1. Use the present tense
when discussing texts. For example: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus heals - not
healed - a centurion's servant. Likewise, Socrates defends - not
- himself in Plato's Apology.
2. Don't overdo the adverbs, e.g.,
often," "quite," "extremely,"
3. Don't use abbreviations unless
you know what they mean (e.g. = ex
gratia, "for example"; i.e. = id
est, "that is"; et al. = et
"and other things"; etc. = et cetera, "and the rest," in a list)
3. Nothing will make
your writing look more childish than confusing your/you're, its/it's, were/we're. Also know where
to put that apostrophe to indicate possession:
WRONG: Pericle's Funeral Oration
citizen = citizen's pride
pride of the citizens = citizens' pride
4. Usage errors can also
be damning. Avoid saying such things as "very unique" or confusing
"fewer" and "less." I will soon upload a list of particularly grating
errors of this sort. But any handbook of English usage will devote a section to
eradicating usage errors from students' writing.
5. Know when to use who and
whom. Use who when
it is the subject of the verb in its clause (I know the boy who likes you,
Who is calling?, There are lots of boys
you...). Use whom in EVERY OTHER CASE (I know the boy
whom you like; I know the boy
to whom you spoke, I know the boy
with whom you were seen the other day...)
In the above sentences, the subject/verb combo is underlined for your benefit.
6. Use the third person (he, she,
it, they) pronoun in your writing. Don't lapse into "you" or "we," the
two most common offenders. Don't waste your energy saying "s/he" everywhere; say
"he or she" only if a distinction in gender is necessary for your point to be
clear (and this will happen rarely). And don't fall into the "one"
trap. It makes your sentences long and convoluted and no one will want to read them:
|BAD: One can see the significance of
GOOD: "This is important because..."
7. Always write in
complete sentences. Never in fragments (get it?).
8. Avoid passive voice. Active
voice is a better choice!
|ACTIVE: The dog
bites the man.
PASSIVE: The man
is bitten by the dog.
9. Choose powerful
verbs that capture the tone and force you wish to express - the power of each sentence
lies in its verb. Avoid "being verbs" because they are wimpy and lack punch:
is the speaker at the funeral for the
Athenian soldiers who died in the first year of the Peloponnesian War
devotes much of his oration not to the memory
of those Athenians who fell in the first year of the Peloponnesian War, but in praise of
the city for which they died.
The GOOD example uses the fact
that Pericles is the speaker to make a point about his speech, not just
to present a
point of fact, otherwise known as ....PLOT SUMMARY! Very, very BAD!
repetition (or did I say that already?). Repeated ideas reveal bad organization, and
repeated words or phrases reveal little imagination and thought. Your reader might begin
skimming to avoid wasting his time and your pearls could fly by unnoticed (and dont
11. Make appropriate word choices.
Precise word choice is a key ingredient in a successful essay. Do NOT resort to depending
on a thesaurus for "other ways" of saying the same thing. A thesaurus is a good
tool, but too many students use it incorrectly because they do not perceive significant
differences in nuance and tone in similarly classified words. For example, Rogets
thesaurus offers "shyster" as a synonym for "lawyer," when, in fact,
these two words are not always interchangeable. Choose your words carefully.
12. Avoid unnecessary words and
phrases so that your reader can pick out the main idea easily:
|BAD: Overall I don't believe this speech was trying
to be persuasive due to the fact that Pericles was being defensive.
GOOD: I believe that the defensiveness Pericles shows throughout his speech
prevents him from being persuasive in any way.
BAD: The manner in which Pericles does this is by first stating he is not
worthy of praising the dead.
Right from the start, Pericles wins the sympathy of the Athenian
audience by expressing his unworthiness to offer the state panegyric for the war dead.
13. Don't flood
your essay with too many details, all of which accomplish the same purpose, without
organizing them to make a point. Instead, present the material in a way that helps
you to argue a point (instead of listing pieces of material):
|BAD: "He was good because he helped little old
ladies cross the street, worked at the soup kitchen, ran errands for the home-bound, gave
lots of money to charity, went to church every day..."
"His virtuous character was apparent in everything he did, from
private pursuits such as attending church regularly and being an anonymous charity donor,
to community involvement such as working in a soup kitchen and running errands for the
The material in the GOOD example
is nicely organized and the reader can trace the progression of ideas, instead of just
reading a list of good deeds.