Thursday, April 16, 2015

7 Easy Tricks To Make Your Writing Look More Advanced

Have you ever written a paper and known your ideas were good, but your writing just didn't cut it? Yeah, we have all been there. The rotten thing is that it is so difficult to look at your own writing, something you have spent days or even weeks on, and find ways to make it look more professional. Well, below are seven tricks I learned in college that helped me gussy up my writing and create a finished product with which I could be proud.



KEEP IN MIND: These tricks are meant to help you polish your paper. It is important to remember that most professors and teachers grade papers based on content, not polish. If your content isn't there, these tips won't help your grade much.

1. Introduce Your Quotes

A lot of students I have worked with in the past, both college- and high school-level, use quotes like this:

Patsy Barnes's father was killed by a horse. "his father had sacrificed his life on account of his love for horses." The horse that killed his father later shows up in Patsy's life.

Okay. So the student writer has made a claim and used a quote to support it. Great! But, do you see how awkward it feels to have the quotation standing alone by itself? On top of the awkward appearance, the quote doesn't have a distinct sentence with which it goes. Is it meant to be support for the sentence before or a bridge to the sentence after?

The easiest way for the student writer to clarify her meaning is to add an introduction and blend the previous sentence with the quotation:

Dunbar* reveals that Patsy's father was killed by a horse when he writes, "his father had sacrificed his life on account of his love for horses." The horse that killed his father later shows up in Patsy's life.
*Dunbar is the author of the story.

See? We used the same information, but we introduced the quote in our claim. BONUS: we incorporated reference to the author in the new version of the sentence.

2. Use Brackets for Subbed Words

Often times, students kind of fly blind when using quotations. At best, they use the quotation as is, sacrificing the meaning of their own sentence. At worst, they change the quotation to suit the needs of their sentence. Why is this worse? Changing the quotation without denoting you made changes is considered plagiarism and could earn you a zero.

The easiest way to manipulate quotes to suit your writing needs is to use brackets.

Example:

"She said it was the best time of her life."

becomes

"She said [her trip to Finland] was the best time of her life."

In the above example, the writer clarified the meaning of his sentence by changing "it" to "her trip to Finland." Brackets are also useful for times when you need to change the capitalization of a word to fit your sentence.

Example:

"She said it was the best time of her life."

becomes

"[s]he said [her trip to Finland] was the best time of her life."

3. Know the Citation Style for Your Discipline

A lot of teachers, especially college professors, look at correct citation when grading papers. View my blog post on citation for a breakdown of the three major types of citation and links for how to use them.

4. Never Use "I"

Using "I" automatically strips your paper of some of its formality. Substituting "I" with "the reader" or "one" usually takes care of this. Another big problem with using "I" is how you use it. People who use "I" in their papers typically write something like this:

I think Morrison uses Paul D's escape from the boxes as a type of "rebirth" to signify his rediscovery of life.

The use of "I think" diminishes the power of this sentence. Instead of being a strong statement, the writer qualifies the sentence by saying, in essence, "I may be wrong, but Morrison uses . . .". As the writer of your paper, you are the authority; show your reader that. A stronger version of the example sentence above removes the "I think," leaving behind only a strong claim:

Morrison uses Paul D's escape from the boxes as a type of "rebirth" to signify his rediscovery of life.

5. The More Complex the Sentence, the Better

Now, this doesn't mean you have to write sentences like the following by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

What I do mean is that you should be writing compound and complex/compound sentences. None of this "John was once a young man. He had a dog then. The dog's name was Rex." I know, I know. You are a graduate/in college/in high school! You would never write this way! But some people do write this way, and to those people I say: pull it together. Literally. Pull your brief, simple sentences together and make longer, more complex sentences like the following:

When John was a young man, he had a dog named Rex.

Not too long, but it is complex, combines three weaker sentences into one strong one, and cuts out unnecessary words, which leads to my next point.

6. Be Concise

There is a time and a place for everything, and while I like purple prose in fiction, you should not be incorporating unnecessary details or words into your papers. Take the following example:

The assumption of most people is that there were only ever male pharaohs.

Good information, strong claim, but there are just too many unnecessary words. If your professor/teacher has set a word count requirement on your paper, you don't want to look like you are trying to "fluff up" your prose to meet the word count. Be a professional and keep it concise. A concise version of our example sentence is:

Most people assume that all pharaohs were male.

There! The same information is there, and we gave ourselves room for five more impactful words later in our paper. Remember: revision is the best way to trim the unnecessary fat from your paper.

7. Understand the Punctuation You Are Using

Nothing says amateur hour like poor punctuation usage. Your readers' focus should always be your content, and you don't your reader to get distracted or tripped up by unnecessary or incorrect punctuation. If you don't already have a firm understanding of the basics of punctuation, spend some time studying. Trust me, the hours will be well spent.

BONUS

8. Cut the Contractions

Formal papers are no place for contractions; spell it out! And you know the word count I mentioned earlier? Most writing software registers words like "don't" as one word. You know what's two words? Do not.

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