- What is your thesis?
An essay should have one main topic (the "thesis") that is clearly
evident in the introduction and conclusion. Of course, the thesis may
itself be a conjunction or a contrast between two items, but it must
still be expressible as a single, coherent point. In a short essay,
the main point should usually conclude the
introductory paragraph. The reader should never be in any doubt about
what your thesis is; whenever you think it might not be absolutely
obvious, remind the reader again.
- Say it, do not just say that you will say it
- In the
introduction, conclusion, and abstract (if any), do not merely
describe what you are going to say or have said, actually say it! For
instance, do not just state that "I will discuss and evaluate this
paper" if you will later argue that (for example) it is an ineffective
paper. Instead state that the paper is ineffective, and (in brief)
why you believe that to be the case. Then you can elaborate on that
point in subsequent paragraphs.
- Overall structure
The standard format for an effective essay or article is to:
(1) present a coherent thesis in the introduction, (2) try your
hardest to convince the reader of your thesis in the body of the
paper, and (3) restate the thesis in the conclusion so that the reader
remains quite sure what your thesis is, and so that the reader
can decide whether he or she was convinced. Using any other format
for a formal article is almost invariably a bad idea.
- Each paragraph is one relevant sub-topic
Each paragraph should have one topic that is clearly
evident early in the paragraph. Every paragraph should have a clear
relationship to the main topic of the paper; if not, either the
paragraph should be eliminated, or the main topic should be revised.
- When in doubt, use the recipe:
introduce, expand/justify, conclude
The structure for a paragraph is usually the same as the overall
structure -- first make the topic clear, then expand upon it, and
finally sum up, tying everything back to the topic. The same advice
applies to writing subsections, sections, chapters, books, and so on.
At each level, you need to tell the reader what you will be trying to
say (in this paragraph, section, etc.), then you need to cover all the
relevant material, clearly relating it to your stated point, and
finally you need to tie the subtopics together so that they do indeed
add up to establish the point that you promised.
- Transitions are difficult but very important
Each sentence should follow smoothly from the preceding
sentence, and each paragraph should follow smoothly from the preceding
paragraph. The world is arguably an unstructured jumble of ideas, but
a paper needs to be a linear progression along one single path, since
a reader is usually expected to read it from start to finish.
Transition words and phrases are what make it possible for a
reader to follow you easily as you explore the various ideas in your
paper. Without good transitions, the reader
will end up backtracking repeatedly, which will often cause your point
to be lost.
In practice, making smooth transitions is very difficult. Learning
to do it takes a lot of practice at first, and actually making the
transitions smooth takes a lot of effort every time you write or
revise something. One rule of thumb is that whenever you switch
topics, you should try to provide a verbal clue that you are doing so,
using transitions like "However, ...", "As a result, ...", "For
comparison, ", etc. Apart from that, all you can do is read and
reread what you write, rewording it until each new item follows easily
from those before it.
- Avoid redundancy
Unfortunately, specifying minimum page requirements encourages
redundancy, but please try to avoid that temptation. When two words
will do, there is no need to use twenty. When one sentence will do,
there is no need to use ten. Whenever you finish a sentence or
paragraph, read over it to see if any words or sentences can be
eliminated -- often your point will get much stronger when you do so.
In the scientific community, your ability to write concisely is far
more important than your ability to fill up a page with text. We
specify page minimums to ensure that you write an essay of the
appropriate depth, not to test whether you can say the same thing a
dozen different ways just to fill up space. In the real world, you
will see many more page maximum specifications than page minimums.
- Stay on topic without being one-sided
To avoid being misleading, you will often need to acknowledge some
weaknesses in your argument or discuss some merits of an opposing
argument. It is quite appropriate to discuss such opposing views when
they are relevant, i.e., when they relate directly to the main topic of
your paper. For instance, if you argue that a paper was not written
well overall, it is usually a good idea to point out the few things
that were done well, e.g. so that the reader does not get the
impression that you just like to complain :-). Often such
opposing observations fit well just after the introduction, providing
a background for the rest of your arguments which follow. In general,
just try to make your point as clearly as possible, while at the same
time not overstating it and not pretending that no other valid
- Formal writing is not just dictated conversation
In general, it is inappropriate simply to write as you would speak.
In conversation, the listener can ask for clarification or elaboration
easily, and thus the speaker can use imprecise language, ramble from
topic to topic freely, and so on. Formal writing must instead stand
on its own, conveying the author's thesis clearly through words alone.
As a result, formal writing requires substantial effort to construct
meaningful sentences, paragraphs, and arguments relevant to a
well-defined thesis. The best formal writing will be difficult to
write but very easy to read; the author's time and effort spent on
writing will be repaid with the time and effort saved by the readers.
- Avoid contractions
Contractions are appropriate only for conversational use and for
informal writing, never for technical or formal writing.
- Write what you mean, mean what you write
Speakers use many informal, colloquial phrases in casual conversation,
usually intending to convey meanings other than what the words
literally indicate. For instance, we often speak informally of "going
the extra mile", "at the end of the day", "hard facts", things being
"crystal clear" or "pretty" convincing, someone "sticking to" a topic,
readers being "turned off", something "really" being the case, etc.
Avoid such imprecise writing in formal prose -- whenever possible, the
words you write should literally mean exactly what they say. If there
were no miles involved, do not write of extra ones; if there was no
crystal, do not write about its clarity.
Among other benefits, avoiding such informal language will ensure
that your meaning is obvious even to those who have not learned the
currently popular idioms, such as those for whom English is a second
language and those who might read your writing years from now or in
another part of the world. Formal writing should be clear to as many
people as possible, and its meaning should not depend on the whims of
your local dialect of English. It is a permanent and public record of
your ideas, and should mean precisely what you have written.
- Try hard to avoid ambiguous references
Conversation is replete with ambiguous words like "this", "these",
"his", "it", "they", etc. These words have no meaning in themselves,
but in conversation the meaning is usually clear from the context. In
written text, however, the intended meaning is quite often not evident
to the reader, because there are e.g. many possible interpretations of
It is a good idea to read over anything you write, searching for
this sort of word. For each instance, first ask yourself "To what,
precisely, does this term refer?". For such a reference to make
sense, the object, person, or concept must have been
explicitly mentioned just prior to
your reference. Often you will find that "it" or "they" refers to
something vague that was not even discussed explicitly in your paper,
in which case you should reword your text entirely.
Even if the item to which you refer is explicitly mentioned in your
paper, ask yourself whether there is any chance that the reader might
not know to which of several items you might be referring. E.g. for
the word "he", were there two or three people being discussed? If so
then state the actual name of each; "he" would be ambiguous.
Often an ambiguous "this" or "these" can be disambiguated by adding
a noun that specifies precisely the type of object or concept to which
you are referring. For instance, "this argument" or "this paper" may
be less confusing than simply "this".
- Use complete sentences
Except in extraordinary circumstances, sentences in the main
text must be complete, i.e., they must have a verb and they must make
appropriate transitions between clauses. Phrases with no verb are not
complete sentences, and clauses that are just run together are not
Note especially that most "-ing" words are
not verbs -- "That being the case" is just a clause, not a sentence.
To be a sentence, i.e., something that you can use on its own followed
by a period, it would have to be "That is the case".
- Watch out for homonyms
Spell-checkers are wonderful, but they are absolutely useless
for detecting misused homonyms, i.e., actual words whose meaning is
confused with other actual words. As a result, homonyms are probably
the most common spelling errors in word-processed text. Even if you
are lazy and let the spell-checker fix all of your other words, make
certain that you know the differences between words like:
- it's, its
- their, there, they're
- whether, weather
- to, too, two
- site, cite, sight
- waste, waist
- fare, fair
- affect, effect
- discrete, discreet
- forth, fourth
- past, passed
- roll, role
- lead, led
- throughout, through out
If you do not know the difference, avoid using the words
altogether. But since the spell-checker takes care of all the other
words you may misspell, learning to use these correctly is really not
much of a burden, and is crucial for convincing your readers that you
are competent. The optional text BUGS in Writing does a good
job of explaining these and many other homonyms, and so if you have
problems with these you should consult it.
- Avoid "comprise"
I have yet to see the word "comprise" used correctly in a student
paper. Thus even if you happen to be some highly anomalous individual
who understands its actual meaning (hint: it is not a synonym for
"compose"), you should still avoid using it, because clearly one
cannot assume that a typical reader will understand it.
- "But" and "however" are not synonymous
The words "but" and "however" have similar meanings, but they are
not interchangeable. If you take a
grammatically correct sentence containing "but" and replace it with
"however", or vice versa, the result will almost always be incorrect.
If you do not know the difference (in particular, how to punctuate the
words using commas), look it up.
- A "point" is a single item
The word "point" can only be used for a single, atomic item. Thus it
is not appropriate to discuss a "sub-point", "part of a point", the
"first half" of a point, etc. Instead use "topic" or "section", etc.
When in doubt, use lower case. Capitalization is appropriate only for
specific items or specific individuals. For example, capitalize
school subjects only when you are referring to a specific course at a
specific school: math is a general subject, but Math 301 is a
particular course. Similarly: Department of Computer Sciences vs.
a computer science department, the president vs. President Bush.
When in doubt, use lower case.
- Referring to other texts
Use double quotes around the title of an article when you
refer to it in the text. Italics are reserved for books or other
works of similar length. Avoid underlining altogether --- underlining
is just a way of indicating that handwritten or typewritten text
should be typeset in italics, and is thus inappropriate when italics
are available (as they are on a word processor).
- Presentation is important
Use readable, clear fonts and reasonable margins. And please use a
stapler --- anything else looks unprofessional.
- Avoid poorly-implemented right justification
If your word processor cannot make the spacing regular between
words, turn off right justification. Poor spacing makes the page look
jumbled and seem incoherent, even if the writing is not.