QUICK AND DIRTY GUIDE TO EFFECTIVE PROSE
HOW NOT TO WRITE A PROPER ESSAY
Why should anyone want to write well? Aside from the personal satisfaction that one derives from communicating ideas convincingly and with flair, you should note that those who have developed an excellent writing ability have, as a rule, far more choices in life than those content to slog along with half-measures. Pragmatically speaking, the best professional and graduate schools and the best firms insist upon good writing (by which I mean more than merely a mastery of spelling and grammar—these are the means rather than the ends of fine writing). Perhaps even more importantly, good writing enables one to further develop one’s perspective on reality.
So, how does one write well? You may find it amazing that this question plagues your professors as well as you and your peers, but the struggle to convey one’s thoughts onto paper in a coherent and intelligent fashion (let alone stylishly) will, unfortunately, remain a lifetime one. To tame the dragon of the empty page requires practice and patience as well as the need to constantly hone vocabulary and punctuation skills. These tools, and the knowledge to use them properly, will, in turn, breed self-confidence. That self-confidence, in turn, will facilitate the flow of words and enable you to marshal that flow into an argument: the essence of historical knowledge.
Before going any further, let me stress firstly that there can be no substitute for mastery of subject matter. Poor writing will never completely obscure your knowledge but the greatest literary stylist will always be caught out if he or she tries to get away with avoiding the issue(s) under discussion. Thus, always carefully consider your material—whether it comes from reading or class discussions—before you boot up your word processor.
When you feel you have a good ‘handle’ on the questions before you, sketch an outline of your essay. This outline should include the introduction, the body, and the conclusion, the three necessary elements of any written effort. The introduction should set forth the issues you plan to address and give a preview of your thinking (BY NO MEANS, HOWEVER, SHOULD YOUR CONCLUSION REPEAT YOUR INTRODUCTION). You should really try to give some spice to your opening to provoke the reader’s interest (see below); do not simply announce your intentions.
Next, the ‘body’ of the essay presents the evidence from which you have drawn your thinking. Note that, in the case of a book review, you don’t provide a rehash of the book you have read. Rather, after reading the book, you decide what the author has tried to say and whether or not you agreed with that interpretation. Thus, in making your own judgements, you draw on evidence from the book (or whatever) you are reviewing. BE CERTAIN TO SUPPLY EXAMPLES TO SUPPORT YOUR OBSERVATIONS AT ALL TIMES.
Your conclusion should provide your final observations. Tell the reader what we should make of whatever it is you have been considering: why should we care? Is this a big deal? And, always, be sure to provide answers for the twinned questions: why/why not?
A failure to provide support for argument has been, in my experience, the biggest problem with student papers (and again see my reference above to the necessity of grounding your argument in the evidence). Many undergraduate papers also suffer from poor transitions from paragraph to paragraph. Each paragraph should constitute a semi-independent element within the paper. Yet, each of these elements should connect with the preceding one. You can do this easily (and check if your argument is cohering at the same time) by using (where appropriate) terms such as ‘however’, ‘yet’, ‘on the other hand’, ‘although’, ‘still’, ‘nevertheless’, or ‘in addition’ in the opening sentence of a succeeding paragraph.
In the same vein, sentences—the components of paragraphs—should follow one another logically. NEVER CHANGE POINTS IN THE MIDDLE OF A PARAGRAPH: ONE POINT PER PARAGRAPH ONLY PLEASE. Avoid one-sentence paragraphs by definition and be sure that references you make in succeeding sentences to concepts you have discussed previously are clear to the reader (see below). Also, generally avoid the passive voice (use it, as one of my graduate school mentors suggested, like vermouth in a very dry martini) which tends to put the reader to sleep. The active voice, on the other hand, keeps the reader interested (see below). ALWAYS WATCH YOUR GRAMMAR AND YOUR TENSES: SLOPPINESS DETRACTS FROM YOUR ARGUMENT AND POOR FORM CAN CLOUD THE READER’S ABILITY TO COMPREHEND WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT.
In the same vein, always be sure to avoid repetition and unnecessary verbiage. Many undergraduates, naturally fearful of mistakes of substance and form, cling to the security of forms of the verb ‘to be’: as, were, is, have been, &c. The question of ‘to be or not to be’ plagued Hamlet but, for your writing, the answer should invariably be ‘not to be’. Why? Because removing these words obliges you to pick up the pace of your argument and give it more flair.
How? Example: ‘The "Pilgrim Fathers" were persecuted in England for their religious beliefs. First, they moved to the Netherlands. However, they began to fear that their children would become Dutch. So, they decided to move to the New World. They were able to hire a ship called the Mayflower. In 1620, they crossed the Atlantic and were able to found a colony they called Plymouth.
They suffered greatly during their first winter in America. However, thanks to an Indian named Squanto, they were able to learn to grow crops in the alien environment. This enabled the colony to survive. Squanto was also a diplomat to the surrounding Native American communities. This furthered friendship between the English and the Indians. The Pilgrims decided to invite their new friends to a traditional harvest festival in the fall. This feast was the model for today’s Thanksgiving.’
Admittedly these two paragraphs follow the grammatical rules and contain no spelling errors. Undoubtedly, the form (and perhaps the substance) pleased the (strictly hypothetical) author and stimulated fond remembrances of high school English classes. Unfortunately, the result cannot please a reader. Compare it with this version:
‘Claiming persecution for their Separatist beliefs, the so-called "Pilgrim Fathers" departed their home in Scrooby, England. The "cursed Brownists", as their unsympathetic neighbors dubbed them, settled first in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, however, several years of exposure to their host culture seemed, to English eyes, to erode English cultural ways.
‘Thus alarmed, the Separatists agreed to move to the English colony in Virginia. However, a storm, a mistake in map reading, or a deliberate departure from course (depending upon one’s interpretation) carried their ship, Mayflower, to the shores of Massachusetts where they ultimately established their Plymouth colony.
‘The harsh (to English constitutions) climate of this place made life exceedingly difficult for the Brownists at first. Fortunately for them, a Wampanoag Indian called Squanto emerged one day from the forest to provide the key to agriculture in this "New World". This "act of Providence" (as the Plymouth leader, William Bradford, termed it) along with Squanto’s diplomatic efforts with surrounding Indian peoples relaxed the intense pressure on the Pilgrims and they were able to celebrate their first year at Plymouth with a traditional harvest festival to which they invited their indigenous neighbors." Can you spot the differences? Did the second version ‘read’ better? Why/why not?
Now, I will offer you some particulars together with the shorthand I use when I mark papers.
1. Active voice v passive voice. In the first case, somebody (or something) is doing something to someone (or something). In the second case, something is happening to something (or somebody). Example: ‘The class went into the library’ (active voice) as opposed to ‘The library was entered by the class’ (passive voice and also awkward, see below). I mark excessive use of the passive voice as ‘pass’.
2. Agreement. Be sure your subjects and verbs are in agreement: singular nouns go with singular verbs and plural nouns with plural verbs. I mark agreement errors as ‘agr’.
3. Tense errors are marked (another example of the passive voice) ‘tense’, spelling errors (inexcusable in this day of spell-checkers) with ‘sp’.
4. When you use ‘this’ or ‘these’ or equivalent words, be certain that the reader knows to which these terms refer. Example: ‘The English pop group went to America and attracted huge numbers of screaming fans wherever they went. This posed a security problem.’ Does ‘this’ refer to going to America or to the ‘screaming fans’?
5. When I find awkward phrasing I mark it ‘awk’. When a student uses the wrong word, I mark it ‘dict’.
[ ] omit bracketed material.
l.c. make a capitalized letter lower case.
7. Plagiarism. University regulations forbid the use, without appropriate citation, of work done by others. Copying work written by other people without reference will result in failure in the course for the student concerned and possible further disciplinary action.
Having said this, you may cite (using an appropriate method) other authors and copy from their work sparingly. I also encourage you to pursue your assignments in a collaborative way. HOWEVER, THE WORK YOU PRODUCE IN THE END MUST BE YOUR OWN. If you have questions about plagiarism or, indeed, anything, do not hesitate to ask me.
FINALLY, PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM ALWAYS WILLING TO READ AND RE-READ DRAFTS PRIOR TO DUE DATES. The best way to improve your writing is to re-write as often as time permits. In addition to myself, learn to rely on friends, roommates, the unwary, anyone in a position to provide an outside perspective on your work and to let you know, at a minimum, if you are making any sense at all. Reading out loud, both to yourself and to others, can help.