The following writing tips are based on common issues that I see in students’ writing. Please do your best to ensure that anything you submit to me complies with these writing conventions.
If you do not consider yourself to be a good writer / grammarian, I strongly encourage you to find someone who is and ask that person to read over your papers before you submit them. I’m your advisor, not your editor. Also, read your writing aloud to yourself. Be sure to pause (or not pause) as your punctuation dictates - you will find many commas where they shouldn’t be (and maybe some that are missing as well).
The ISU Writing and Media Help Center can be of tremendous help to you. Make an appointment today!
If your grandmother can’t read it and completely understand it, your writing’s too confusing. Make it simpler.
Before submitting your paper, spell check. Then also read it over carefully, both as a last-minute grammar check and to catch incorrect words that weren’t caught by spell check (e.g., four instead of for). Don’t turn anything in to me that hasn’t gone through these steps.
- By the end of the first 2 to 4 paragraphs, the reader should know exactly what your paper’s about, what the various parts are that you’re going to cover, and what to expect at the end of it all.
- Use headings and subheadings to help your reader find her way around. If you’ve gone more than 2 to 3 pages without a heading of some kind, you’re probably due for one. If a reader only reads the headings and subheadings, she should be able to follow the flow of your writing.
- Use good topic sentences to indicate the focus of each paragraph. If a reader only reads the first sentence of each paragraph, she should be able to follow the flow of your writing.
- Use transition sentences and paragraphs to help your reader follow the flow of your writing. A reader should be able to tell where she is in your paper, and how that section fits in with the other parts of the paper, at all times. If your reader is lost or confused, you haven’t fulfilled your navigational responsibilities.
- Your conclusion should wrap it all up for the reader. It should tell her where she’s been and why it’s important. It also probably should help her understand the larger implications of your paper as well as future action / thought / research.
Grammar and punctuation
- One space (rather than two) after a period, please.
- When you write about what studies found (or authors said), always use past tense. Unless you’re quoting them as they write, they wrote in the past. McLeod (2006) stated, not McLeod (2006) states.
- Avoid first (I, we) or second person (you).
- Avoid superscripts. The font’s too tiny. Many of your readers’ eyes aren’t what they used to be!
- Decades are not possessive. The 1990s, not the 1990′s.
- Know the difference between its and it’s and use accordingly.
- Know when to hyphenate words and phrases and when not to.
- Use text, rather than font formatting (e.g., bold, underline, italics), to indicate emphasis.
- If you have a sentence that’s entirely a quote (and nothing else), change it. Make the sentence yours, not someone else’s. Some researchers have noted that “better technology leadership is desperately needed in schools” (McLeod, 2005). instead of “Better technology leadership is desperately needed in schools” (McLeod, 2005).
- Punctuation always goes inside quotation marks. One possible exception: the colon.
- Beware subject-verb tense disagreements. For each sentence, put the subject next to the verb and read them together aloud.
- Keep all of the parts of a multi-word verb together. Also can include, not can also include. Actually will make, not will actually make.
- When listing items in a sentence (e.g., my favorite foods are dark chocolate, french onion soup, and birthday cake), be sure to always put a comma after the next-to-last item in the list (e.g., french onion soup).
- An organization is singular: ‘it’ and ‘its,’ not ‘they’ and ‘theirs.’
- Data are plural.
Other style tips
- Write in active voice at least 90% of the time.
- Try to find a good metaphor or example. Help your reader connect the complexity of your issue to something she already knows or can easily understand.
- Follow the APA manual for all formatting and style issues. This includes page layouts, in-text citations and end-of-text references, abbreviations, tables and figures, margins, headings, etc.
- Never, ever lose an opportunity to make your paper uniquely yours. Don’t just tell the reader what someone else said / found. Also take the opportunity to put your spin on things (e.g., to tell why it’s important, what the larger implications are, how it connects to another part of the paper, why the reader should care). Insert yourself into your writing (but not in first person!).
- Your sentence is probably too long if you have to pause more than three or four times, or if you nearly run out of breath, before you finish it.
- If your paragraph is longer than about a page, you’re probably better off breaking it up into parts.
- Avoid direct or rhetorical questions. Who is supposed to answer them? What is your paper supposed to do with the answers?
- Never have a subheading (or quote) immediately follow a heading / subheading. There always should be some intervening text in between the two.
- Don’t repeat what’s in your tables / figures, but do describe them a little bit within the text. Don’t leave the reader to figure out what your diagrams / tables mean on her own – more often than not, she won’t come to the conclusion you want.
- Unless it’s a famous work (e.g., A Nation at Risk), don’t write out the title of a publication in your text.
- Unless it’s common knowledge, you’d better have a citation or two to back it up if you make an assertion (e.g., “Better technology leadership is desperately needed in K-12 schools”) or use a phrase such as “research shows” or “many authors have noted that.”
- If your table / figure is longer than a page, it’s almost always better as an appendix.
- Avoid dictionary definitions in your narrative (e.g., “Webster’s defines [insert word here] as…”).
- If you’re going to include a Definition of Terms section in your paper, move it to an appendix rather than inserting it into (and interrupting the flow of) your text.
- Bend the rules when it makes sense. Be intentional, though, not just careless.
Please contact me if you have any questions about these writing tips. See also the suggestions below!