General Writings Tips

Of course, rules are made to be broken: you should take these tips as guidelines, ways to strengthen your written expression. Once you are comfortable, feel free to play with these rules for added effect.


Academic writing has two basic goals: clarity and specificity. You want to make clear, specific points in your writing. To write clearly, you need to take care to use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Anything that confuses your reader confuses your meaning. To write with specificity, you need to make sure that you are not introducing irrelevant points, contradictory statements, or vague and unsubstantiated arguments. The tips below will help you maintain clear, specific academic writing.


1. Avoid the passive voice. Verbs can be expressed actively or passively; writers can choose to write in the active or passive voice. The first clause I just wrote was in the passive voice. The second clause of that sentence was in the active voice. Note the difference: the second clause is more specific. I know who is choosing and writing; in the first clause, I do not know who is "expressing," and I'm not sure what the point is. In the second clause, I know we are talking about writers making choices to craft more effective writing. Oftentimes we slip into a passive voice ("The essay was written...") for a variety of reasons (it sounds more formal; we're trying to avoid using the first person ["I wrote my essay..."]). But the effect is fuzzy, unclear, non-specific writing. Actions in academic prose require agents. People are doing things, saying things, arguing things. If you can't reconfigure your sentence so that it has an active agent, it may be because you're not sure of what you're saying and you need to rethink it.


2. This/that... what? Avoid using "this," "that," "these," and "those" as the subjects of sentences (e.g., "This shows why I am right and you and wrong"; "These are the focus of our paper"). Use these words instead as intensifiers ("This argument shows why I am right"; "These documents are the focus of our paper"). Your writing will be more specific and focused. If you can't think of the noun that should follow "this" or "that," then you are not clear on what you're saying in the sentence in question. Rework it!


3. Everything is "interesting." But you need to specify why a fact, idea, quotation, etc. is "interesting." Whenever you find yourself writing, "It's interesting that..." or "Interestingly," pause and see if you can substitute another more specific word. Do you mean "unusual" (if so, why)? Do you mean "characteristic" (if so,of what)? Everything you're writing about is "interesting" (or else, why would you be writing about it?); your job in academic writing is to explain what is so interesting and why.


4. Nothing is "obvious." Whenever you find yourself writing, "Without a doubt" or "Obviously" or "Clearly" or any similar assertion that something "goes without saying," one of two things is happening: 1) Your point really is "obvious" or "goes without saying" and therefore you do not need to say it. Delete that sentence and see if it makes a difference. But more liekly 2) Your point is not obvious, but you are avoiding making an argument to assert your point. If you take out your assertion of obviousness, does your sentence sound