You Can Improve Your Writing
Students often tell me they feel a range of emotions about their writing. Some approach written assignments with excitement and curiosity, while others feel nothing short of anxiety and even outright fear. Having experienced many of those same sensations, I can sympathize with just about everyone.
The way I see it, though, everyone can improve their writing, including me. I continue to learn from good writers, editors, and proofreaders. You can, too. The rewards of improving your writing are substantial. Writing well is an enjoyable pastime and a valued skill. If you take the time to improve your writing, you will find yourself more self-confident about the ways you express your ideas, and you will find that others appreciate your writing as well.
I hope "Writing Tips" will help your writing in several ways. First, I have found that most students are unaware of some of the easy steps they can follow to improve their writing. These ideas have little to do with spelling and grammar, and you will find them in the "General Tips" section. Second, from year to year students tend to make the same sorts of writing mistakes, such as using incorrect words, misspelling common words, and certain grammatical and punctuation mistakes; I note some of the errors that crop up most often in the "Mechanical Breakdowns" section. Next, I discuss titling papers, quoting and paraphrasing others' works, and citing and referencing those sources. I also spend some time discussing and the plague of plagiarism--you'll be amazed at who's stealing whose words--along with "good" and "bad" internet sources. And I conclude with a word about creativity.
1. Do the reading. Keeping up with the reading is the first step to doing well on written assignments. You cannot grasp authors' complex arguments if you are trying to read and write at the same time. So do not let yourself get behind in the reading. Of course, your class participation grade also benefits from your having completed the reading, since you will come to class prepared to discuss the material.
2. Give yourself plenty of time. This hint is tremendously important. Resist the temptation we all feel to procrastinate, and give yourself time to write well. If an essay assignment is distributed on Monday and it is not due for a week, do not wait until Sunday or even Saturday to start writing. Take advantage of the time you have been given to complete an assignment. There's no need to stress out; if you are feeling anxious, or if you cannot immediately begin writing in earnest, at least jot down your initial thoughts soon after you receive the assignment. You may decide to take your paper in a different direction later, and you are sure to revise those early ideas, but at least you have the feeling that you have begun your work, and that little bit of progress can do a lot for assuaging your anxieties.
3. Empathize! Think and
write with your audience in mind, and take a cue from sociology.
Sociologists approach their research and writing from a Verstehen perspective; they seek to
identify and to portray deep, profound, insight into others'
worlds. For the betterment of your paper, ask yourself what your
professor's professional world is like. What does good
sociological scholarship read like--what nouns and verbs seem most
important? Take on the role of the sociologist as you prepare
your paper--be a
Are you thinking and writing like your professor and other
sociologists? To achieve this empathetic end, consider how the
readings in your course are written. Everything matters, even
what articles or books literally look like (do authors use
subheadings?) and the formatting of citations and references.
Strive to come across in your work as if you were a professional
4. Write an initial draft of your paper as soon as possible. The best writers say that the key to good writing is "rewriting, rewriting, rewriting," and this advice follows from the second point. Gather your thoughts or your data promptly. If you get started promptly, then you have plenty of time to write a first draft. If you like to use an outline, let that be your first draft. Get that first draft done, and then sleep on it! Do not even think about the paper for the next day. The time off will actually help you. When Carl Sagan, the physicist, got stuck on a project, "he moved on to the next, letting his subconscious go to work," the Washington Post reported following his death (Tibbits, 1996). Sagan was quoted as saying, "'When you come back, you find to your amazement, nine times out of 10, that you have solved your problem--or your unconscious mind has--without you even knowing it'" (Tibbits, 1996). Let your mind work for you.
After a day off, go back to your paper and revise it. "Rewriting" sounds like you should completely overhaul of your paper, but do not. Revisions or rewrites occur every time you alter your paper, although a "draft" represents numerous changes (writing papers is art, and there is no magic line between a revision, a rewrite, or a draft). Realistically, two drafts--two thorough reworkings of your paper--are about the best you can do when you have only a few days between assignment and due date and when you have other classes to work on. Writing a couple of drafts allows you to catch many of your mistakes and to improve on your ideas. Sure, this approach takes time; but if you think of writing as a way to help you develop better time management skills, you can get some added benefits out of the effort.
5. Let the assignment length guide you...and dive right in!
If your paper's assigned length is less than 1,000 words, it is
probably best to omit introductory and concluding paragraphs.
Why? A couple of reasons. First, introductions and
conclusions eat up words that you will need to develop your
thesis (see the next point). Second, readers of a relatively
short paper are likely to
remember just about everything in the paper, so conclusions are
unlikely to be necessary. What do you do instead? Dive
right in! Set up the essay--that is, state your thesis--in a
sentence or two that also fits
into your first paragraph, and work smoothly toward your conclusion,
which can probably be expressed in the final couple of sentences.
That's right: no introductory or concluding paragraph.
6. Include a strong thesis. Over the years
I have noticed that the most common weakness on the content side of
students' writing is a weak or nonexistent thesis. Your
thesis--or theme or focus, all three mean the same thing--is important
for a couple of reasons. First, your thesis is the one idea that you want to get
across to your audience. In college writing, it is not enough for
you to simply restate what an author has said like you did when you
wrote book reports in grammar school. Rather, you need to bring
your own insight to your papers; you need to make an observation of
your own about the subject matter.
Second, your thesis glues together your paper. Instead of a
rambling set of disconnected thoughts, a paper with a strong thesis
builds around a central point. The difference between no thesis
and a good one is the difference between a pile of bricks and a brick
building. Without mortar, a thesis, a brick building soon becomes
a scattered pile of bricks; with it, the pile of bricks can be a solid,
How do you develop a thesis? Sometimes, your thesis will come
to mind quickly--you will know what you want to say almost as soon as
you read the assignment. Other times, the process of developing
your thesis will take more time. As I mentioned above, diving
right in is a useful strategy for getting the most out of every
word. In the initial draft or two of your paper, diving in can
also help you identify your thesis because, as you think about what you
have written, your thesis will emerge. Pull some quotations
together that seem to address the assignment and respond to those
quotes--see "Develop a dialog," below. As you work on creating
your dialog, you are likely to find yourself thinking things like:
"Well, okay, but what about. . . ?" "Can't you go even farther
and argue that. . . ." "It doesn't have
to be that way." When you have moments like that, you are very
close to your thesis.
Make sure to write your thesis clearly; it is usually best to make
your thesis a declarative sentence. For example, "Marx was mistaken
when he implicitly argued that social class was the basis of all other
inequalities." Your thesis statement does not need to be
elaborate or extensive. A brief, bold, direct thesis statement
leaves no doubt where you stand or where you are taking your reader in
That last bit--where you take the reader--is the next step. Follow through on your thesis.
Your entire paper needs to be constructed around your thesis.
Tangents are fine, but make sure they support your thesis in some
way. Roughly speaking, you should be able to say how every
paragraph contributes to your thesis. If you cannot do so,
consider reworking or deleting the paragraph.
7. Use the strength of your computer. We commonly hear
about how "powerful" computers are. For writers, a computer's
power is found in the software that allows us to easily manipulate our
thoughts. Back in the Dark Ages (the early 1980s) when I was in
your shoes, the personal computer literally did not exist. I
wrote papers straight through from start to finish using note cards, an
outline, and often my memory to guide me through the paper.
Computers break the typewriter's tyranny by allowing us to write what
we want when we want without the anxiety of knowing that we will have
to completely re-type our work.
Use your computer's power by first writing those sections of your paper with which you feel most comfortable, thereby giving you a jump start. In the end that material may not appear until the middle or the end of your paper, but with computers you can easily jump around your paper and add, delete, and move material whenever you want wherever you want. As you develop your paper, fill in around those first sections, manipulating them--and later parts of your writing--as you see fit. Just make sure as you fill things in that you have developed a consistent theme throughout your paper.
8. Develop a dialog between authors, concepts, and your own interpretations. By a "dialog," I mean a kind of conversation--an interaction of sorts on paper between you and the readings, guest speakers, films, class discussions, and other intellectual materials from class and outside of class. Students often fail to use material from a range of readings in their papers, and they are anxious about adding their own thoughts and critiques to the ideas that have been presented. However, the best papers do both of these things: integrate and interpret.
How do you create a dialog? First, you need to quote or paraphrase material from the course readings, other sources used in class, and class discussions, as well as material from outside sources like your own reading, films you have seen, and information from other courses. Use the language and ideas from class as a springboard for your own. You do not have to draw from all of the sources I just mentioned, but always be sure to give a nod to what comes from this course. That way, you show me that you have completed the readings and that you can do something creative with them.
Include quotes in your paper, but always with a clear purpose in mind. The quotes you choose should demonstrate how your viewpoint contrasts with or supports those of other authors. After a quote, always state the point that you feel the quote is making for you in your own words; tell me what you had in mind when you selected the quote--that idea is your interpretation, and interpretations are every bit as important as the quote (or a paraphrase) itself.
Here's one way to think about creating a dialog: Let's imagine that you are working with two sources, book chapters by Jane Addams and Karl Marx, and your essay topic is social class. Make believe that you have a meeting with Addams where you discuss social class with her--you ask her a question, she responds, and then you react to what she says. Then you go to your second meeting, with Marx, and you go through the same question-response-reaction cycle. In your paper, the question-response-reaction cycle looks like this: you discuss the issue ("question"), quote Addams or Marx ("response"), and then you interpret the quote (reaction). That dialog is not the same as the sort you find in a novel--not everyone's words in this "conversation" are inside quote marks. But the question-response-reaction cycle is similar because it creates interaction on paper.
Avoid presenting your interpretations in the form of simple, unsupported statements like, "I disagree" or "I agree." To avoid facile assertions like those, you can point out problems with authors' ideas or note the strengths of their ideas. Alternatively, you can show how their concepts could be further developed and strengthened or how you are using their ideas creatively in a different setting. Perhaps you have identified unspoken assumptions that weaken an argument (see the next item). Maybe an author's words prompt you to expound upon a point by using information from another source. You may have identified shortcomings in an author's logic. Perhaps you can think of a counter-example where the author's theory or concept does not hold true. Maybe you have some data that support or refute an author's position. In any case, add your own ideas and/or research to the mix. Doing so is the height of critical thought, and critical thinking is a large part of what my classes are all about. For an example of an artful interpretation, take a look at this passage by novelist and historian Shelby Foote.
9. What is left out? One of the most effective ways to identify a weakness in an author's argument is to ask yourself what is left out. In the last example, I mentioned writing about an author's "unspoken assumptions" and providing "counter-examples;" both are ways of exploring gaps in what authors say and how they think. If you find yourself struggling to think critically, one reason may be that you are not probing for what an author has omitted. If an author is discussing "people," does s/he seem to have in mind everyone, or only certain people? If someone is discussing "science," what are the characteristics of that science--how does it get done and whom does it serve? These and similar questions help you to uncover the things that an author failed to discuss.
chances! Interpreting information for yourself, as Foote
did in the example above, and identifying authors' assumptions are
major parts of what
scholars do. If you have never done this kind of thing before in a
paper, it can be intimidating. After all, who are you to say what
someone else's words mean or to identify a shortcoming in a published
author's work? When you have those pangs of anxiety, just remember that
every scholar does. However, to succeed every scholar has to take
chances. Rather than feel anxious about your abilities, why not go at
your task with excitement? You have the freedom to inquire deeply, to
ask hard questions of others, and to make what you will from data (such
as class readings). Embrace that freedom and the responsibility to be
fair and thorough that goes with it!
11. Remember the fundamentals. How many composition
classes have you taken over the years? Lots, no doubt. Just
because you are writing for a social science class does not mean that
you should ignore the fundamentals of good writing. Draw from
tools that you have learned through the years; metaphor,
and imagery; decide on a particular composition style or template (such
as the "persuasive" essay) and write accordingly; and write with
style. Some of what I advise you to do, like avoiding
contractions, limits your options. Really, though, these tips
will not constrain you much at all. Most of what you have learned
about writing in lively and engaging ways remains as relevant in social
science courses as it is in composition classes.
12. Write your introductory paragraph last. That's right: for longer papers where you need to include introductory and concluding paragraphs, your first paragraph should be the last thing you write. I encourage you to take this approach for a couple of reasons. First, if you start at the beginning you may trap yourself conceptually; this problem is especially likely to emerge if you do not use an outline. In your first draft it is important to allow yourself plenty of freedom to explore ideas, but an introductory paragraph can control what you write because it will always be on your mind: "I must do this next because my introduction says it comes next." Second, introductory paragraphs inform your audience of where you are heading; writing the introduction last ensures that you will tell readers about the path down which you will take them because you should write the paragraph while reviewing each of the major points in your essay.
13. What goes into an introductory paragraph? When you are prepared to write your introduction for papers of 1,000 words or longer, there are plenty of ways to proceed. I would like to mention three of them:
14. Defining terms.
Within their papers, often
in the first paragraph, many students feel the need to define terms
that were introduced in the readings or in class. Doing so is a waste
of space, since your audience--me--already understands the terms. The
real problem is that defining a term is not the same thing as
it. I want to see how well and creatively you use ideas from the class,
and I will find out if you understand the course concepts by whether
you use them correctly in your paper, not whether you can recite their
definitions. For example, one student wrote, "Karl Marx
envisioned society as two distinct
groups, the bourgeoisie (owners) and the proletariat (workers).
He theorized that inequality in society was a result of the struggle
between these two groups (Class notes, September 20, 2003)."
This material, grounded in the student's class notes, merely reiterates
material I mentioned in class. Avoid telling me what I already
know. Instead, develop thoughtful insights by combining readings,
class notes, and your own ideas to support a provocative thesis.
15. Read your paper several times. Along with reading over your nearly-completed paper several times, read it aloud to yourself as well. This experience will feel strange the first time, and people may whisper that you are talking to the walls! But it is amazing the mistakes you will catch and the nuances you will add that will improve your papers.
16. Revise your paper. It bears repeating: never write only one draft of a paper, no matter how long or short the assignment. As you read over your final draft, if you find small things that you want to change (anything up to a sentence in length), do so in pen. You do not need to hand me a pristine copy of your paper. In fact, I am always impressed when a student has caught errors before I have.
Do not forget the title! Your paper's title is the first
indication to a reader of what is to come. Your title should
foreshadow your theme, giving your audience a sense of the journey
ahead. Try to create titles that are humorous, that play on
phrases (including lyrics from popular songs), or that add an air of
mystery to your paper.
18. Practice. Improving your writing takes practice, so look for opportunities to sharpen your writing skills. For instance, e-mail and instant messaging have become the dominant ways that we communicate with one another in writing, and I suspect that the poor writing habits commonly found in these internet communications have a lot to do with the poor quality of many students' written assignments--an article in the New York Times confirms this hypothesis. How much longer will it take to read over your e-mail messages and correct the spelling, punctuation, and grammar? Show friends, family, and professors that you care about what you are writing in an e-mail by making it shine. In turn, your writing will reflect positively on you.
There are lots of other opportunities to get in some extra writing practice.
To summarize: time and preparation, not poor writing mechanics, are what are lacking in most college students' writing. If you have read the material and if you otherwise give yourself enough time, you can write more than one draft of a paper. When you do that, you also have the time to carefully develop your thesis, to take a critical perspective, to add ideas, to develop conversations with the materials you are using, to toss out things that do not work, and to check your spelling and grammar. You will feel more confident about what you write and how you have written it, and your grade is likely to reflect your effort. If these approaches do not work, come see me. Every semester I spend extra time with students who are frustrated by the writing process, and I will do the same with you.
Although mechanics are not the major problem with most people's writing, nevertheless they bedevil many. The mechanics of writing include spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, and paragraphing, as well as the overall development of your ideas.
Spelling and Troubling Words
With word processing programs, checking your spelling has become too easy. For instance, the computer cannot tell the difference between "there" and "their." Besides, there is something inherently educational in looking up a word in a dictionary. You find other definitions of the word that you are looking up, and if you wander around the page you will find words that you have never seen before but that may be valuable to you in the future. Good words are prizes, but if you do not seek them out, you will never collect the benefits. So, use the dictionary. Keep it next to you when you write. Whenever you have any doubt about how to spell a word or what a word means, look it up. Really good spellers are rare. And remember: dictionaries were made for smart people, not dumb ones. It takes brains to know when to use the dictionary (which is often).
There are several frequently misspelled, confusing, or just plain rotten words that pop up in students' writings for all of my classes. It amazes me how often they reoccur, so I have flagged them--and other troubling words and errors--for you:
affect/effect: affect, usually used in its verb form, means to produce an effect--a result. Both words have noun and verb forms; use them carefully, and consult your dictionary when you are unsure of which word you should use given the context.
as stated by: There are a lot of ways to say that someone "said" (or wrote) something. Probably the best way is to write something like "Shakespeare said" or "Morrison wrote." There is no need to get too fancy, and phrases like "As stated by Shakespeare" sound clumsy and wordy.
aspect: This word is often used in place of a stronger, more direct term by students and is best avoided altogether. Let me put it this way: do not use "aspect." An example of where students get into trouble is the following: "The environmental movement represented a new aspect in society." What does "aspect" mean, here? And why is it "aspect in" rather than "aspect of" society? I do not know. In its place, you can substitute words that say a lot more. For example: "The environmental movement's plea for the non-human pointed to the need for a change in social relationships, too."
blatant: Occasionally, students
use "blatant" when they should use "flagrant," "deliberate," or
implies that an action is
consciously and willfully blunt or forceful and that it flies in the
face of expected behavior. It is incumbent on an
author to be able to identify a motive when he or she claims an
occurrence was blatant. For instance: It was blatant that
discrimination was taking place. That use of blatant--in addition
to being gramatically awkward--implies a powerful allegation.
"Obvious" would be a better word choice, since it implies that, in the
author's view, discrimination was clearly taking place.
contractions: Avoid using
contractions, such as don't and can't, in formal essays. There is
a wonderful subtlety and sophistication about complete words, a respect
for the language that reflects well on authors.
deal with: Like a number of other words and phrases in this list, "deals with" does not say much when you use it: This book deals with crime in the U.S. Hmmm: Does the book discuss rising or falling crime rates? Does it explore new policy options for addressing crime? Perhaps the book identifies the causes of crime. "Deals with" is a way of avoiding saying something directly when that is exactly what you want to do. Also see "weak words and phrases," below.
Usually, when writers use "etc." they seem anxious that they
might have omitted something. Somehow, etc. is supposed to take
into account all that got left out, if anything was in fact left
out. I'm reminded of Yule Brenner in The King and I when he uses his
position as king to leave others to fill in the blanks of his meaning
"Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera!" Those kinds of place catchers are
a waste of time, space, and mental energy for writer and reader
both. If you want to hedge, consider a whole different
approach. For example, see how the following sentence can be
Today, institutions ranging from
government, corporations, religious groups, the mass media etc., at
the state, national, and international levels profoundly shape
Today, institutions as diverse as government, corporations, religious
groups, and the mass media at the state, national, and
international levels profoundly
language: Our language is
gendered, and students are among the leaders in questioning the
appropriateness of genderedness in language, norms, interactions, and
elsewhere in society. In your papers for my courses, please
attempt to write at least in a gender-neutral way, using words or phrases
like "he/she," "s/he," and "her/him" (note that "e" comes before "i,"
alphabetically, so "her" should come before "him"). Out of
respect for transgendered persons, and in an effort to call attention
to the role of gender in Western society, activists are urging the use
of non-specific pronouns rather than gender-specific or even
gender-neutral ones. As such, you may use "per" (short for
person) in place of "he/she," "s/he," and "her/him."
cannot avoid "have" and "had," but so often they do not take us very
far. They are the epitome of weak verbs in many contexts.
Popular fashion magazines have an
annual "green" issue that shows the latest in organic fabrics and
Try to come up with a descriptive verb
than have (and otherwise
enliven your writing--in this case by adding some punchy consonance):
however: When however is
used as a synonym for "nevertheless" or "on the other hand," it usually
needs to start a sentence and is followed by a comma. For example:
"Marx emphasized class struggle. However, Weber recognized other
sources of difference in society" or "Marx emphasized class
struggle; however, Weber recognized other sources of difference in
society" (why the semi-colon? see below).
my courses, writing in the first person (I, we) is acceptable, though
it may not be in other courses. However, please avoid the second
think/I believe: Try to avoid phrases that include I think or I believe. They are not
necessary, since scholars are skeptical by virtue of our jobs, so
intellectual modesty is assumed by those who read your work.
In the good old days--occasionally there really are good aspects of the
good old days--"impact" was synonymous with "collision." Today,
impact is more closely associated with "effect," but thanks to that
older meaning's lasting legacy, impact
comes across as hyperbolic or at least out of place and
imprecise. So consider using effect
instead (and take note of
the affect/effect distinction, above).
in order to and so as to: Just plain "to" will
do. Which sounds better, "In order to form an opinion, you first
must know the facts" or "To form an opinion, you first must know the
facts"? How about: "Geneticists are trying to knock out the
enzyme so as to relieve the rejection of the organs" or "Geneticists
are trying to knock out the enzyme to relieve the rejection of the
organs"? Write economically, squeezing out unnecessary
words. Your prose will improve and your readers will thank you.
in regards to: "Regarding" will probably work, but be
careful--regarding, as the first word in a sentence, is not the most
exciting way to make a point.
issue: "Issue" is a vapid
word, one that people often use to avoid saying or writing something
unpleasant. When we write that one author "had an issue" with
another's views, what are we suggesting? Did the first author
completely reject the other's argument? Was there some small
point where the authors could not agree? It helps readers to put
the "issue" on the line.
its/it's/its': Its shows ownership, like, "The proletariat had no idea of its own interests." It's combines the words "it is," like, "It's to be expected that the proletariat would revolt." There is no word its' in the English language.
man/mankind/him: Man, in my classes, refers to a male, as does he and him. When speaking of groups of persons, use specific labels ("people," "humans," "Americans," "us," "women," "the poor," "sub-group," "culture," "sub-culture," and the like) and do not use man or mankind. In other places, you should use phrases like "her/him," "he/she," "humanity," and "persons." Please also see "gender," above.
often times: Often implies time, so "often times" is redundant.
people that: People receive special treatment in the English language. Avoid phrases like "people that," "teachers that," and "scientists that." Instead of "that," use "who:" "people who," "teachers who," and "scientists who."
percent: Spell out " % " and accompany it with a number (not written out), like this:
The United States uses 25 percent of the world's oil and we only have 2 to 3 percent of the world's reserves.redundancies: If you see the abbreviation "red." on your paper, I have found a redundancy--the repetition of a word or idea. Here is an example of repeated words ("first" is used twice):
First of all, to come to this conclusion one must first know the definition of a technopoly.I would suggest deleting "First of all" to eliminate the redundancy.
And now an example of a repeated idea (from a section of an essay arguing that technology has changed education):
One social institution that has changed drastically thanks to computers is the educational system. The way that individuals learn has been altered with the development of technology.Combining the two sentences might be the best solution to this redundancy:
The way that individuals learn has been drastically altered by the use of computers in the classroom.scientist: students often use the singular "scientist" when they mean to write the plural "scientists"; the same is true for "environmentalist"/"environmentalists".
so as to: see "in order to," above.
sweeping statements: Students often refer to "society," but which one do they have in mind? Society often is used as a dangerous generalization--a sweeping statement. Another example, since we do not know much about the early years (say, from 16 billion years ago to 4,000 years ago), is phrases like "since the beginning of time." Similarly, grand pronouncements like, "In this day and age, we have the privilege of looking back over almost two thousand years of recorded human thought," can get you into a lot of trouble; that declaration is both wordy ("In this day and age") and factually incorrect, since recorded history goes back much longer than the author would have us believe. Likewise, avoid phrases like "from the dawn of humanity," "throughout time," and "in all of recorded history."
that/which/in which: Which is a more general term, that more specific. When you use "which," a comma should precede it; when you use "that" a comma usually does not precede it. For example, here is an incorrect use of "which":
This file contains a wealth of information which should help you.The file is highly specific--it contains "a wealth of information"--so "that" is the appropriate word, not which. On the other hand, this sentence is correct:
This file, which should help you, contains a wealth of information.In this case, the purpose of the file needs to be specified, so "which" is used.
It seems that often when students use "in which" they should use "that:"
Then came those who would forever change the way in which society looked at Nature.Instead:
Then came those who would forever change the way that society looked at Nature.there/their: The book is over there. Their books were missing.
therefore: When therefore is used as a synonym of "thus" or
"for these reasons," the same guidance applies to it as applies to
this/that: Make sure this and that refer to something. In
other words, a referent should almost always immediately follow this or that. This and that tend to be vague, and following
either of them with a noun enables you to reinforce your point.
instance, you might write, "Sociology's strength may be found in its
diversity. This enables practitioners to view multiple subjects
from multiple theoretical points of view." This what? What is diversity
all about? With a couple of words you can eliminate the first of
these questions and address the second: "Sociology's strength may
be found in its diversity. This range of subjects and outlooks
enables practitioners to view multiple
subjects from multiple theoretical points of view."
you: Please see "I," above.
weak words and phrases: Try to avoid
words and phrases that really do not convey much meaning. I have
in mind words like "idea," "interesting," "intriguing," and the
like. Such commonplace, casual language is weak rather than
meaning-filled. To discover stronger phrases, ask yourself
questions like "What 'idea?'" "What is it that makes the concept
'interesting?'" Then substitute your answer for the weaker words
you initially used.
woman/women: Woman is singular, women plural, like, "I just saw that woman at the play. She was not with that group of women earlier."
you: Try to avoid writing in second person ("you") in classes like ours for one simple reason; you have no idea what I, your reader, thinks or feels or would do or likes or dislikes. In other words, "you" makes assumptions about your reader that are probably incorrect. On the other hand, putting yourself in an essay or a paper--writing in first (I, we, us) person--is likely to enliven your writing. The standard, and probably the safest, voice to use is third person (he, she, it, they, them).
Never trust spell checkers. One student spelled the word bureaucracy "burocrasy" ten times in a paper. When I asked how such an important concept could be so consistently misspelled, the student replied, "The spell checker said it was okay." The student, or someone else, probably mistakenly added the incorrect spelling to the computer's "user's dictionary," and the student was so rushed for time that he did not proofread the paper before he handed it in. That mistake alone, because it was repeated so many times and because it indicated that the student had not followed the directions of this Web page regarding proofreading, cost the student a full letter grade on the paper. I really am serious about this stuff, and you should be, too. Poor writing may cost you points, now. In the future, it may cost you social status, a job opportunity...who knows what.
Commas: Use commas sparingly. The old saw is that you should only insert a comma where you pause or where you need to draw a breath, but that is poor advice. Apparently, some students are nearly hyperventilating, and others need oxygen masks! You should almost always include a comma following a prepositional phrase that is longer than five words. Avoid comma splices: using a comma to separate two sentences that should stand alone. Instead, create two sentences, use a semi-colon, or insert a conjunction.
Examples: (A couple of correctly punctuated sentences:) However, Weberian scholars disagree with this assessment. Until Weber came on the scene, sociology as such did not exist, they say.
(A comma splice:) The Weberians may be correct, Marx still had some good points, however. (Corrected:) The Weberians may be correct. Marx still had some good points, however.
or more succinctly:
The Weberians may be correct, but Marx still had some good points.Colons and semi-colons: A colon ( : ) usually separates a complete sentence from (1) an incomplete sentence, (2) a lengthy list, or (3) a long quotation, usually indented. A semi-colon ( ; ) separates two sentences that could stand on their own but which, for effect or because they are closely related, you want to include in the same sentence.
Example: Emile Durkheim: the man who made suicide what it is today. He would rather have been known as "the father of sociology;" indeed, he referred to himself as such late in life. (By the way, that is not a true story!)Parentheses: Parentheses- ( ) -are used to explain or amplify on a concept. Try to keep them to a minimum. It is much better to make a complete sentence out of the thought that you are placing in parentheses. Often this re-working of a parenthetical will be an opportunity to elaborate on your thoughts as well.
Example: Durkheim (who was French) loved rich food.
Instead try: Durkheim loved rich food. No doubt this was due to his upbringing in an upper-middle class French home.
Dashes: Dashes ( -- ) are used much as parentheses are used, and as such should not be used often at all.
Exclamation marks: please use them rarely, if ever, in your writing for this class.
Here, along with the improper use of commas, is the mechanical problem with which students have the most problems. Grammar concerns the proper relationship of the words in a sentence. Probably the best way to improve your grammar is to take note of the grammatical problems that crop up when your papers for this and other classes are returned to you. Below are just a couple of the more common problems:
Misplaced modifiers: This mistake occurs when an adjective or adverb (a modifier) is located in the wrong place.
Example: "Probably the way to improve best your grammar is to write often." "Best" should be modifying "way," not "your," so the sentence should read: "Probably the best way to improve your grammar is to write often."Prepositions: Use the correct preposition.
Example: "In a professional viewpoint, this is an unnecessary surgery." The sentence should begin with "From".Split infinitives: An infinitive is the form of a verb that includes the word "to," as in "to improve." Both parts of an infinitive should be together.
Example: "To form an opinion on Postman's argument, one must first know what a technopoly is." Opinions are formed "about" or "of" something.
Example: "To further improve your work, memorize this handout." The correct use is: "To improve your work further, memorize this handout."Subject-verb agreement: The subject of a sentence is a noun or a pronoun, and a verb acts on the noun. Often the subject and the verb do not agree because the noun is singular and the verb is plural, or vice versa.
Examples: "They is making a strong argument." "He are not answering them effectively." (This problem usually arises because a student has edited her or his paper but has not proof read it carefully.)Sentence structure
Keep your sentences simple, but make them varied. Sentences do not have to be long to make your point or to keep the reader engaged. Often, short sentences produce a better effect. Pick up a Stephen King novel and read a frightening passage. You will see that he mixes up his sentences and that as the scary part gets more intense, the sentences get shorter. Use that as a cue for your own writing; as you get to the central point of a paragraph, an essay, or a term paper, shorten your sentences. Another hint: whenever you see more than one comma in a sentence, look more closely at the sentence to determine if you should begin a new sentence.
Usually, paragraphs should have a minimum of two sentences. On their own, paragraphs should tell the reader a lot and should contribute to the overall theme of your essay or paper. But do not feel that you have to write your paragraphs as if you were in a basic composition class: introductory sentence, a few explanatory sentences, summary sentence, then the same thing over and over again. If you feel comfortable with this approach, fine. However, do not hesitate to loosen things up a bit, to dive right in rather than follow someone else's style. The same thing is true for your overall essay: introduce it, then get on with it. When it ends, it ends. Relax, tell me a story, come to a conclusion, and let your sentences and paragraphs flow in the process. Most of all, do not be afraid to write how you think you should. Good writing is a learning process, and it takes time. I may not agree with some of the choices you make, and my feedback will help you understand why some of your choices may have been mistakes.
You will notice that in this document, and in almost all of the works that you read for college classes, sub-headings are used to summarize the primary point in the section that follows. Sub-headings are great tools for students to use as well. Professors are likely to view papers with sub-headings as more sophisticated than those that do not have them because profs use sub-heads in their writing. Sub-headings allow you to switch radically from one topic to another with only minimal connection to the previous topic (although there must be some connection or the paper will appear to lack focus and a clear thesis). Moreover, sub-headings can help you improve the organization of your papers. They keep you focused on the topic with which you will be dealing so that you do not stray from your line of thought and so that you address the topic completely.
Do not use a new sub-heading for every paragraph of your paper. Sub-heads should succinctly summarize the material that will be covered in two or more paragraphs.
Titles, Quotations, and Citations
Your papers: Always title your papers! Do not place your title in quotes or underline or italicize it, but do try to make your titles stand out.
Others' works: Students have a
difficult time remembering how to treat titles of different kinds of
works. The titles of books, movies, record albums, plays, and
newspapers should be italicized (preferred) or underlined
(typographically, underlining is the same thing as italics). Article
titles, song titles,
headlines, and chapter headings should be placed in quotes. For
examples of some of these, see the sample reference list, below.
Quotations and Paraphrases
When you place anything in quotes, use double quote marks for the first and last (opening and closing) quotes: " . If you use a quote that was quoted by your source, use double quote marks for the outermost set of quotes and single quote marks for the material that is quoted by your source (see "Quotes within Quotes," below).
For many of the examples that follow in this section, I will use one sentence. Here is the original as it appeared in the book from which it was taken, written by Earl Babbie (1995: 98):
Very often, age differences discovered in a cross-sectional study form the basis for inferring processes across time.Whenever you use someone else's words in a paper, they must appear in quotes. Often when you quote a source you will include one or more complete sentences. If you wanted to quote the sentence from Babbie in its entirety, you might write:
Earl Babbie wrote, "Very often, age differences discovered in a cross-sectional study form the basis for inferring processes across time" (Babbie, 1995: 98).For stylistic or other purposes, you may want to quote only part of a sentence. Here are a few of the ways for doing so, followed by explanations for each:
Notice that I included an attribution, "Earl Babbie wrote," before the quote. Never drop a quote into an essay without an attribution: a reference to its author. The attribution can come at the beginning, middle, or end of the quote, but it is always necessary. The first time you mention an author, use the author's first name to personalize the author and add sophistication to your writing. If you mention the same author again, you need only use her or his last name. Here are a couple of examples of these points--note, too, that you do not have to place the attribution before the quotation:
"Very often," Earl Babbie wrote, "age differences discovered in a cross-sectional study form the basis for inferring processes across time" (Babbie, 1995: 98).
"Very often, age differences discovered in a cross-sectional study form the basis for inferring processes across time," wrote Earl Babbie (1995: 98). Babbie's point is an important one for historical analyses.
Earl Babbie wrote that "age differences discovered in a cross-sectional study form the basis for inferring processes across time" (Babbie, 1995: 98).or
Earl Babbie wrote that "[v]ery often, age differences discovered in a cross-sectional study form the basis for inferring processes across time" (Babbie, 1995: 98).or
(Skipping an entire sentence:) Earl Babbie wrote, "Very often, age differences discovered in a cross-sectional study form the basis for inferring processes across time. . . .You might examine that by studying the results of annual checkups in a large hospital" (Babbie, 1995: 98).
(Eliminating words at the end of a sentence:) Earl Babbie wrote that "age differences [may be] discovered in a cross-sectional study..." (Babbie, 1995: 98). (In this example, I also included my own words, "may be;" see below for more guidance on this point.)
Example: According to Constance Russell, "Herzog notes that this tendency to make moral decisions about the treatment of animals 'based on emotional criteria such as how cute they are' marginalizes less attractive animals" (Russell, 1996: 163).In the original, Russell included a citation for Herzog's article after she quoted him. You should omit those citations and only cite the material that you are working with.
In your papers, you have a couple of ways of presenting quotes within quotes when those quotes are sentence-length (in the example from Russell, above, only a few words of her sentence came from Herzog). Here is how a quote appeared in a section on artificial intelligence (AI) in Sherry Turkle's book Life on the Screen:
Marvin Minsky had long justified the AI enterprise with the quip, "The mind is a meat machine."How might you quote what Minsky wrote? Take a look at these examples written as they might appear in a student's essay; pay special attention to the quote marks and the citation:
Marvin Minsky wrote, "The mind is a meat machine" (quoted in Turkle, 1995: 137).In the first example, the author was Minsky, but your source is Turkle. You include "quoted in" in the cite to avoid confusing readers who may wonder why you are quoting Minsky but citing Turkle.
Sherry Turkle observed, "'The mind is a meat machine'" (Turkle, 1995: 137).
The second example uses triple quote marks (" and ' on each end of the quoted words) to show that the quote is not actually Turkle's but someone else's. By the way, this sort of example is a little tricky. Turkle raises serious questions about the quote's meaning, so writing that she "observed" (or thought) that the human mind is a meat machine may not be entirely fair. Be careful how you quote someone, and be sure that you are being fair to the arguments that they make.
You can insert clarifying words in a quote. Whenever you add words to written materials, enclose your word(s) in brackets: [ ]. If you are adding words to material from an unwritten source, like an interview that you conducted, your words go in parentheses.
Example: Earl Babbie wrote, "Very often, age differences discovered in a cross-sectional study [also called a "one-time" study] form the basis for inferring processes across time" (Babbie, 1995: 98).Longer Quotes
Related themes, such as controlling Nature through science and technology, may be found in Weber's work, as when he wrote,ParaphrasingNow, the peculiar form of Western capitalism has been, at first sight, strongly influenced by the development of technological possibilities. Its rationality is today essentially dependent on the calculability of the most important technical factors. But this means fundamentally that it is dependent on the peculiarities of modern science, especially the natural sciences based on mathematics and exact and rational experiment. (Weber, 1958: 24)
Note the period before the cite. Normally, periods follow cites, but the convention is the opposite for indented quotes.
"The sociological imagination can be a vital instrument in making it through everyday life."You like that idea and you want to use it, but you decide to paraphrase it. That is fine; just be sure to give him credit:
The sociological way of seeing can be a tool to guide us in our daily lives (Babbie, 1995).How frequently should you paraphrase in a paper versus quoting authors? There is no easy answer to that question, but try to see things from my perspective. I ask students to write papers in part so that they can demonstrate their "facility" with authors' ideas. Quoting an author forces you to work directly with her or his ideas on their own terms, whereas paraphrasing can leave you open to misinterpreting an author's work. Paraphrasing is perfectly acceptable, but in general you should mix paraphrases and quotations, and my recommendation is that you quote more often than you paraphrase.
Cite Your Sources!
Whenever you take material directly from a source like a book or an article, you must formally acknowlege, or "cite," that source (cite is short for citation). You should also cite important sources that you have paraphrased. You must include all cited material in a reference list, which is explained below in the "Listing References" section. Your reference list includes only those published items that you cite; it is a "works cited" list.
The preferred citation style in this class is as follows: in parentheses, write the author's last name followed by a comma, the year that the cited work was published, and the page number(s) on which you found the quoted material. For example: (Babbie, 1995: 98). Sociology students beware: the comma after the author's name is my own quirk. Use it in my classes only! To my knowledge, this point is the only one in "Writing Tips" that is unique to me. For the preferred style in sociology, see the ASA's Style Guide.
A couple of subtleties: first, there is a space between the closed-quote--the second set of quote marks--and the open parenthesis of the citation: " ( . Second, the period ending the sentence goes after the closed-parenthesis, not immediately after the quote.
Example: Earl Babbie wrote, "Very often, age differences discovered in a cross-sectional study form the basis for inferring processes across time" (Babbie, 1995: 98).If there is more than one author of a book or article, list each of the first three authors' last names, then the publication year and page number (if there are more than three authors, list the first three authors' last names and then "et al.": (McKeachie, Granovetter, Armstrong, et al., 2000: 320).
One more detail: even if you quote from the same work twice in one paragraph (that is, you use two separate quotes), you still need a cite for each quote if the quotes do not appear in the same sentence.
"Very often," Earl Babbie wrote, "age differences discovered in a cross-sectional study form the basis for inferring processes across time" (Babbie, 1995: 98). He also observed that "what we mean by these concepts" has to be made clear (Babbie, 1995: 105).Missing Information
Alternatively, you might combine the quotes into one sentence; list each page number in your cite:
"Very often, age differences discovered in a cross-sectional study form the basis for inferring processes across time," wrote Earl Babbie; he also observed that "what we mean by these concepts" has to be made clear (Babbie, 1995: 98, 105).
Where should you cite a paraphrase if there you use an author's
ideas frequently in a paragraph but never quote her or him? The
standard for full-fledged scholars is at the end of that kind of
paragraph. However, for undergraduates it is a good idea to cite
the beginning and at the end of paraphrase-heavy paragraphs; my logic
on this point is that you want to demonstrate that you know you are
using another's ideas and you want to avoid even the hint of plagiarism.
Some guidelines for citing internet sites:
To tell a reader from what sources you obtained the materials that you used in your paper, you should include a list of your sources headed "References." The references are listed alphabetically by the author's last name at the end of your paper. The last name(s) in each reference should exactly match those in your in-text citations. For example, your reference list might look like this:
play, record album
Babbie, Earl. 1995. The Practice of Social Research. Belmont, California: Wadsworth.
with two or three authors
Beane, Anne, Laura Jones, and Amy Nerka. 1983. Earl's Pearls: The Wit and Wisdom of Earl Babbie. Anytown, Nebraska:
with more than three authors
Berger, Peter, et al. 1987. Legitimacy and Sociology: Critical Perspectives. New York: Scriviner and Sons.
Cool Hand Luke. 1967. New York: Warner Home Video.
journal article--following the journal title are: volume(number): page
Harris, Mark. 1990. "Research Methods Texts: A Summary." The Washington Journal of Sociology 5(3): 24-28.
Jones, James. 1990. "Babbie in a New Edition...Again!" New York Times. April 30: A5.
book--compare with the "Mills" entry
Matson, Ron, editor. 2008. The Spirit of Sociology: A Reader. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
or reading in an edited book
Mills, C. Wright. 2008. "The Sociological Imagination." Pages 11-20 in Ron Matson, editor, The Spirit of Sociology: A
Reader. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
page with known author
Quinn, Mary Anne. 1996. "Electronic Mail in the College Classroom." Technology and Higher Education Sources.
Online. Available at: http://hied.com/quinn.html.
page with anonymous author
"Red Cedar Watershed in Trouble from Variety of Causes." n.d. Riverwatch. Online. Available at:
Note the general format of all of these entries: (1) author's name (or, in the case of some web pages, the title of the page), (2) date of the publication (use "n.d." if no date is available), (3) title and other publication information. If you find a source that does not quite match one of the examples above, use these three points to guide your referencing. References should include enough information so that someone who wants to go to get your source can do so.
Do not reference unpublished, original "data," including class notes
and interviews. I do ask that you cite class notes (see the
citation section, above), but
interviews and observations that you conduct should not be cited.
The reason you give an author credit
even if you do not quote her/him is because it looks like her/his idea
is your own unless you tell me that you got it from someone else. Think
about that for a minute. Writers cannot control what happens to their
words and the ideas that they represent, yet they put a tremendous
amount of effort into creating books, essays, articles, web pages,
poetry, plays, screen plays, and other works so that we can learn from
them. If you fail to give credit where it is due, it is
tantamount to theft. Students are not the only ones who
plagiarize. Pulitzer Prize-winning authors have been nabbed for
taking others' words without giving them credit, as have college
professors (for example, professors in ethics (of all
and in art),
and at least one college
has been accused of ripping-off others' words! The problem is so
severe that the Chronicle of Higher
Education published a special
report devoted to academic plagiarism.
You need to give credit--cite a
at least one way, and potentially in two ways. First, even when
you paraphrase you must cite your source (see the "Quotations
and Paraphrases" section, above). Second, you must be careful to
place in quote marks any material that you take verbatim from another
person's work. TO FAIL TO GIVE CREDIT FOR ANOTHER PERSON'S IDEAS
OR WORDS WHEN YOU BORROW THEM IS PLAGIARISM. IT IS A SERIOUS OFFENSE.
If you are found to have plagiarized a work in this class, you will
receive an F for the course. If you are uncertain about when to cite an
author, please ask me.
By the way, if you take a look at the
links above to articles about plagiarism cases, you will note a couple
of commonalities in the plagiarists' excuses. First, they admit
to being sloppy. Second, they seem to always be in a hurry.
Learn from those mistakes; keep careful track of the materials that you
use, and give yourself plenty of time to get the work done.
Stuents are using internet sources more and more frequently, but you need to be careful about the quality of that information. First, do not use Wikipedia as your primary source of information--the source from which you draw information. Anyone can contribute to Wikipedia--heck, I have!--but not everyone is careful about the material they share there; some of it is not reliable. So, if you want to use Wikipedia, use it to help you in your search for information.
Learn to discern between high-quality and lower-quality web-based information. Sites ending in ".gov" and ".edu" are often the most reliable. Those with ".org" and ".com" suffixes often are excessively biased. For more help, see this helpful site by the Scribner Library staff.
In the course of giving you some advice, I hope that nothing in "Writing Tips" curbs your creativity. Nearly all of the rules for writing can and sometimes should be broken for effect (that does not include rules for quoting, citing, and referencing authors), and some are simply conventions that do not make much sense to most of us.
One of my favorite books is Style: An Anti-Textbook by Richard A. Lanham. Lanham condemns the dominant view that all writing should be "clear," and I agree with him. I want you to write creatively: with, most importantly, a strong sociological voice, and also with insight, humor, pathos, and fun. But I think the suggestions I make above are easily justified most of the time. Not following these guidelines can make your writing confusing and even confounding, not enjoyable and thought-provoking as it should be, and that leads to lower grades.
Finally, you are responsible for
knowing and understanding "Writing Tips." If you have questions
about any of my suggestions, drop by my office, see me after class,
call me, or send me an e-mail message.
Tibbits, George. 1996. "Astronomer Carl
Sagan Dies." Associated Press from the Washington Post Electronic
Edition. Online. Available at: http://washingtonpost.com/. December
Turkle, Sherry. 1997. Life on the Screen. New York:
Simon and Schuster.
Sociological Perspectives home page.
Environmental Sociology home page.
Development of Sociological Thought home page.