Writing Tips for College First Years

My guide to those first college papers.  


Arguably the greatest writing technology since the invention of the book.

Five essential resources

  • William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, any edition.
  • Dictionary (almost any; I find the American Heritage the best)
  • Thesaurus (again, almost any; I use Roget’s II)
  • Kate Turabian, A Manual for Writers (for research papers)
  • Scrivener; Word; or Pages

Seven Points for Better Writing

  1. An essay is a tightly focused argument. The quality of your essay will reflect the tightness of your argument.  When writing a paper, you should spend a significant amount of time outlining and thinking about the paper.  Every word, sentence, and paragraph should relate back to the thesis.  If not, excise it.
  1. Avoid wordiness. Wordiness almost always attenuates and even destroys the point one hopes to make in his paper.  As Strunk and White rightly contend, “Vigorous writing is concise.”  Wordiness only takes up valuable space and frustrates the reader.
  • Remove phrases such as “in order.” In every instance, upon closer examination, the phrase reveals itself worthless!
  • Avoid a conversational tone, as this always leads to wordiness. Written and oral language remain two different things.
  • If the author you cite outlines several points, do not write, “The author then outlined several points.” If the author did and you believe the points expressed important, either summarize or delineate them.
  1. A good verb usually leads to a good sentence. Use your thesaurus and dictionary to find the exact verb you need.  Remember: each word has a specific and nuanced definition.  Use the precise and necessary verb.  Do not pick the first synonym you find in the thesaurus.
  • Avoid passive verb construction. Passives: 1) obfuscate the actor and the action; 2) increase the wordiness of one’s paper.  Notice that with an active verb, one immediately discovers the actor, the action, and the result of the action.

Example 1

Passive: Custer was killed.

Active: Crazy Horse slaughtered Custer.

Example 2

Passive: The Lyceum was established.                                                                                                 Active: Aristotle founded the Lyceum.

  • Avoid the “to be” verb: is, was, were, to be, am, etc.
  • Be precise with word usage. g.  We have no idea what Cicero “felt.”  We do know what Cicero believed, argued, wrote, etc.
  1. Verb tenses.
  • Be carefully consistent with these. You should refer to an author’s work in the present if he/she is still alive.  g.: “Birzer argues. . . .”,  “Kirk argued . . . .”
  • But, use simple past for historical events. g.: “Bryan, a westerner, lost the 1896 presidential election.”
  1. Use modifiers wisely. Bad example: “Having little regard for authority and respect, we see a cast of ruthless people come to forge a cohesive community.” “We” as readers may or may not have a regard for authority.
  1. Use simple citations within the paper (for non-research papers only). E.g.: “Though the French lost the Great War for Empire in 1763, one should not, as Gitlin argues, equate this ‘with the sudden disappearance of local French interests’” (Gitlin, 82).
  1. Proofread and spell check. Do it again!  Have someone else look over your paper before turning it in to me.


Five untruths dispelled

  1. “Good writers are born, not made.” While certain writers bring to their craft a strong sense of artistry, most writers rely on practice and skill.  Once a writer has his craft down, then and only then should he pursue the artistic elements of it.
  1. “I am a good writer because I earned ‘A’s in high school English.” Great–hopefully you stand upon a firm foundation.  Writing for a college professor, however, will prove far more rigorous.  Too many high schools (public and private) focus on the subjective, stream of consciousness “forms” of writing.  Yet, we have inherited a language of beauty–containing its own rules and internal coherency and consistency.  Our ancestors have given us a gift far greater than we can endow upon ourselves through our own subjective realities.  Objective standards allow us to step outside of our provincial selves, and, equally important, they offer us a touchstone upon which we can all agree.  Without this common source, we would never communicate effectively with one another.  We would simply drown in ourselves.  Writing “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” novelist and political theorist George Orwell wrote in 1946.
  1. “I only need to write well for my English professor.” Hillsdale College has earned its ranking as one of the best liberal arts schools in the country.  As subjects, both English and history reside within the humanities.  You will need to apply the skills learned in English to history, and vice versa.
  1. “I can write an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ paper the night before the paper is due.” Highly unlikely.  Quality papers demand much thought and scrupulous planning, and any good professor can immediately spot a quickly written paper.  Take your time with a paper, and your grade will most likely reflect it.
  1. “Language skills are unimportant.” Nothing could far further from the truth.  Any knowledge of twentieth-century history reveals that every tyranny established during the last century attacked languages and dictionaries first.  When one controls communication, one controls ideas and intellectual inheritance.  Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all recognized and embraced this essential fact.  Additionally, even a superficial glance at the founding stories and myths of the western tradition uncover the vital importance of language.  Language pervades the two greatest events of our world.  First, the Creation.  God spoke the universe into existence, as Moses records in Genesis.  Second, the Incarnation.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Gospel of St. John 1:1 (NIV)).  Further, as Dante described, those in heaven sing, rather than speak, as song represents the highest form of any language.  “No civilization rests forever content with literary boredom,” Russell Kirk argued.  “The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.”

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