I hear statements of defeatism all too often when it comes to writing a scholarly paper. “I was never good at English” has always been my favorite excuse. I mean, assuming you are a naturally born American you have been using English all your life so it seems very odd that you have not mastered it yet. However, I am here to tell you that if writing “just isn’t your thing” the first step to improving your writing is to think differently about what you are doing. There are nine more steps to better academic writing and since I am feeling benevolent today I am going to share all 10 of those with you in the hopes that you will apply these techniques to your next scholarly assignment.
Ok, ten steps and I will be a Master Writer, right? Ok, not really. However, taking the time to apply each of these steps will drastically improve the quality of your written assignments and with practice you may just get a Black Belt in English yet. So, just what are the magic steps to a beautifully written term paper?
1. Think before you write. Ok, this one seems pretty obvious, right? Writing any academic paper is not the same thing as writing an article, diary entry, or letter. Your mindset while writing is important to the tone, word choice, and quality of what will eventually flow from your pen (or keyboard) onto the paper. So what about writers block? What if you aren’t sure where to start thinking? What are you supposed to be thinking about? These are all good questions, but we will get to those later.
First, you need to get in the right frame of mind to write. This is sort of like putting on the right outfit for a job interview. If you went to a job interview at a law office in cutoffs and an “I like Beer” T-shirt you would likely not make the right impression. The same is true of how you come across in your writing. As the reader follows the flow of your thoughts they will be forming an image in their mind. You want this image to be polished, intelligent, and captivating. So how do you go about creating this image? Well, first you have to understand the difference between popular and scholarly writing. To be able to truly teach someone how to identify and implement their scholarly writing voice is beyond the scope of this article. However, I will offer a brief overview with a strong suggestion to continue your research on this topic.
Scholarly writing is not creative or technical writing. While it certainly should be well-written it is also to the point and based on evidence. It is not full of long flowing sentences, witty remarks, and jabs at humor (in other words not like this article). In addition, a scholarly paper is never an editorial and seldom a point-of-view paper; rather it is a review of all sides of an issue or research question. In addition, and most importantly, the content is based on empirical (or factual) evidence rather than being a review of your personal opinion or experiences. Scholarly articles tend to be written by people identified as experts in the field or proficient in the research of a subject. This means if you want to write a scholarly article you actually need to read enough that you know what you are writing about. You need to write from an objective viewpoint. This is not the time to wax on about your passion for Chinese literature. If you are curious about examples of scholarly writing do a literature search and look for peer-reviewed journals on your topic of choice.
2. Learn what ‘critical thinking’ means. No, critical thinking does not mean telling everyone what you think about your Aunt Lola’s latest hairstyle. Critical thinking means you do not believe something ‘just cause’. It means you took the time to analyze, observe, and seek out valid statements backed by strong supportive evidence. It includes a refusal to buy into urban legends, popular myth, and common knowledge (which is all too often wrong). Rather the writer (that’s you) is able to identify both the strengths and weaknesses of any particular viewpoint. Again, teaching someone the finer points of critical thinking would take more space than this article will allow, however, a strong scholarly writer has clearly taken the time to develop a paper of substance based on empirical evidence and scientific findings.
3. Dealing with the dreaded writer’s block. So, with having to do all this scientific, critical, scholarly, writing how in the world can you possibly begin to figure out what to write about? Well, the best research papers come from questions past research causes you to ask. For example, pick a topic that interests you. If you have an assigned topic, obviously it must be connected to your assignment (see number 6). However, it should be something you personally are curious about the answer to. This makes all that research much easier. Think of things that make you curious. Do you want to know why Saturn has rings? Have you always wondered how the government taxes someone who makes tips? Or maybe you are dying to know why the dog is man’s best friend rather than, say the elephant. Whatever question makes you go ‘hmmmmmmmmm’ is the best place to start. Begin doing preliminary research on your question to find out if it has already been answered. Then begin tailoring both your outline for your paper by asking questions that will add to what the research already states. Don’t be afraid to let your research take you down new and unknown territories. Don’t get too fixated on any one question, if while you are researching you find something more interesting to write about, go with it. In the end, most writer’s block is easily cured by a little thinking about what is already written.
4. Take the time to know what you are talking about. If you choose to put off a 10 page paper until the night before it is due and bang it out while burping down pizza and soda, guess what? It won’t be a very good paper. You can not choose to arbitrarily (get the dictionary) apply yourself and expect to get positive results. If you are happy as a ‘C’ student then fabulous, what are you reading this article for? If you actually want to improve your grade you are going to have to do it the old fashioned way, with a little bit of elbow grease. Writing a quality paper takes research, research takes time. You can not choose the top 10 web site hits on a subject and expect to have an objective angle to write your paper on. You will need to set aside a block of time to research other scholarly works in peer-reviewed journals at your local or university library. Other good sources can be full-text articles available online, government websites, reports, and publications. If you are unsure where to start looking for information ask someone who always knows, the librarian. If you take the easy way out, expect to be compensated with a comparable grade.
5. Follow the directions. Ok, here is a test. 1) Read all the directions before completing any of the following to become a Master Writer. 2) Stand on your head. 3) Cluck like a chicken. 4) Write your name backwards in blue crayon. 5). Skip 2-4 and just pay attention to what the professor or teacher wants you to do when you complete your next assignment.
Probably the biggest reason most people do poorly on an assignment is because they fail to read and/or understand what the assignment requires. If the assignment asks for 400-800 words do not write 10 pages. If the directions state to use APA formatting don’t decide you can’t use it because you aren’t sure what it is. Read the directions and directives, make a checklist if you need to, follow them carefully, and ask for clarification if there are any objectives you aren’t sure about. The only stupid question is the one that you lost 5 grade points for because you didn’t bother to ask.
6. Using the tools of the trade. Remember that big book of words you learned how to use in middle school? Get it out. Become its friend. Use it. This is called your dictionary. This not some archaic piece of equipment that you stop using because no one is giving you spelling lists anymore. Do you remember saying back in grade school. “Why do I need this, I will never use it in the real world?” This does not apply to the tools of writing. There are other vital tools of the trade besides the dictionary, namely the thesaurus. And you don’t even have to lug around those VERY HEAVY versions anymore. They are available right on the web or your word document page. If you need help finding these tools just ask your local librarian or that internet guru friend you are always making fun of.
7. You can’t just Google it. I have already eluded to this one in most of my previous notations so I will be brief. Google is currently a cultural icon. Admit it, you’ve Googled yourself, your last crush, and your latest health concern. You even Google for directions, advice, and entertainment. However, you can not Google your way into a scholarly term paper. Now, there is a new improved type of Googling that will only give you scholarly papers and this is a good place to start looking for ideas. However, if you are going to write a really good paper you are going to have look a little deeper than the top 10 hits. Much of what is available through Google (even Google scholar) is outdated or isn’t peer-reviewed. Take the time to use an academic search database, such as the Academic Search Premier. These types of databases are generally only available through major University library websites. However, taking the time to find and use them will bring your grade way, way up.
8. Play Scrabble. Ok, this one might seem silly, but there is a method to the madness. Developing a better vocabulary is the single most important thing you can do to improve your writing style. There are lots of ways you can do this. Read (more than the comics) and take the time to look up words you don’t know. Pick words you tend to reuse often and use the thesaurus to look up synonyms. Have a ‘word of the day’ emailed to you and try to use that word in a sentence to someone else. My favorite though is to play word games, mostly because they are a lot of fun, but also because you will be more likely to remember the words you learn this way.
9. Yes’em that there grammar does matter. Ok, seriously. Why would you bother spending all that time writing a scientific, well-researched paper and forget to use proper punctuation, sentence structure, grammar usage, and correct spelling. If you simply “aren’t that good at it” use your editor in chief to help identify your mistakes (see number 10). One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read it. Finish writing, set aside your paper for a few hours or a day and go back and read what you wrote out-loud. You will be less likely to read what you want it to say and more likely to read what is actually there. Most grammatical mistakes can be picked up this way. In addition, most word programs come equipped with these excellent spelling and grammar checks which are meant to be used as a Help, not a final editing tool. For example, if you mean to write ‘she rode to town” but instead you write “she rote to town” the spell-check is not going to catch that, because believe it or not rote is a real word. Taking the time to edit your paper for proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation will be a guaranteed way to improve your grade.
10. Learn to take and give constructive criticism. Ok, no one wants to be told that the paper they spent two weeks writing makes actually no sense to the person reading it. However, the reality is if your peers or colleagues don’t understand what you are trying to say your professor or teacher won’t either. Don’t just pick your girlfriend because you know she will gush how wonderful it is. That isn’t useful. Find that friend, co-worker, or class mate that will be honest with you about the things they like and dislike about your paper. Make note of things you consistently seem to struggle with, like dangling modifiers or transitions, and take the time to work on these areas through a writing center or on-line tutorial. Look for an Editor-In-Chief and be willing to critically analyze other people’s papers. One of the best ways to improve your own writing is to note other people’s strengths and weaknesses and then model those things which make the writing more clear, concise, and appropriate.
Well, that’s it. See how easy that is? Ok, seriously, being a good writer isn’t easy. Maybe it does come more naturally for some people compared with others, but the reality is any good writer has spent a very long time perfecting their craft and improving their weak spots. Like anything in life, there isn’t any easy way back to Kansas and anyone who tries to send you to the Wizard is just putting up a smoke screen. However, even you can be a good writer; it just takes time, persistence, and dedication to quality. Good luck, and May the pen be with you.