Good writing is important for academic and professional work for several reasons. First, writing is necessary to develop and express complex ideas clearly. In addition, much academic and professional communication is done in writing; pivotal judgments about people are often based on the content, style, and even appearance of one’s written work.
Academic and professional writing should be geared to clearly express ideas that are relatively new, non-obvious, and/or otherwise likely to be considered “interesting” by intended readers. Generally, a paper should make a small number of major points. In almost every case, one should tell the readers at the outset of a paper what are the main ideas and how the paper is structured. Normally each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence summarizing the main point of the paragraph or at least stating a general point. In editing a paper, you should be able to identify (and easily convey to readers) how each point is relevant to each argument and how each argument is relevant to the paper as a whole. Writers signal the structure of the paper by using such “signposts” as subheads, clear topic sentences, transitional phrases and sentences, and summaries, as appropriate. If you can’t identify the relevance of each point, change or delete the point. The same is true even for each word: check if each word is necessary and whether you can’t make your point more simply.
Making an outline is a good way to develop a logical structure and flow of discussion. Even after writing a draft, making an outline can be helpful to check this.
The format and tone should be appropriate for the intended audience. Much writing is wordy, uses the passive voice too much, and uses unnecessarily complex words. Some people apparently believe that liberal use of complex words and jargon favorably impresses readers. It often has the opposite effect. On the other hand, colloquial language is usually not appropriate in academic papers; when it is used, it is often enclosed in quotation marks.
Papers should include appropriate citations for and discussion of factual claims and major arguments. Such support is especially important for a paper’s main points, especially those that are controversial. Remember that a statement is not true simply because you can cite a publication that makes the statement or a single research study that reaches a conclusion. When you make a statement in your writing, you take responsibility for whatever truth value your writing implies. You can refrain from endorsing a particular statement with introductions such as, “one commentator argues. . . .” Although one can use such devices to some extent, your paper should rely primarily on claims that you do endorse.
Papers should generally avoid second-hand citations, i.e., where source 1 cites source 2 for a proposition, your paper should normally cite source 2 for that proposition. Moreover, you must check source 2 to confirm for yourself that it actually supports the cited proposition. If you are unable to find source 2, you may cite it by stating “as cited in source 1,” though this device should be used only sparingly.
Review the section in the student handbook entitled, “Plagiarism- A Comment.” Failing to properly cite sources can have extremely serious consequences for you, even if done unintentionally.
Although you should certainly express your opinions, in most professional and academic writing, the main focus generally should be analysis rather than simply expressing one’s personal opinion. As you write, imagine that you are trying to persuade someone who is open-minded but skeptical. If you take a position on one side of a debate, you should generally at least mention the arguments on the other side of the debate and preferably rebut these counter-arguments. Try to avoid making absolute statements and over-generalizations. You can do this by noting that your conclusion is based on limited observations, identifying your assumptions, identifying factors that might alter your conclusions, or at least using qualifying words like “generally.”
It is fine to criticize some aspect of society, dispute resolution, etc. and/or recommend some alternative. To be credible, your critiques and proposals should be based on your analysis of why the system now operates as it does. Consider that there may be good reasons why the system operates as it does and that your proposals may have serious disadvantages. You might discuss why your proposals have not been implemented before. Another way to analyze this is to discuss what would be necessary to implement the proposal in the future. For example, some problems might be solved (at least in part) through political decisions to provide more public funding. Thus you might discuss what would be necessary to bring about these funding decisions.
Turning to more technical aspects of writing, you should be aware that many people make major judgments about papers and authors based on (in)correct grammar and word usage. While these features may not be as important as the content, they are much easier to identify. Indeed, some readers may assume that sloppy technical writing practices may reflect poor quality of analysis. So it is important to pay attention to proper grammar and usage. This includes: (1) correct spelling, (2) predominant use of the active voice, (3) correct and consistent use of tenses, (4) agreement of subjects and verbs, (5) parallel construction, (6) appropriate use and placement of modifiers, (7) correct punctuation, and (8) gender-neutral language. Writing done on a computer should be run through a spell-checker but one should not rely exclusively on computers for this because these programs often do not correct improper use of homonyms (see poem below). Pages must be numbered. Formatting (such as indenting, centering, use of italics and boldface fonts) should be done consistently throughout the paper. Papers should be double-spaced and leave at least one-inch margins on all side. Fonts should be appropriate for the context and large enough to read easily. Papers should be fastened securely, preferably with staples, not paper clips.
Writing of any substantial importance should be edited and proofread. Editing is often improved if there is a break of at least a day between finishing a draft and editing it. Since it is usually very hard to edit one’s own writing, it can be very helpful to get someone else to read it carefully before submitting it. Soliciting or giving editing advice is permitted in this course as long as the vast majority of the work is done by the student submitting the paper.
Keep copies of papers. Regularly back up computer files and keep an extra disk and/or hard copy to avoid losing hours of work in case of a computer crash.
© John Lande 1996-2000. Permission to copy granted if copyright notice is retained for credit.