As I’m sure you know, Hamilton College places a lot of importance on writing skills. By now, you’ve probably heard every tip out there, whether it be from your professors, Writing Center tutors, or random articles online. You may now be thinking, “but wait, this is just another random article online.” True. There are plenty of resources on writing, and I strongly encourage taking drafts to the Writing Center whenever possible. However, below are a few pieces of essay-writing advice I think are particularly important. Some of them are things I continue to struggle with! It’s just a starting point, but these are some of the simplest ways to begin making a paper just a little more polished:
1. Start out by figuring out what your professor expects/prefers
Some writing skills apply to pretty much any piece of writing, but before you even start a paper, you should know what your professor is looking for. Some may have pet peeves that aren’t technically “wrong,” but could potentially impact your grade. For instance, certain professors have no problem with contractions, though many consider them informal in an academic paper. It might be hard to figure out your professors’ individual preferences, so you might have to wait to receive your first paper or shorter piece of writing back and consult it for future assignments. However, many professors may actually tell you in class or include on an assignment sheet what they want you to include or avoid, so make sure to take notes and consult them when you start writing! If you’re ever in doubt about whether a particular writing tendency is okay or not, it’s always best to air on the side of caution, but of course, it never hurts to just ask them.
Aside from stylistic matters, different papers might require different organizational structures. This is likely to depend more on the department or subject than on the individual professor. An APA-style research paper in the sciences will have a totally different format and structure than an MLA-style literary analysis. More than just following citation guidelines, make sure that you’re organizing your paper appropriately for the subject matter. As another example, I’ve been taught in French classes to use a lot of signposting — explicitly stating what you will be writing about, using language like “I will first show…” However, a professor in the English Lit department would probably be quite miffed if I used the word “I” in an essay.
2. Be concise
This is a big one for me, personally. When writing about complex ideas, it’s hard to condense everything into as few words as possible. Nonetheless, it’s important to practice this by looking carefully at your sentences to see if you need every word you’ve included. At first, it might be helpful to have someone else read your work and point out especially wordy sentences and possibly offer suggestions. Even though it’s tempting to use every big word you know and throw in academic jargon because you think it will make you sound smart, it’s more clear to readers if you simplify your language without dumbing down your arguments.
As a related point, don’t rely on a thesaurus. Again, it’s tempting, but more basic words are usually fine for getting your point across, and many professors and writers will say that they prefer simpler words over longer ones that mean the same thing. As a personal rule of thumb, I try to avoid a thesaurus unless I know the right word is already in my brain but I can’t think of it at the moment, or if the only word I’m thinking of has a slightly different connotation than what I want.
3. Avoid passive voice
This is not a hard-and-fast rule because it’s sometimes unavoidable and sometimes not such a big deal. However, your writing will get bogged-down and feel less engaging if you use a lot of passive voice. Passive voice is when the subject of your sentence is being acted upon by the verb.
Use the fun and helpful advice in this tweet to help you figure out if a phrase uses passive voice!
4. Switch up your sentence length and structure
Your writing will become boring and/or confusing if you have too many short or too many long sentences. Even lots of medium sentences in a row can become dull, especially if they all have a similar structure (e.g. they all start with a noun or article).
This quote (found here) shows how nicely writing flows when you use a variety of sentence lengths. In addition to avoiding choppy sentences and fragments, you should also steer clear from run-on sentences or ones that are simply too wordy. Run-on sentences occur when you don’t separate two independent clauses with proper punctuation or a conjunction. But even when a sentence is grammatically correct, it’s sometimes a good idea to split it into two or more sentences anyway. Are you ever reading something academic and confusing when you come across a sentence that completely loses you in the middle? You don’t want your reader to forget what the beginning of the sentence was about by the time they reach the period.
5. Brush up on the basics
You might be a little offended by the suggestion that you should remind yourself of basic grammar and punctuation rules, but everyone messes up sometimes. At this stage in our academic careers, it’s easy to assume that you know all of the “easy stuff” and don’t need to worry. However, this assumption makes it even more important to brush up on these skills because you’re probably less likely to look for these issues when proofreading. Also, you probably write more complex sentences than you did when you were initially learning about punctuation and grammar, but your knowledge of the rules might not have caught up. Check out the Writing Center website or a site like Grammarly for simple explanations with helpful examples.
My most basic advice is to practice. If you really want to enhance your writing skills as well as style, writing and reading more often will help you learn the technical rules as well as help you have a better feel for what sounds good and what doesn’t.
There are many, many other pieces of writing advice out there, but don’t get overwhelmed. Try to identify your writing weaknesses based on the feedback you get or what you struggle with most, but don’t forget to be proud of your strengths too!