Improving your writing if you weren’t taught the basics in high school
Certain fields, e.g. psychology and law, have required, specific and unyielding styles of writing and of organizing articles. Almost all other fields do not, and thus many Ph.D. students lack a standard to follow. In these cases, the student has to rely on imitating other dissertations that s/he considers excellent or must draw on what s/he learned about writing while in high school.
Unfortunately, many students attended high school at a time when teachers did not impart the rudiments of good writing. Similarly, few teachers taught good penmanship, a skill that quickly is disappearing given the availability of computerized writing. I consider myself fortunate in having had high school teachers who did teach us the rules of good writing. In this essay I will try to share their rules and regulations, a body of knowledge that has served me well throughout the ensuing 47 years.
I’ll start at the beginning with the title of what one is writing. People have a hard time selecting a title particularly now that puns have become commonplace. In high school I learned that simplicity and specificity are best. Try your title on someone else and see if they can figure out what your writing will be about. Academic writing typically includes a subtitle that explains what the work will concern, whereas the actual title is “cute.” Sometimes this pairing works, but the writer should know that a subtitle is not necessary. I wrote a book with the title, Feminist Methods in Social Research, and left it at that. This book sold well, perhaps in part because its contents were clearly indicated in the title.
Then there is the first paragraph. Please use the first paragraph to tell the reader exactly what you plan to explain. According to a colleague of mine in graduate school, the late Murray Davis, most scholars want to elicit the following response, “That’s interesting!” The way you get people to say that something is interesting is to set up a contrast. The most typical contrast in academic writing is the “lacuna versus filled lacuna” polarity, which simply states, “there was a lacuna (or gap) in our knowledge which I am now going to fill.” This contrast will elicit the “that’s interesting!” response, however, only if the lacuna is important. For example, if one were to write that “no one has ever studied the impact of potato chips on obesity, but I will do so,” the desired response might be forthcoming because obesity is a topic of current interest. Even more interesting than “lacuna filling” is to state an “upending” comment in the opening paragraph. An example might be, “Although carrots are thought to be a useful tool in fighting obesity, I will show that they actually have a deleterious effect.” A statement such as this one grabs people’s interest. It is imperative for the writer to be able to articulate why whatever is being written is important.
Any paper over 10 pages should be graced with subheadings, the scaffolding of the structure the writer is building. Because readers can get lost in someone else’s writing, they deserve to be given signposts along the way. The subheadings can be phrases the writer used in the outline of the dissertation. Outlines are mandatory but flexible, which means that you will probably change them regularly. When I mentor Ph.D. students I ask them to write the title of their dissertation on a 3x5 card and post it on the wall behind their computer so that they are constantly reminded of what they are doing. Like the outline, chapter subheadings set off the parts and put them in some sort of order. The challenges is to make sections marked off by subheadings approximately the same length, e.g. 5 pages. Discovering that one section is 3 pages and another 10 should lead the writer to reorganize – the 3 may be too short and the 10 too long, or perhaps the 10 is just right and the 3 needs to be expanded.
Oftentimes I find myself reading a manuscript submitted for publication and, although there is a comprehensible title, good opening paragraph and reasonable subheadings, the writer never seems to get to the point announced enticingly in the first paragraph. When this happens, I have an image of a frightened writer who is circling around an airport, afraid to land. When the author jumps right in and does what it promises, I have the sense of a writer who takes off, soars, and then lands in a gentle arc. Readers want to join that ride. They don’t want to circle.
Aside from these structural issues, there are numerous common writing problems that drive me crazy. Here is a collection of ten.
1) Vary your vocabulary. Try not to use a word twice on the same page. If you adopt that rule, you will force yourself to expand the range of words you use and will most likely be more specific. You can figure out if you are repeating words by using the search function in your computer.
2) Try not to split infinitives. Enough said.
3) Avoid the passive voice. (I tried not to write a single passive sentence in this essay.) The passive voice is dangerous; it hides the actor who is perpetrating whatever it is you are writing about. If you think of the passive voice as potentially harmful rather than just inelegant, you might be more motivated to avoid it.
4) Place the word “only” right before the thing that is singular. One should say, for example, “I want only an apple,” rather than “I only want an apple.” The word “only” modifies the word closest to it.”
5) Pay attention to punctuation. Inserting commas only where they belong contributes to enjoyable reading. Too many commas spoil the writing, as do too few. I just read the following sentences in a magazine: “Because our bodies are receptacles of our souls, and vessels of God’s light…” My alarm went off, because a comma does not belong before the “and.” I began to wonder about the writing skills of the author and the editor. These questions interrupted my reading.
The article continues, “Today however,” which distressed me further because a comma was missing before “however.” The author continues, “a focus on fitness is often seen as...” and I put the periodical down. The passive voice was the last straw, and I was only in the first paragraph! [The perceptive reader will notice that I repeated myself in this paragraph by including “the author continues” twice. I believe this repetition helped make the argument, which is why I deliberately violated my rule.]
6) Be careful of “it.” As I learned in my high school, the “it” word needs a very clear reference. “Because the stove is hot, we should not touch it.” is a sentence with a clear referent. Sometimes “it” becomes part of a passive sentence structure, a double “no no,” as this example illustrates: “It was believed that in two short years,…” The next page of this same book offers: “It was commonly believed held that…” A triple no no: improper it usage, passive voice and repetition of language.
7) Make your sentences lean. The same book mentioned in point 6 states: “The year 1989 also brought with it several..” Why not, “1989 brought several…”? I believe that excess fat in sentences causes reader fatigue because the reader has to work hard to find the key words in the fat sentence.
8) A tiny bit of repetition or recapping is permissible to keep the reader on the same track as the writer, especially if the argument is complicated.
9) Spelling errors are bountiful and comical in contemporary writing, but don’t make them unless you are writing to be funny. “Know won is a round,” is funny but incorrect. On this point, I just received a letter from my doctor asking me “to come hear on time.” Common errors are “their and there,” “its and it’s,” “right and write,” and on and on. One sometimes helpful way to catch these errors is to use the “spelling and grammar” function of your word processing system. Another is to give your writing to a friend to read. A second pair of eyes might help. But the important thing is to create a plan to never make a pointed out spelling error again.
Usage errors are in the same category. Learn the basics, such as the fact that “which” requires a comma before it, whereas “that” does not. Knowing these rules makes it easier to pilot the plane and land gracefully. Capitalization errors seem to be on the increase in contemporary society. People seem to think that if a word is important, we can start it off with a capital letter. No Way! Only proper nouns receive the capital letter. “The University taught English” is incorrect.
10) Since I am limiting myself to 10 points, I’ll end with a plea about paragraph length. Try to keep each paragraph at 5 sentences and your paper will look beautiful and be a joy to read. Very short paragraphs read like staccato music and long ones like dirges. Like Goldilocks, try to get your sentences just right.
I hope these ideas are helpful. They certainly have helped me. (Not They have certainly helped me.).
Shulamit Reinharz is the holder of the Jacob Potofsky Chair of Sociology, and is the Director of the Women's Studies Research Center, at Brandeis University. She created the graduate program in Women's Studies, including the first graduate program in Jewish Women's Studies in the world. Professor Reinharz is the author or co-author of twelve books including most recently, The JGirls' Guide (Jewish Lights), American Jewish Women and the Zionist Enterprise (UPNE), Jewish Intermarriage around the World (Transaction), Observing the Observer (Oxford), and One Hundred Years of Kibbutz Life (Transaction). Over the years, she has supervised several dozen doctoral theses based on qualitative research, the last by Alison Better on the experience of shopping in sex stores.