Writing Guidelines

Some Writing Advice
Organization and Process:
I think it would be a good idea for you to make an outline before you get started writing.
The outline should start with whatever your thesis statement is, and then identify what each of
the body paragraphs is going to contribute to defending that thesis. Then write the paper.
Once you have what you consider a strong first draft, print it out and get out your pen
and start editing it (using guidelines below, “general thoughts on language”). Be ruthless in the
effort to tighten and clarify your prose. Make sure your introduction and conclusion say similar
things (don’t introduce new material in your conclusion), and echo the same thesis. Rewrite your
introduction if necessary (you may find that in the process of writing the actual body of the paper
you have revised your thoughts on one or more issues). Now go back and make your corrections
on the draft on your computer. If time permits, repeat the process of printing out the draft,
editing, and making your corrections before you turn in the final paper.
Introductory paragraphs should be focused, concise, and have a clear thesis that presents,
in a sentence or two at the most (usually at the end of the paragraph), the overarching argument
you are going to defend in the body of the paper. Intro paragraphs should not give too much
detail (which should be saved for the body). They should provide a basic roadmap for where the
paper is going to go.
Following the introduction, each paragraph in the body of the paper should generally
focus on explicating a single point and should (generally) begin with a topic sentence that
identifies the focus of the paragraph. The remaining sentences in that paragraph should provide
the evidence to demonstrate the point. And it’s often good to close your paragraph with a
sentence that recaps your point.
It’s generally best not to jumble different points together in a single paragraph. Don’t
change direction in mid-paragraph, either. Or, if you have a paragraph where you want to say
contrasting things (e.g., the film is good, but it has some flaws), make sure that your topic
sentence reflects that you are about to lay out a two-pronged theme. In other words, don’t start
the paragraph with a sentence that just says “the film is good,” and then suddenly start telling us
what’s wrong with it.
Be sure that your transitions are smooth and logical. The transition from one sentence to
the next, and from one paragraph to the next, should make sense to the reader (not just to you).
Sometimes it helps to open a new paragraph by linking it explicitly in some way to the one that
preceded it. Don’t assume that the reader recognizes the logic you are using to order your
paragraphs; instead, provide “sign posts,” markers that essentially take the reader by the hand
and walk him/her through your argument.
General Thoughts on Language:
Don’t overuse pronouns, especially when the antecedent may not be obvious to the reader.
Regularly reintroduce the noun that the pronouns are standing in for, especially when you start a
new paragraph.
Use verbs that have energy, and avoid forms of “to be” and “to have” as often as possible.
Instead of “This is a good example. . .” say “This indicates. . . .” Avoid verbs that end in
prepositions: instead of “Zoe makes up one of the most notable…” say “Zoe represents one of
the most notable…”
Similarly, use more imaginative adjectives, and avoid unnecessary adjective modifiers. Instead
of “She responds rather drastically,” just say “She responds drastically” (in this case especially
the “rather” seems “rather” unnecessary, since committing suicide is more than just “rather
drastic”). Also, avoid using adjectives—“great,” “excellent,” “extremely”—that make it seem as
if you are pushing the reader to see things your way, and that often (ironically) weaken the
impact of the sentence. “It is an extremely entertaining and well-done film” may not be as strong
a sentence as “It is an entertaining and well-done film.” It’s better, in general, to demonstrate for
the reader that a film is “great” or “excellent” than to say so outright.
Similarly, Avoid “of course” unless you are really sure whatever you are going to say is a given.
Avoid passive voice. Instead of “he is painted as a man…” say “the film depicts him as a
Avoid using dull phrasing like “there is,” “there are,” “it is,” etc. Instead of “There is the classic
tough, world-weary hero….” it would be better to say “the story includes the classic, tough….”
Or “the story revolves around the classic, tough…” Instead of starting a paragraph with “It is a
linear story,” it would be better to say “The Searchers follows a linear plotline….”
Make use of your excellent vocabulary to avoid repeating the same word.
Be sure to explain yourself: “The Searchers is pretty clearly told with a classical narrative
structure.” What is a classical narrative structure?
Don’t set yourself up for a challenge by the reader. For example: “Ethan fought in the Civil War
on he side of the Confederacy, which most people would agree was the wrong side of that war.”
This is an indefensible overgeneralization, given how many people today still believe that the
Confederacy was the “right” side of the war.
As I said above, once you’ve written your first draft, go back and ruthlessly tighten your prose to
eliminate all unnecessary words. Some examples:
Instead of “Scar, the Comanche chief, is shown to be a man with feelings,” say “Scar, the
Comanche chief, is a man with feelings.”
Instead of “While The Searchers does not promote as obvious an ideology as a political
propaganda picture, it certainly has values that it expresses with an implicit ideology. It
does this in various ways, such as expressing conservative nationalistic values especially
through Ethan’s character” (42 words) say “While The Searchers does not promote as
obvious an ideology as a political propaganda picture, it expresses certain particular
values including, through Ethan’s character, a conservative nationalism” (27 words).
Instead of “he is played as a charismatic hero,” say “he is a charismatic hero.”
Instead of “Conversely, Martin, a younger, less knowledgeable character, is typically
portrayed to be more liberal than Ethan. . .” say “Conversely, Martin, a younger, less
knowledgeable character, appears more liberal than Ethan. . .”
Be sure to always use full names the first time you mention people. And when you are making
reference to an outside source, be sure to identify the source the first time, even though you
know that the reader (your professor) knows what you are talking about.
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