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.
“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:
- The corgi liked her new ball.
- 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).
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:
- The Transitive Vampire and The Well-Tempered Sentence, both by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White (yes, the same who wrote Charlotte’s Web.)
Good luck, and may the grammar gods smile on you in all your writing endeavors.