Writing - Details

Once you’re sure that the paper makes a compelling argument based on solid evidence, it’s time to dig into the nitty-gritty details.  This section provides tips with wording and formatting so that you can polish up your papers to perfection.


A.) Unless your teacher says otherwise, use Times New Roman font, 12-point, double-spaced.  This simply looks the most professional.  And for the love of all that is good, don’t put your title in a big, happy font.  That just looks stupid.

B.) Avoid using slang terms, dude—or dudette.

C.) Don’t use contractions in formal papers.  Revise sentences like that one to say, “Do not use contractions in formal papers.”

D.) Rhetorical questions in an academic paper make you look like an amateur, don’t you think?

E.) Do not artificially lengthen sentences through excessive use of conjunctions (such as and or but).  Don’t abuse semicolons either; use those only if you’re joining two short and strongly related sentences together.

F.) If you’re quoting something, consider putting emphasis on a really important word or phrase by italicizing it.  For instance, in the very last paper I ever, ever wrote for school, I did this:
Specifically, although Deborah Ellis is willing to concede that we “drove the Taliban from power” in some areas, she describes the invasion by claiming that “the United States led a coalition of nations into bombing Afghanistan”: not liberating Afghanistan or any other patriotic term commonly used today (Mud City 160, emphasis added).
Notice how I placed “emphasis added” in the citation since the italics on bombing inside the quotation were mine.  Just make sure you don’t overdo this, or it will become distracting.  Save this technique for when a certain word or short phrase within a longer quote is super duper important.

G.) If you are ever the slightest bit unsure of what a word you’re using means, then look it up in the dictionary. 
- In Microsoft Word, simply pressing ALT while clicking the word will bring up its definition.
- A misused word is a glaring error.  For instance, you eat in a dining room, not a dinning room.  A bundle is held together by cords, not chords.  You didn’t sit the book on the table: you set the book on the table.  Is your situation really ironic, or is it just an uncanny coincidence?  Were you literally floating on air, or were you figuratively floating on air?  Should you use who or whom?  Oh, and remember: the sweet dessert has two s’s in it because you always want seconds.
- For more commonly misused words, please see Public.WSU.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html once you’re finished reading this document.
- The words lie and lay can create all sorts of confusion.  Here’s a quick breakdown of each:
- to lie is to rest or recline
- Present Participle: He is lying on the floor now.
- Past Tense: He lay on the floor yesterday.
- Past Participle: He has lain on the floor before.
- to lay is to set something somewhere, to put
- Present Participle: She is laying the book on the table now.
- Past Tense: She laid the book on the table yesterday.
- Past Participle: She has laid the book on the table before.
- The confusion mostly stems from how the past tense version of to lie is lay by sheer coincidence.

H.) Avoid repetition in terms of not only diction but also sentence structure. 
- For instance, look at this: “Many people claim that video games are bad for our minds.  They assert that delving into senseless violence hurts our children’s cognitive growth. They claim children should be outside or reading a book.  They believe video games may even lead to violent behavior.” 
- Instead, try: “Many people claim that video games are bad for our minds.  Specifically, the senseless violence depicted in games may hurt our children’s cognitive growth, especially when they should be reading a book or playing outside instead.  In their opinion, video games may even lead to violent behavior.” 
- Notice how moving phrases around (such that additional commas are needed) and adding a few transition words made that more dynamic than the original they-say-this, they-say-that format.

I.) Use transitional phrases such as moreover and furthermore to expand a point.  Use phrases like however, regardless, and yet to show a change in thought.  Use phrases like in short to summarize a paragraph. 
- Do not use in conclusion: we can tell your paper’s ending when we get to the last page, thank you very much.
- For more on transitional phrases, look at the page of mine aptly called “Transitional Phrases.”

J.) I wouldn’t recommend using parentheses in academic papers much, if at all, save for when you’re citing something. 
- Here’s my reasoning: if something’s important, then put it in the sentence itself rather than hide it in parenthesis.  If it’s not important, then cut it.  Make up your darn mind. 
- Although parenthesis can help organize a sentence for a reader or clarify a point, most developing writers rely on them too much.  Be careful.
- Using them too much (like every other sentence) can make your reader (who is processing a lot of information) confused (which is bad when your grade is depending on it), making them re-read sentences to understand your point (and then they lose the flow of your writing).
- Often, you can use commas to offset a relevant phrase rather than parentheses. 

K.) Don’t add unnecessary words to lengthen your sentences.  This doesn’t make you sound smarter at all. 
- If you think your sentences are too short and simplistic, make sure you’re being specific.  Make everything crystal clear to the reader so that they can tell exactly what you’re thinking based on your writing alone. 
- You might want to see if adding an adjective or adverb makes things clearer. 
- Alternatively, you could add a short description to something in order to reinforce your thesis or build up a source’s credentials.  For instance, instead of just, “Dr. Nodoka Hirasawa found in her research . . .,” try, “Dr. Nodoka Hirasawa, who has published over a dozen academic articles on the subject, found in her research that . . .”  Always give your reader context.

L.) On a similar note, be careful when using a thesaurus to spice up your wording. 
- You can find a thesaurus at Thesaurus.com or in Microsoft Word by holding ALT and clicking.  
- When used wisely, a thesaurus can help you find more specific, vivid words.  For example, “Luigi is a good man” could mean that he’s successful, powerful, sexy, brave, smart, or just about anything else that’s “good.”  Instead, you could make your meaning clear by declaring, “Luigi is a virtuous man.”
- However, don’t use the thesaurus just to hunt down really big words to sound smart.  Doing so will break up your flow and make you sound like a stuck-up faker.  For instance, rather than say, “The exorbitant amelioration of the previously sumptuous domicile made it materialize before our eyes as something no longer antediluvian once more,” try, “The expensive renovation of the once-lavish home made it look fresh again.”  Notice how the second sentence sounds perfectly fine without using needlessly big words. 
- Also, always check a dictionary to make sure you’re using the new words properly.  Synonyms may have subtle differences you should be aware of.

M.) Vivid verbs, adjectives, and adverbs can help you make your point clear. 
- Rather than say, “Serena likes to dress in nice clothes,” try, “Serena, the prim daughter of a horseback rider, enjoys adorning herself with the most stunning of dresses.”  Compare the verbs, adjectives, and adverbs used in each sentence to see how that worked. 
- More specific nouns, such as dresses instead of clothes, made the point even clearer.  Never be vague.  Always step back and consider how many ways your words could be interpreted.  After all, clothes could be almost anything, including sweaters, hats, and boots. 
- Also notice how I added a modifier to Serena (“the prim daughter of a horseback rider”) so that I could introduce her character without taking too much time to explain the necessary context.
- Using specific language is very important.  So important, in fact, that I’d recommend practicing it before entering the wild jungle that is college.  Consider looking at your own writing from the past and finding ways to improve it with specific language and clearly developed points.

N.) Watch out for dangling or misplaced modifiers. 
- The basic idea is to make sure that any word or phrase modifying something is next to whatever it’s modifying. 
- For instance, in this sentence, “Karen talked about how she almost hit another car at the dinner table,” it sounds like Karen was actually at the dinner table when she almost hit another car.  That doesn’t make sense.  Try, “At the dinner table, Karen talked about how she almost hit another car.”  By putting “at the dinner table” right next to “Karen talked,” you’re making it clear that the location refers to where she did the talking.
- Here’s another example: “Being a white person, it is difficult to remember how privileged I am.”  This sentence makes “it” sound like a white person.  Since the phrase “being a white person” is referring to the speaker, the speaker should immediately follow the phrase.  So let’s try, “Being a white person, I often find it difficult to remember how privileged I am.” 
- And let’s look at this sentence: “After overcoming many obstacles, Toad tells Mario that the princess is in another castle.”  Guess what?  You’re saying that Toad overcame the obstacles!  Try rewording it somehow, like this: “Toad tells Mario, who has overcome many obstacles, that the princess is in another castle.” 
- The phrase doesn’t always have to be right next to what it’s modifying, but that’s when things get complicated.  Basically, you should just read your work carefully to make sure nothing’s unclear.  If a sentence can be misunderstood, it will be misunderstood.
- I’d recommend looking up “dangling/misplaced modifiers” online or asking your teacher about them if you still find yourself confused. 

O.) If you’re analyzing a novel, don’t say, “The book says...”  Try, “The narrator declares . . .” or “[Author name] asserts . . .”  You shouldn’t go too long without mentioning the author directly: talk about what message they’re trying to get across.
- On that note, whenever you mention an author, you should never use only their first name.  If you say things like, “Charles uses this scene to . . .,” it sounds as if you’re treating him like your home dawg.  Try, “Dickens uses this scene to . . .”

P.) To introduce a quote, use more vivid wording than “says.” 
- Wording such as “argues,” “asserts,” “declares,” “speculates,” and so on make the speaker’s intentions clearer.
- For more details on leading into quotes, please see the page of my website called “Using Quotations.”

Q.) Make sure your pronoun references are clear.  Who is “she”?  Who (or what) is “they”?  That sort of thing. 
- Also, if you use “this,” make sure it’s clear what “this” is.  For instance, “The militants attacked the vulnerable base in 2500 AD to create a pathway to the inner city.  This led to Amy Robotnik’s demise.”  Did the attack itself lead to her death, did the fact that they had a pathway to the inner city cause it later, or did both play a major role in her death?  I wouldn’t recommend using “this” alone.  Instead try, “This attack led to Amy Robotnik’s demise,” or “This new route would later lead to Amy Robotnik’s demise.”

R.) When discussing what happens within a work of fiction, make sure you’re using the present tense. 
- For example, rather than say, “In this video game, Toad told Mario that the princess was in another castle,” say, “In this video game, Toad tells Mario that the princess is in another castle.” 
- This is true of video games, books, movies, TV shows, poems, and so on. 
- Only use past tense if you’re describing something that happened before the story began.
- For instance, “During this touching scene, Rin tells her surrogate father about how her biological parents cared for her while she was a toddler.”  Rin tells in the present time of the story panning out, but her biological parents cared for her before this conversation between her and the surrogate father.

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Last Updated May 7th, 2015

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