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In writing essays and research papers, especially in undergraduate studies, you might feel the impulse to emulate your favorite writers, use the fancy diction you’ve learned, or let the complexities of your argument be reflected in your sentence structure. Try to resist these impulses and focus on clarity, first and foremost. A reader should be able to outline the main ideas, supporting details, and alternative explanations from your paper, just as you would for a reading from the syllabus.


1. Make sure that the basics are clear and easy to find. These include:


  • Your thesis statement, in the first paragraph of your paper. Unless your paper is more than 20 pages long, you would have to write quite the introduction to justify an exception. Also, your thesis statement can be more than one sentence.


  • Definitions for the key terms and concepts you’re exploring.


  • In a paper longer than 10 pages or so, feel free to use section titles for different parts of your paper. Include a short "road map" to your paper, sort of like an outline in paragraph form, towards the end of your introduction.


  • Clear sentences that tell the reader how each paragraph/section relates to your thesis statement.


  • Potential objections to your argument, and your evaluation of these objections/ caveats.


  • The source of any information you quoted or paraphrased.


2. Revise and rewrite. This means planning ahead! You want to always try to finish your penultimate draft at least 3 days before it’s due, so that you can have a 24-hour breather before reading your essay one last time.


  • After you write your first full draft, write the keywords for each paragraph in the left-hand margin. Then, just read the keywords/ marginalia. Do the keywords flow well together? Or do you switch back and forth between main points? If so, your marginalia will give you some clues as to how to reorganize your essay.


  • Now, read the first and last sentence of each paragraph out loud. Does your thesis and overarching narrative come through? If not, reorganizing your essay will probably help you give it clarity.


  • Read at least a few paragraphs, if not the whole thing, out loud. This might feel funny, but if you need to, do it in the bathroom and feel secure that no one is watching. This is the easiest way to catch awkward syntax, as well as overt grammatical errors.


3. Spellcheck and proofread.


  • Don't rely on your word processor's spellcheck function. If you're in a public policy class, your professor won't want to read about your take on important pubic policies.


  • In addition to basics like subject-verb agreement, make sure that there are no ambiguous antecedents, that the subject of each sentence is clear, and that the transitions between different components of your overall argument make sense.


  • Get rid of adverbs and adjectives, and replace them with more precise diction. If a person walked quickly into the room, she probably hurried in. If a policy was very bad, it might have been egregious or destructive. Make sure the word you pick is the one you want.


  • Get rid of the passive voice. If the room was filled, who or what filled the room? If racial minorities were discriminated against, who or what did the discriminating? Perhaps Governor Wallace of Alabama discriminated against racial minorities and unleashed dogs onto peaceful protestors, or perhaps certain facially neutral housing and mortgage laws, such as federal red-lining, perpetuated existing inequalities, with discriminatory effects against racial minorities. When you use the passive voice, it sounds like you haven't really figured out the phenomenon you are trying to describe, and you're trying to fudge it by being vague. Use the active voice.


4. Get help. There's no better way to (sort of) procrastinate.


  • Get friends to read your paper. Return the favor.


  • Take advantage of the Learning Center. I suggest that you do this at least once or twice, even if you’re already an excellent writer. It’s always helpful to get feedback. Also try to get a friend or two to read your essay before handing it in. It’s often hard to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses if you’ve been working a lot on an essay. A fresh pair of eyes helps.


5. Always cite. I know I already mentioned this, but argh, I'm doing it again.  


  • Do this even if you are not quoting the author verbatim. If you are quoting or drawing upon a lot by one person, include a parenthetical citation at least once per paragraph. 


  • Do not think that you will look better by writing without attributions, or that you will look smarter if you falsely make it seem like you came up with these ideas yourself! Citing thoroughly lets the professor know that you have read widely, and putting together details from disparate sources in a coherent way that forwards your argument is hard work. Professors recognize this.


  • Your job is to not only study and process the huge swath of relevant facts out there, but to connect the dots into key constellations, and to decide which one(s) to point the telescope towards. You also need a major bullshit detector to glean when a story or fact is interesting but not relevant, when it's misleading, and when it actually supports your argument. 


  • (If you want to let the professor know that you went through a frustrating process of reading or skimming a lot of articles and books before finding the useful ones, you could include two bibliographies at the end of your paper: one called "Works Cited," and another called "Works Consulted.")


I'm already a kick-ass writer. 
Take me to the peer-editing section.

Basic Reading & Writing Guide


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