A little writing advice from Hilary

Abridged and Modified by AGS, December 2002


DISCLAIMER: This probably goes without saying, but if some of my suggestions conflict with instructions from your TA, TF, or professor, I would advise sticking to what they've told you! )


First, a few tips about...


  • Count how many times you use any form of the verb "to be" (is, are, were, am, was, etc.) and reduce that number by half before turning in your paper.
  • Repeat this process with the word "it," making very sure that the reference for every such pronoun is clear and that you have no "dummy subjects" in your sentences, as in: "It's nice of you to visit." (What does "it" refer to?!?)
  • Circle every instance of the word "by" in your paper and check each to make sure that it does not conceal a passive construction.
  • Do not start a sentence with a mere "This" or "That" as the subject: (e.g. "This leads to his undoing.") Try to specify "this what?" (e.g. "This decision leads to his undoing.")
  • Rarely start a sentence with "however." The word is very useful, but should come midway through a sentence, wherever it sounds best.
  • Generally speaking, avoid starting sentences with one of the "FAN BOYS": for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These words are coordinating conjunctions and as such should coordinate or conjoin two parts of a sentence, not come right at the start.
  • Shun clich�s like the plague (tee hee).
  • Use the i-word and b-word ("important" and "being," two of the most overused and abused) sparingly, with the latter only as a noun, as in "human being," and not as a verb or gerund, as in "Her being shy isolated her."
  • Your paper will be better if it has no trace of "the fact that," "there is," or "there are."
  • Avoid making plural nouns out of singular adjectives, i.e., "clastics", "volcanics", "metamorphics", instead of clastic rocks, volcanic rocks, metamorphic rocks.
  • Try to save the "question words" (especially "what" and "why") for questions and not for the middle of sentences you could somehow reword. And now, for the paper itself...

ANALYSIS: Most of papers for non-science classes are analytic in nature, in that they avoid description, summary, and evaluation. This means you shouldn't retell the plot or give value judgments, but rather, stick to breaking down the text and putting pressure on it: what elements appear inconsistent? supportive of one another? open to a different interpretation? connected subtly with other aspects of the text?

Science papers, by contrast, generally describe a set of conditions, propose hypotheses to test how those conditions came to be, describe experiments to test those hypotheses, describe and discuss results, draw conclusions.What elements are inconsistent or anomalous, open to a different interpretation? Many great discoveries in science have been made by focusing on anomalies.

AUDIENCE: Typically target an informed geologic audience; for many other disciplines you may find it helpful to write for a reader who is stupid, lazy, and mean. Stupid, in that any overly complex or poorly explained ideas or concepts will go right over their head; lazy, in that s/he will make no effort to uncover the meaning of unclear or confusing statements; mean, in that he will, when faced with an ambiguous passage, assume the less plausible (and probably unintended) interpretation.

ARGUMENT: Your paper must make some sort of claim. Period. (see thesis)

THESIS: A good thesis is concise (no more than two sentences or four lines), controversial (i.e. not "Colors in The Great Gatsby are symbolic."), and significant (e.g. "Fitzgerald's use of the color yellow in The Great Gatsby not only parallels Gatsby's attitude toward wealth, but also bespeaks the general moral deterioration of the Lost Generation.") To recap, the trinity: concision, controversy, and significance. This may be fine for the humanities � in science writing, state the problem, tell methods used to seek a solution, state the hypotheses, state the observations, discuss the observations, draw the conclusions. Always keep in mind the significance: "so what?", "who cares?", "what difference does it make?" OUTLINE: The outline should function as a flexible scaffold for your paper. List your points and try to find a logical progression of ideas. Outlining your paper after you have written it can also prove very helpful for making improvements.

ORGANIZATION: Your paper should be structured around ideas, not around plot events (such as first we went this outcrop and saw - - -, then we went to that outcrop and saw - - - -), images, characters, or texts (and the text-by-text temptation is one of the most common pitfalls of writing comparative papers).

OPENING: Avoid the temptation to try to lure the reader in with some attention-grabbing "hook," unless it is internally relevant to the paper. Similarly, banish from your mind such meaningless, hackneyed first lines as "Since the dawn of time," "Across the ages," "Throughout human history," or "A great man once said."

INTRODUCTION: The introduction serves several crucial functions: introducing the reader to the topic (e.g. mechanisms of dike intrusion) and some of its dimensions (e.g. fracture mechanics, viscosity of magmas), mentioning the text(s) used as a vehicle for examining this theme (e.g. Spera�s experiments in magma viscosity), possibly touching upon the points to be raised in the body of the paper (e.g. magma composition, degree of crystallinity), and finally stating the thesis ("The Type B lava flows at Pisgah Crater flowed farther than Types A and C because they are volumetrically greater.).

PARAGRAPHS: Each paragraph should have a reason for inclusion that is readily apparent to the reader and a controlling point closely linked to the thesis. Paragraphs should be at least roughly balanced in terms of their length (i.e. one idea usually shouldn't receive a disproportionate amount of your attention), and should flow smoothly from one to the next. The paragraph structure should correspond to the so-called "Hamburger Model."

THE "HAMBURGER MODEL": The "bun" on top is the topic sentence. A good topic sentence includes some sort of transition from the idea discussed in the previous paragraph and introduces the main point or claim of the new paragraph. The "burger" and "condiments" are the development of the argument, the textual and analytic support for your claim (e.g. quotations). The missing element in altogether too many paragraphs is the bottom "bun." The closing of the paragraph plays an essential role in relating the paragraph back to the thesis: the final sentences should finish the paragraph strongly by serving as a mini-"so what?" that explains the relevance of the paragraph's point to the thesis. This final sentence, the lower "bun," is absolutely not the place to include an explicit transition to the next paragraph; the joining of the paragraphs needs to occur in the topic sentence of the following paragraph.

QUOTATIONS: Not commonly used in scientific writing, so quote sparingly: In this domain less really is more. Quotations are appropriate when a text includes a precise phrase that merits discussion, not just a description of some general idea, trend, occurrence, emotion, etc., which you could paraphrase as well or better.

You typically need ellipses ("...") only when you omit some part in the middle of a quotation, not at the start or end. When you have to change some element of the quotation, enclose your alteration in brackets, even when merely altering capitalization (e.g. "Rogers claims that '[e]xcessively oxymoronic syntax' adds a farcical touch to Hamlet's soliloquy." Note the absence of a comma preceding the quotation because it has become an integral, grammatical part of the sentence.) The Hamburger Model can help in framing quotations appropriately: the top "bun" becomes the introduction of the quotation's speaker and theme, the "burger" is the quotation itself, and the lower "bun" is the interpretation of the quotation's significance and its integration into your greater argument.

CITATIONS: In-text citations should usually take this format: "The Present is the key to the Past" (Hutton, 1786). Please note the relative positions of the end quotation mark and of the sentence's punctuation.

CONCLUSION: Contrary to popular opinion, the conclusion should not function as a forum for you to merely repeat your thesis and summarize your supporting points. You should attempt to take your argument one step farther and talk about its significance or potential implications in some larger realm (i.e. meaning to the book/play/article as a whole, alternative solutions, ramifications for the future, etc.).