ELEMENTS OF GOOD WRITING
(Being a compilation of rules, advice, guidelines, and miscellaneous suggestions compiled by Gerald Zahavi. Based on materials first prepared by Peggy Thompson, Stephen Saunders Webb, Gerald Zahavi, and the Syracuse University Writing Across the Curriculum Committee)
Richard Lichtman, Style: Writing and Reading as the Discovery of Outlook.
Jacques Barzun, Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers.
All good writing shares certain characteristics: structure, organization and development, technical control, insight into the material being discussed, and effective style. Many writing courses, particularly Freshman English, concentrate on these elements as the essential tools for putting together a clear piece of writing. Teachers also try to help students develop insight and style; but since these elements have much to do with individual talents, teachers can provide only guidelines and techniques. After a certain point, all of us are on our own. In these areas, only practice and time to mature will improve our skills.
Every piece of writing needs a design or pattern that, like a skeleton, makes words and ideas "hang together" and transforms them into a unified whole. Every element of a paper should be important to the paper's development and essential to its argument. If you discover a word, a sentence, a paragraph or a page that does not accomplish these goals, remove it. Writing added simply to lengthen the paper does not impress (and will not improve your grade).
Two kinds of structure often work together, particularly in the kinds of writing you will do in college. First, we have linear structure: beginning (lead or introduction), middle (development), and end (conclusion). This structure, like a skeleton, has a backbone. Depending on the subject and audience, that backbone is a thesis sentence, a statement of the main point or purpose, or a theme sentence. This gives focus and unity to the whole piece; it links different ideas and bits of information that might, in another context, have no connection. In the words of Willis Solomon and Victoria Aarons of Trinity University, San Antonio, the introduction of any paper establishes a "contract between a writer and a reader." The writer concisely informs the reader of the topic and purpose of the work she or he is about to read. The introduction should be just that -- an introduction. In it, you should set out the argument; then, in the body, you can flesh it out. True, there are more innovative ways of starting papers, but wait until you are grounded in the basics before you explore them.
Besides linear structure, you will be using other structures appropriate to your subject and purpose. For example, if you want to tell a story, you might use a chronological structure that patterns events as they occur in time. An argument, which asserts and proves a thesis, would require another pattern. In long papers or those that deal with complex issues, you might use one pattern as the basic structuring device, such as the explanation of a process, and include others within the middle section to deal with specific steps (description and classification, for example).
Many patterns are standard or conventional in writing. Learn what they are and how to use them. Then practice and experiment. Structure helps your readers. It lets them know what you are doing and how you plan to do it. Without this guide, the readers become lost, and the fault is yours, not theirs.
Basic Development Patterns (a sampling, based on Lichtman's Style, chapter 7)
Good for account of historical events in the order of occurrence. Described from earliest (causal) to later (caused) events. Can be reversed.
Organization by place--as in a description of towns, regions, geography. Good for descriptions of the spatial component of events (natural disasters, tours, spreading strike waves, and so on.)
Events compared to other "class of events" to discover underlying similarities
Like comparison--but used to discover and highlight differences: the unique.
Opens with a general statement--followed by amplifying particulars (DEDUCTIVE PATTERN). Generalizations explained by supporting particulars; Principle explained by examples; Conclusion supported by reasons
Reverse of Deductive (expansion)--amplification towards a generalization--INDUCTIVE: Particulars working up to a conclusion
Classification--dividing material into a series of essential parts which are discussed in order.
Mosaic enumeration (or classification)
Mosaic pattern. Seemingly chaotic pieces presented--until connecting motif presents itself. A series of eyewitness accounts; a series of interviews; a series of descriptive snapshots (i.e.--often used by reporters who wish to shield their political beliefs by letting others express them. They arrange and edit a series of statements by eyewitnesses--the connecting explicit or implicit theme is the message they wish to convey).
NOTE: PATTERNS CAN--AND OFTEN SHOULD--BE COMBINED, ONE PATTERN ORGANIZING THE WHOLE, ANOTHER THE VARIOUS SEGMENTS OR PARAGRAPHS.
II. GENERAL COMMENTS AND SUGGESTIONS REGARDING PAPERS.
l. Please proofread papers carefully before handing them in. Even if you have someone else type your papers, you are responsible for proofreading. Also, it is a big tactical mistake to turn in a messy paper. Such work inevitably produces a negative reaction from instructors; further, it suggests (intentionally or not) that the writer does not care about the quality of work she or he turns in, or about the impression it makes. Do you want to imply that you have a poor self-image?
2. When in doubt about the spelling of a word, look it up!
3. Take care to keep your verb tenses consistent; avoid haphazard transitions from present to past, and so on. Verbs must agree in number with their subjects. Also, avoid split infinitives and dangling participles. Whenever possible, use the active, rather than the passive, voice.
4. Make sure that pronouns agree in number with their antecedents, and make sure that the antecedents are clear.
5. All individual geographic entities and most collective nouns take singular verbs and are antecedents to singular pronouns. In other words, do not say: "The South...they, " "Congress...they, " "Chrysler Corporation...they, " etc. [See also #l3, below.]
6. One relatively easy way to improve your writing style is to vary the structures and lengths of your sentences. Also, avoid excessive repetition of words; when appropriate, try to use synonyms.
7. Regarding synonyms: by all means, use a thesaurus, but learn to use it properly. Just because a word is classified as a potential synonym for another, you cannot use it indiscriminately. Make sure that the word you choose is appropriate and precise, within the particular context in which you want to use it.
8. Avoid excessively long paragraphs. Also, avoid excessively short, one sentence paragraphs. Review rules governing paragraphing; a paragraph should be directed toward discussion and development of a single idea or point.
9. Avoid verbosity and redundancies. Try to make your essays as concise as you can; everything you say should be relevant to the topic and essential to your argument.
l0. Avoid using contractions, abbreviations, colloquialisms, jargon, slang, and indefinite phrases ("sort of, " "kind of, " etc.) in formal papers. And do not use comparative words, (such as "more" or "less") unless both elements of the comparison are stated. In other words, do not say, "The United States was more industrialized in l900," unless the less industrialized time is also given: "The United States was more industrialized in l900 than in l860."
ll. Be aware of, and respect, the distinctions between less and fewer, its (possessive) and it's (it is), affect and effect, colons and semicolons, etc. Review the "Fifty Common Errors" handout.
l2. Avoid anthropomorphism (ascribing animation to inanimate objects). Do not say: "The South hated the North;" "The factory stepped on the workers."
l3. When talking about the United States or the "American people," do not refer to it or them as "we" or "us." [Incidentally, "United States" is singular; this is a philosophical and ideological, as well as grammatical, truth.] Plural first-person pronouns are not only historically inaccurate (i.e., were you really there when "we beat the British in the Battle of New Orleans"?), but they smack of jingoistic nationalism, as well. Also, avoid using both the first and second persons in formal papers, unless you are the subject of the paper (as in an autobiography).
l4. Avoid making sweeping historical generalizations based upon limited or nonexistent evidence: "all Americans [or 'millions of Americans'] longed for the opportunities available along the frontier;" "Americans in the l890s were racists."
l5. Be conscious of the pitfalls of ethnocentrism, sexism, class bias, and so on--and strive to avoid them. Not all Americans were--or are--male, white, middle class, native-born, Christian, etc. And not all people are Americans. Do not, for instance, refer to females by their first names ("Jane" for Jane Addams); would you call F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Scott" (or "F.")? Avoid, for instance, arbitrary use of male denotations for people generally. [In response to those who believe that "man" and male pronouns are "generic" terms, consider the connotations of the following: "We want to hire the best man for the job"--or the statement (correct by "traditional" standards of usage) that "It is up to each individual to decide whether or not he should have an abortion."] In short, do not assume or assert homogeneity or consensus where it does not exist--and do not ascribe your attributes or beliefs to the world at-large.
l6. Make sure that the idea or thesis you intend to develop is stated clearly and explicitly, toward the beginning of your paper. This is extremely important; your analysis will be judged in terms of what you say you intend to do. A clear statement of purpose is one of the single most important elements in any essay. A well-defined thesis or topic should plot the course of a paper; the entire discussion should be directed toward and focused around explication of this central idea.
l7. Every paper must have a title. It need not be elegant or flashy, but "Assignment Number l" or "Term Paper" will not do. It should also bear some relationship to the purpose of the paper; "Democratic Party Opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt's Third Term Campaign" may not be sexy, but it does inform the reader about what is to follow.
l8. Think before you write; try composing an outline or, at least, spelling out the major points you intend to cover and the order in which you intend to cover them. Focus your argument; develop it. Distinguish between primary and secondary points; not all matters can or should weigh equally heavily in your analysis. Build your case.
l9. Learn the difference between analysis and expressions of your opinion (value judgment). Unless it is asked for specifically, instructors are relatively unconcerned with whether or not you "liked" or "agreed with" the readings.
20. Make clear the distinction between assertions of fact and expressions of opinion (not just your own). For instance, note the different implications of the following statements: (a) Americans were God's chosen people; (b) According to Albert Beveridge, Americans were God's chosen people.
2l. Be aware of the biases in the sources you use in research, including secondary sources. Polemical or self-interested works, but not those alone, are suspicious sources for "hard" data, or as bases for "objective" conclusions. Should one, for instance, rely confidently upon Richard Nixon's memoirs for documentation of the "truth" about Watergate? Can a scholar who cites only English-language sources present a full picture of life among German-American immigrants? Evaluate the quality and content of your data, and use them appropriately. Not everything in print (in fact, very little) should be regarded as "revealed truth."
22. You must provide evidence--and effective evidence (see above)--to document your arguments. Cite examples or other types of data. Unsubstantiated assertions do not constitute analysis (i.e., do not say: "The Vietnam War was utterly absurd," and leave it at that. If you believe that to have been the case, demonstrate its absurdity, with evidence and concrete analysis). Along these lines, avoid phrases like: "It is interesting to note...;"either your discussion will demonstrate that it is "interesting," or it will not. Mere assertion that something is significant is no substitute for proof.
23. Make sure that the ideas you attribute to authors are actually contained in their works. Is there concrete evidence in Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier" essay, for example, to support the contention that he was a "racist," or a "propagandist for American overseas imperialism"? If so, cite it. Or, rather, are these implications which may be inferred from his writing? Implications, of course, should be considered, but you must justify your inferences (see above). Be careful!
25. For all other matters of grammar, style, and form, consult any of several available manuals of style. If you do not own one, acquire one! For footnote style, use the Chicago Manual of Style (most recent edition) or Kate L. Turabian's, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (latest edition) as a guide.
ORWELL'S RULES OF STYLE
WHAT AM I TRYING TO SAY?
WHAT WORDS WILL EXPRESS IT?
WHAT IMAGE OR IDIOM WILL MAKE IT CLEARER?
IS THIS IMAGE FRESH ENOUGH TO HAVE AN EFFECT?
COULD I PUT IT MORE SHORTLY?
HAVE I SAID ANYTHING THAT IS AVOIDABLE UGLY?
Source: George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," A collection of Essays. (Garden City, N.Y., l957), l7l-l72, l76.
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