Common Problems

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 viewpoints exist.

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".

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 complete sentences.

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:

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.

Capitalization
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.

Considerations specific to academic writing

Authors, not writers
The people who perform a scientific study are called "authors", never writers, even though the results are presented in a written paper. Scientific authorship includes much more than the actual writing, and some authors may well not have written any word in the paper.

Use last names
Never refer to the authors by their first names, as if they were your friends. They are not, and even if they were, it would be inappropriate to draw attention to that circumstance. In most cases, first names are not even mentioned in the body of a scientific text; the last names are sufficient.

Author names are keys -- spell them properly
In academic writing, an author's last name is like the key in a database lookup -- if the name is misspelled (e.g. "Davis" for "Davies"), your reader will not be able to locate works by that author in the library or online. Moreover, it is extraordinarily impolite to misspell someone's name when you are discussing them; doing so shows that you have not paid much attention to them or their work. So you should make a special effort to spell author names correctly, double- and triple-checking them against the original source, and ensuring that you spell them the same way each time.

Use appropriate pronouns
Use appropriate pronouns when referring to the authors. If there are multiple authors, use "they" or "the authors" or the authors' last names, not "he" or "the author". If there is only one author and you can determine the gender, you may use "he" or "she"; otherwise use "the author" or the author's last name.

Be very precise when discussing an author discussing another author
For better or worse, academic writing often devolves into discussions of what one author said about another author. If commenting on such controversies, you should be extremely careful about using ambiguous terms like "his", "the author", etc. Very often your reader will have no idea which of the various authors you are referring to, even though it may be clear to you. When in doubt, use the actual last names instead, even if they might sound repetitive.

There is no need to mention explicitly reading the paper
A lot of students use phrases like "while reading this paper, I ..." and "In this paper the authors ...". Try to avoid this redundancy. If you use the word "author" you need not also use "paper", and vice versa. Similarly, it is clear that whatever you discovered about the paper, you discovered while reading the paper; we do not need to be reminded of this. Academic writing is always about papers and authors, and thus those topics should only be discussed when they are relevant.

Be careful with arguments about grammar
If you are going to criticize the grammar or spelling of an author in writing, you should be extraordinarily careful to verify that you are correct. Reading a long rant about how a British citizen has supposedly misspelled words like "utilisation" can be quite painful.

"A research"
There is no such thing as "a research" in English. Use "a study" or just "research", never "a research". Similarly, there is no separate plural form of research; "researches" is not a word in English.

Be professional and diplomatic
When writing about another's work, always write as if your subject may read your essay. Your essays for the class will probably not be published, but genuine scientific writing will be, and the subject of your paper may very well come across your work eventually. Thus it is crucial to avoid pejorative, insulting, and offensive terms like "attempt to", "a waste of time", "pointless", etc.

If some of the essays I have seen were read out loud to the author under discussion, a fistfight would probably result. At the very least, you would have made an enemy for life, which is never a good idea. In addition, your points will be much more convincing if you can disagree professionally and diplomatically, without attacking the author or implying that he or she is an imbecile. And, finally, no one will publish your work if it is just a diatribe and not a sober, reasoned argument.

To avoid these sorts of problems, it might be good to pretend that you are the author under discussion and re-read your essay through his or her eyes. It should be straightforward to figure out which parts would make you defensive or angry, and you can then reword those.


Last revised: $Date: 2001/12/18 22:38:23 $