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Improving Your Writing

Thomas Whitley

Dr. Chris Heard, of Pepperdine University, wrote a fantastic open letter to his students about their writing skills (or lack thereof).

I have, with Dr. Heard’s permission, copied that letter here. Please read and take his advice to heart.

Improve your writing: an open letter to students

Dear present and future students,

You deserve to know that I give grammar and style great weight when I assign grades to take-home written work. (I give more leeway on timed, in-class writing assignments.) I’ve just finished grading a stack of essays, and would like to share with you some tips for improving your writing (and, concomittantly, your grade).

First, let me explain why style and mechanics matter so much to me, and the effect this importance has on your grade. Most fundamentally, I cannot evaluate your ideas fairly if I cannot understand what you have written. Fairness to all concerned—including me—demands that I grade what you have written, not some version of your essay that I have rewritten in my mind to make better lexical, grammatical, and syntactical sense. Poor mechanics and style throw up barriers between you and your reader (in the case of class assignments, me)—barriers that cannot but detract from your reader’s reception of your argument (assuming you have one). I can bring myself to struggle through difficult prose if I consider the author an important figure in his or her field of expertise, but you students have not yet attained that exalted status; indeed, the number of persons to whose difficult prose I will attend diminishes year by year. Your use of good grammar and style functions as a kind of “ticket” to have me pay attention to your ideas. If you do not consider your ideas important enough to write your class assignments in proper English, why should I consider them important enough to deserve the time and energy I would put into assessing them and giving you feedback thereupon?

I realize, of course, that the quality of your prior instruction in writing will vary from student to student. By applying to university studies, however, you have asked the faculty to take your thinking—and writing—seriously. The burden of self-improvement now falls squarely upon your shoulders. Only you can improve your own writing. However, since I desire to assist you in this endeavor, I offer here some advice about grammar and style.

1. Learn to use punctuation correctly. For each sentence, determine whether you wish to write a statement or a question, and use the appropriate end-of-sentence punctuation. Too many students use commas where they need semicolons, and semicolons where they need commas; please decline membership in this none-too-exclusive club. “Hyphen-phobia” seems also to have seized other students before you. Realize that American English, British English, Australian English, and other varieties of English may employ different standards for the use of “single” and “double” quotation marks or “inverted commas,” as well as placement of quotation marks when used alongside of other punctuation marks. Follow the standards of the language in which you must write—for my classes, American English.

2. Beware of confusing near-homophones with one another. You should have learned to distinguish “two,” “too,” and “to” (not to mention “tutu”) in elementary school (once called “grammar school”), but other word-pairs can trip you up as well. Too many students use “then” when the sentence demands “than,” or vice versa. I have recently seen other, frankly bizarre transpositions, such a “rather” for “whether” and even “disprove” for “disapprove.” Though I find it distressing to think so, you may even need to relearn the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

3. On a related note, before you use any particular word in an essay, please ensure that you know what it means.

4. Please ensure that your pronouns agree in grammatical number with their antecedents, and that your subjects agree in grammatical number with their verbs. When you proofread (see below), watch especially for sentences in which you have assigned singular verbs to compound subjects.

5. Please choose your verbs carefully, not least when introducing quotations. I may scream should I encounter another quotation introduced with a phrase like “the writer quotes …” When a writer presents you with his or her own ideas, expressed in words, that writer has “written,” or “stated,” or “observed,” or “argued,” or “claimed,” or even “said” something, but has not “quoted” anything. A writer has “quoted” something only when that writer reports to you the exact words that another writer has written (or, mutatis mutandis, that a speaker has said, and so on). By the way, writers quote snippets of text called “quotations.” Salespeople of various stripes issue quotes, or statements (written or oral) that tell a prospective customer how much something (automobile insurance, for example) will cost.

6. Whenever possible, use active voice instead of passive voice or stative voice. Consider this rule of thumb: as the ratio of the word “is” to your total number of words increases, my opinion of your prose style decreases. Minimizing passive and stative constructions requires considerable work, but strengthens your writing dramatically. You may even wish to re-read this post, counting the number of “being verbs” used.

7. Whenever possible, economize. Don’t use five words when three will do. Often, turning passive voice or stative expressions into active voice (see above) can help you achieve greater word economy. Instead of “Florence is a city where the layout of the streets is confusing to many visitors who are there for the first time,” write “Florence’s streets confuse many first-time visitors.”

8. After you have written your essay, but before you turn it in, proofread it. Then proofread it again, and again, and ask a friend with good writing skills to proofread it for you. The more often you’ve rewritten a particular sentence, the more chances you have of leaving in some artifact from an earlier draft, or of deleting some word necessary to the sense.

9. If a professor has assigned a particular citation style or style guide for your use, by all means, use that particular style. Failure to do so sends the message that you don’t care about the assignment.

If you follow this advice (without ignoring other good advice, wherever you may find it, about writing well), you stand a much better chance of turning in excellent writing—and of receiving high marks on your writing assignments, at least in my classes. Make no mistake: excellent grammar and style cannot make up for vapid content. Conversely, poor grammar and style can obscure content otherwise deserving of consideration. Tear down the barrier that poor grammar and style erect between you and your reader, and replace it with a bridge of carefully-chosen words crafted into strong, active sentences.


Professor Heard

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