6 Writing Tips To Make Your Papers 300% Better

Hey there guys! This week’s article is a guest post by Ransom Patterson

Ransom is a sophomore at the College of Wooster majoring in English and has been an incredibly active CIG reader – leaving well thought-out comments on articles, listening to the podcast, submitting listener tips and questions for Q&A episodes, and more – all things that I’ve been incredibly happy and grateful to see.

Not only that, but Ransom has also taken the time to create his own website, portfolio, and blog using the personal website guide – and he did it when he was a freshman! I can safely say that Ransom’s got his sh*t together. 

On his blog, Ransom’s been writing about grammar usage and other English tips – things that are definitely useful to students. Based on this work, I’m happy to bring you a guest post from him – enjoy his writing tips, and start crafting kick-ass papers!

I don’t know about the rest of you, but here at my school midterms are right around the corner.

For lots of you I’m sure that means a bunch of papers will soon be due. With that in mind, here are six tips to help your writing stand apart (note that 300% is merely an estimate of your improvement. YMMV).

1. Don’t Trust Spell Check!

We’re quite lucky that we have software that can catch our spelling mistakes.

Despite all its sophistication, though, it’s still no substitute for knowing proper usage. Computers are stupid; they can’t distinguish such subtleties as the difference between:

  • “your” and “you’re”
  • “its” and “it’s”
  • “their,” “they’re” and “there.”

Don’t be the student who turns in a paper with these basic errors – always proofread your papers! Or visit your school’s writing center (see tip 5).

2. “Its” Does Not Equal “It’s”

Since spell check doesn’t know the difference, this rule bears repeating. It’s bad enough to make this error in an informal social media situation, but it’s a truly capital offense in formal writing (this mistake irks every English professor or teacher I’ve had).

So what’s the difference?

“Its” is the possessive form of “it,” as in,

“The corgi loved its lobster costume.”

Only use “its” when referring to something that you could safely call “it.” People generally do not fit this category, particularly in formal writing.

Corgi

“It’s,” on the other hand, is the contracted (which is just a fancy way of saying shortened) form of “it is.”

Just as “you’re” is short for “you are” or “they’re” is short for “they are,” so “it’s” is short for “it is.” Only use “it’s” where you could also use “it is,” as in,

“Look at the corgi–it’s so cute!”

If you remember the difference between its and it’s, you’re certain to impress your professors.

3. When in Doubt, Stick to Third Person (Usually)

When you’re writing a formal paper, it’s generally best to stick to the third person.

Avoid phrases such as “I believe,” “I think,” or “you know.” Not only are these phrases inappropriately informal, but they also make your writing seem weak and wishy-washy. If you really think or believe something, show it with concrete evidence.

Writing Commons has a more nuanced view on this topic, but this observation is a good one for writers who are unsure:

“Why do teachers often counsel against using the first person in an academic paper? Used too frequently or without care, it can make a writer seem self-centered, even self-obsessed. A paper filled with “I,” “me,” and “mine” can be distracting to a reader, as it creates the impression that the writer is more interested in him- or herself than the subject matter.

Additionally, the first person is often a more casual mode, and if used carelessly, it can make a writer seem insufficiently serious for an academic project.”

Once important exception to this rule is if you are writing a personal reflection paper. The essays you wrote as part of your college application probably fit this category.

Knowing how to write about yourself is essential when applying to graduate school or filling out job applications, especially on those pesky cover letters. Talking about yourself can be uncomfortable and difficult, but it’s a skill you neglect at your peril.

4. Be F*cking Specific!

Compare the following two sentences and tell me which is more descriptive:

  1. The corgi liked her new ball.
  2. The corgi chased her new ball with relish.

Hopefully you would agree the second example is more descriptive and interesting than the first. This is because the second example is specific! Instead of vaguely stating that the corgi “liked” her new ball, the second example demonstrates that by describing a concrete action the corgi took.

Apply this principle to your papers, and you will be lightyears ahead of most students. As one of my current professors, Dr. Prendergast, puts it,

“If you’re having trouble meeting the minimum word count for a paper, it’s probably because you’re not being specific enough.”

Just remember: Show the reader, don’t tell them.

5. Don’t Fear Your School’s Writing Center

I imagine your school has some sort of writing center, a place where you can get knowledgeable people to help you make your writing assignments awesome.

Use this resource! (you’re paying for it regardless) There’s no shame in getting help, and it’s always good to have someone look over your work before publishing/submitting it. Even super famous authors have editors.

If you’re not sure if your school has one, just Google “Name of your school” + “writing center.”

6. Have a Point!

Ever get halfway through watching a movie and wonder, “What was the point of this film again?”

There’s plenty of action, the special effects are spectacular, but you’re unsure why you’re watching it (think Transformers 4).

Transformers

Don’t let this happen to your paper. Don’t write just to fill space – begin with a point in mind and follow it through to a strong conclusion. This isn’t always easy, particularly if the paper is long, but it’s essential that you keep your point (or “thesis” in academic terms) at the forefront of your paper at all times. Every word you write should, to some degree, further this point.

This is why the stereotypical “Five Paragraph Essay” with the introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion is such a popular way of teaching students to write – it makes sure you establish your point from the outset, state three pieces of evidence in support of it, and then bring it to a (hopefully) strong conclusion. Don’t be a slave to this formula, but feel free to use it if you’re not sure where to begin.

Just remember, your professors hate reading pointless, meandering papers just as much as you hate watching Michael Bay’s pointless crap (was that too harsh?). Editor’s note: I love watching Michael Bay’s pointless crap because I am secretly a 5-year-old and ROBOT DINOSAURS

These are just a few tips to get you started. If you want more in-depth advice, I recommend the following blogs/sites:

These books are also excellent:

Good luck, and may the grammar gods smile on you in all your writing endeavors.

Images: Startup stock photos, corgi, transformers

Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Instagram

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17 Comments:
  1. Thanks! The article helpful.
    I also would like to say about thinking that longer sentence doesn’t sounds more academic. It is very important to understand. The same problem with getting information from wikipedia.org, this is not a 100% reliable information. But, it wasn’t obviously for me about making silly grammar mistakes. I just think about it, and starts to understand that I really was in that kind of situation. It is also related with worries, hard but need calm down, deep breath, keep mind clear and concentrate on intention. So, thank your information.

  2. As intelligent as u are, I’m sure you can use better wording than “B F*cking Specific”. I’ve always been taught if you have to use that kind of language you need a dictionary because you have a lack of vocabulary. It is just inappropriate. My grandchildren said, “that’s just tacky”.

    • What kind of language is he speaking? Last time I checked all of these words are used in the English language.

    • Swearing actually gives you a more broad vocabulary thank you very much.

  3. I admire your patience in advising college students regarding the use of contractions, but that is basic freshman high school ‘English’. It’s such a shame that too many HS students wait until college to learn something they should have been paying attention to 3-4 years ago. It makes one shake her head to read publicized writing that makes obvious the author’s lack of understanding of there, their, and they’re. (You mean there’s a difference?) And let’s not even discuss future perfect verb forms, or future past tense. (Say what?) Most people merely blink with blank, sheer incomprehension when hearing polysyllabic words, such as ‘adjective.’ These people were shooting spit wads and picking noses back in HS, activities that should have been surrendered in elementary school. Alas, ’tis a shame that college has become an extension of the HS educational process. Even as a freshman in college, my sympathies were with the instructors who shook their heads. In fact, now I recall that within the first week of freshman composition, the instructor had the class take an exam in order to weed out those students who required the remedial grammar course. And that was 1972.

  4. I had to snicker a little while reading this article. The tips were very helpful but the author was sidelined by their own rule #1- always proofread!! The paragraph following the quote in tip #3 should begin with “one” rather than “once.” (One of my pet peeves happens to be finding typos in textbooks.)

  5. I just started college and the teacher has me writing essays and 2-4 page paper now the thing is I don’t know how to write that much also I don’t know how to use the correct punctuation mark. What should I do I have 4 papers that I have to write

  6. My girlfriend just started college this semester, I think this will be a good read for her!

  7. Maybe it’s a bit narcissistic to comment on my own guest post, but I want to thank Tom for having me on the blog. You made my post look awesome. Love the addition of the corgi in a lobster costume.

    • Haha, well I was planning on commenting on it myself – but I suppose I’ll make it a reply now!

      Great work, Ransom – these are definitely useful tips. I was also happy to have no grammar or spelling to edit when I was formatting the post 🙂

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