoke separation anxiety, but the removal of extraneous information/sentences and redundant clutter in a sentence is an important part of this phase as well. This might seem alien to students who are conditioned to meet the desired page count on a “ten-page-paper”, but it is true. Professors are not dopes. We will know when a student finished the paper at the eleventh hour and did not seriously edit it for important errors or redundant information.
…but Also Write!
That said, do get in the habit of writing every day. Just write something, though it will ideally be for academic purposes. Professors write about four hours a day. The student should ask her/himself if s/he can write at least an hour a day on a particular project. Think of this as akin to an exercise, much like physical exercise. Practice becomes a habit. Write every day to avoid writing bad class papers at the eleventh hour.
Read as Well
Most academics (this author included) cannot claim to be an expert in written communication, but we are further along than the entry-level student. Students should read academic texts and emulate the good properties they find.
Use First-person (Sparingly)
This will likely be a surprise and unintuitive advice for entry-level students whose English teachers in high school warned them never to use first-person. I will italicize the next sentence for emphasis because it is important. It is okay to use first-person in your papers and we generally encourage it. In these papers, we ask the student to analyze a topic and advance an original argument. Therefore, in your papers, tell us “in this paper, I argue” or “in this paper, I analyze”. It is your argument. Take ownership of it! However, we do not want students to think that an academic paper is akin to a diary entry. Generally, use first-person in the introductory section of the paper to frame what argument the student will advance in the paper to follow. In the middle sections of the paper, the point of view should shift to third-person.
Section Your Papers
I wish I knew why students do not do this on instinct. Students who read academic papers should notice that the sections for the introduction, literature review, theory, research design, analysis, and conclusion are made clear in the document with section titles. Do the same for the professor, who must plow through multiple end-of-the-semester papers.
Simple Sentences are Preferable
Students want to demonstrate confidence in their papers. The writing device used for that end features multiple compound or complex sentences with one or more dependent clauses. This is unfortunate, but the origins of this may be understandable. Students may think writing is a continuum between these sentence structures and the “See Spot run” sentences they read in kindergarten. They choose something that approximates the former, though these are chores to read. Keep sentence structures simple. If the student has a major point (like a thesis sentence, for example), do not hide that in a compound or complex sentence.
Blog or Otherwise Get Involved
This advice might come off as a bit controversial. I think students can improve their written communication skills by contributing either to a blog or, perhaps, a student-run periodical. I will offer two examples in the interest of full disclosure. First, I am the faculty adviser to The Pendulum at Clemson University. This is a student-run foreign affairs and current events periodical. The Pendulum is always looking for submissions from students for both the online version and in-print. Interested students who have one of their submissions approved by the staff at The Pendulum will also go through a rigorous editing phase that will serve as a learning experience for young writers. Plus—and this is important—it gives the student a writing sample for a résumé.
Second, I think sports-writing and college football analysis improved my writing skills. This was a hobby I developed in grad school to find some way to connect with a sport I enjoyed and with my alma mater, for which I will have an eternal love. I ghostwrote about recruiting and, later, about Xs-and-Os. I used this to fix some bad habits early in grad school. Plus, it was fun! I enjoyed doing it and I got to meet some cool people along the way. Students who are interested in sports at their college should be interested to learn that SB Nation is always looking for contributors. To the best of my knowledge, the Clemson affiliate at SB Nation is in flux and is looking for assistance in various capacities. Further, there is typically high attrition among sports writers (i.e. most positions do not pay, and almost none pay well). Students may want to use sports-blogging as a means to develop themselves as writers, even if that particular field is not lucrative. Get involved by writing some side posts on these community blogs if that interests you.
Advice on What to Avoid (“Don’ts”)
Never Use Passive Voice
Passive voice is the bane of student papers, or at least one of several. It is also the one recurring feature in student papers that can be corrected easily and must be corrected post haste. “Passive voice” refers to sentence structures in which the subject of a sentence is neither a “do-er” or a “be-er”, but instead receives some action by some other agent or something unnamed. “The student wrote a paper” is active voice, which we encourage. “A paper was written by the student” is passive voice, which we discourage. Word-processing software and Turnitin can detect passive voice easily. The student should as well. I will offer Grammarly’s Halloween-themed advice here. If I can add “by zombies” after the verb in your sentence and have it make sense, the student is writing in passive voice and should revise the sentence before making me read it.
Why passive voice recurs in student papers is less obvious. My best guess is students are so discouraged by their high school English teachers from using first-person that the students condition themselves to write in first-person in a roundabout way with a passive voice. High school English teachers do not like reading “in my opinion” every other sentence. I do not think I would enjoy this either. Therefore, students learned to circumvent that red mark through a sentence of “in my opinion, the green light represents Gatsby’s dream of Daisy” by rewriting it as “it is believed that the green light in Gatsby’s dream represents Daisy.” Again, first-person is fine if used to advance or outline an argument in an active voice. Passive voice is a chore to read and is used to deny ownership of an argument that the student should advance with greater conviction.
No Weasel Words
Weasel words tend to go hand-in-hand with passive voice and are so ubiquitous in common discourse about academic subjects or current affairs that Wikipedia has an entire entry dedicated to it. “Weasel words”, in this context, refer to appeal to anonymous authority. Do not start an argument by saying “it is known” or “it is believed”. First, this is passive voice. Second, who knows it and who believes it? Identify the subjects. Likewise, avoid a prefacing an argument with “experts argue” or “some people think”. Who are these “experts” and who are these “some people”? Be explicit and do not use anonymous authority to support claims advanced in a paper.
Do Not Use Second-person
This might be peculiar to me, but I groan every time I see second-person point of view in an academic or student paper. I have my reasons for this. For one, most academic arguments approximate a third-person deductive evaluation of a claim. The premises of an argument are assumed to be true and evaluated further. There is no room for second-person point of view in this context. Second, the use of second-person devolves written communication into either casual conversation or, worse, a command from the author to the reader. When I assign students to write or explain expected utility theory, students too often start their description with something like “In order to maximize expected utility, you need to start by identifying the problem and ranking goals.” Does that sound annoying to the reader? It sounds annoying to me. I do not need to do anything other than read the paper. Do not command the reader to do anything.
Do Not Use Adverbs
Students who find themselves sprinkling adverbs into their papers should pause and rewrite what they had done to that point. The use of adverbs should be at or near zero. Do not use adverbs. Find better adjectives and verbs instead.
Never Use the Word “Very”
“Very” is an empty word. Do not use it. Writers like to cite Mark Twain (apocryphally) on what a writer should do with this word and its sister term “really”.
Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very.” Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.
Two Errors with Prepositions
I see two errors with prepositions that students do not appear to notice. First, do not end sentences in prepositions. Second, do not use prepositions in back-to-back words. Under these conditions, the preposition becomes an adverb. I already mentioned that use of adverbs should be at or near zero. Find a better verb or, generally, write a better sentence instead.
Watch Your Jargon
Academics have a big problem with jargon. Students do as well. As a rule, students should explain any concept upon its first appearance in a document. Take note of this so written communication can transition to plain English thereafter. If students are not careful and do not heed this advice, they will proliferate jargon throughout the document and inundate the reader with more terms that are not obvious and need clarification. A New York Times op-ed titled this a problem of “nominalization” (i.e. “zombie nouns”). There is nuance to this, but ask yourself if your noun is actually a glorified adjective (e.g. “heteronormativity”), verb (e.g. “marginalization”), or a derivation of another noun with an added suffix (e.g. “cronyism”). If so, rethink what you have done to that point and consider if there is a clearer way to express what you want to say. At their best, nominalizations express abstract ideas that need a conceptual name. At their worst, they are jargon that misleads or confuses the reader.
On a related note, find any nouns that in the document that end in “-ing”. These are gerunds, but also nominalizations. Ask yourself if there is a better noun for this concept that is not a gerund. This can be difficult (e.g. “fighting”, “writing”), but do think about it.
I embed the document below, though link it here as well.
Our advisers and mentors recommend writing at least four hours a day, making this akin to an exercise that becomes a habit. ↩