Writing Advice

Writing Guides

The Purdue Writing Lab is a great place to go to get everything you need to know about formatting your research papers and organizing your citations. Click here to go to the Purdue Sociology Writing Lab to learn about ASA Formatting Requirements.

New York Times: How to Write a Good College Application Essay Click Here

Let’s Get Writing: Writing Guide

TAMU Writing Center has some great writing guides and advice

Some Writing Pointers

People throughout history… or All through history… This one is related to “some may say…” Blech. Using this in your writing does nothing to advance your argument. It is nothing more than filler suet there to fatten your essay while at the same time offering nothing of substance. A common use of this is “People throughout history have had to face economic hardship…” Yeah? Thanks for sharing. So what? People throughout history have also experienced economic prosperity. They’ve suffered medical hardship. People throughout history have done a lot of stuff. So much stuff, in fact, that no matter how you use this sentence it’s going to be true. Which makes it useless. If you want to mention people in history, be specific about which people and what context of history as it relates to your writing. “In the 19th century, working class Europeans faced significant economic uncertainty resulting from technological innovations and market instability.” That’s much more nutritious than saying “People throughout history have had to face economic hardship…”

Mens and Womens: “Mens” and “Womens” are not words, as in “The womens were responsible for domestic tasks.” ‘Men’ and ‘Women’ are already plural. There’s no reason to add an S to make them so. If you want to write them as possessives, you add an apostrophe S as in “It was the women’s turn to serve the volleyball.”

Be Clear: Sometimes it’s a good idea to read aloud what you wrote. If it doesn’t make sense when you listen to it, it probably doesn’t make sense, period. Another strategy is to have someone else read your work. If something is not clear to them, change it.

Sometimes less is more: ​Some people like to use big words when they write, but big words often have very specific meanings. If you are not using the word correctly then it ruins your writing. Even if you are using the words correctly they might just make your work unnecessarily complicated. For instance, you can say…
“One may prompt and equine to an aquatic impression, but one cannot coerce said equine to slake himself of the contents thereof.”
…or you could say…
“You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.”

Are and Our: A common problem today is the substitution of “our” with “are” as in, “This is are house.” No! This kind of mistake really makes you look silly. Are is a verb, as in “you are,” “We are” “They are.” Specifically, it is the second person singular or the plural conjugation of the verb “To be.” Our is the plural possessive adjective. “This is OUR house.” Just remember, if it’s a possession it’s “our.”

Their/There/They’re: Using the wrong form of the words at left is one of the most common and least excusable mistakes. “That is there house.” “I left the keys over their.” These are both wrong. There = Refers to placement. “The keys are over there.” Notice that the word “here” is found in the word THERE. So you can ask, “are the keys here?” “No, they are over there.”
Their has to do with possession. “That is THEIR ball.” Notice that it is “EI.”
They’re is a contraction of “They are.”
So the sentence might read, “They’re playing with their ball over there.”

To/Too/Two: This is another major problem. Usually, the mistake is to use “TO” instead of “TOO” as in, “I want to play, to.”
To references a verb. “I”m going TO play.” or a destination, “I’m going TO the store.” Or, of course, “To be, or not to be. That is the question.”
Too is another way to say “also” or “as well.” “I’m going to the store, too.” Notice TOO is separated out by a comma in this instance. “TOO” is also used to modify an excessive quantity or quality, as in “That is too much ice cream.” “It is too hot today.”
Two is the written version of the number “2.”

Cause/Because: This mistake is very common, mostly because of how we speak. “I missed school CAUSE I had a cold.” This is incorrect. This sentence should be written, “I missed school BECAUSE I had a cold.”
A CAUSE is the predecessor of an effect. “The storm caused a power outage.”
BECAUSE offers an explanation. “The storm CAUSED a power outage BECAUSE lighting struck a pole.” Do not confuse the two.

We’re/Were/Where/Wear: More confusing words.
We’re is a contraction of WE ARE. “We’re going to the mall.”
Were is pronounce WER and refers to a past state of being “We WERE going to the mall.”
Where refers to placement. Again, think that HERE is in WHERE. “Where are you going?”
Wear refers to something adorned as in an article of clothing, jewelry, armor, etc. “What are you going to WEAR to the mall?”

Its/It’s: You only use “IT’S” if you are contracting “IT IS.” Otherwise, there is no apostrophe no matter what. “It’s hiding in its burrow.” could be written, “It is hiding in its burrow.” In fact, in the case of contractions, unless you are writing dialogue, you should avoid them.

Through/Threw: You only use THREW as the past tense of THROW. THROUGH is a preposition. “I threw the ball through the window.”

Is/Are: ​These are often misused in speech. “They is at the mall.” IS and ARE are conjugations of the verb “To Be” and should be used as follows
First Person: I am…never “I is”
Second Person: You are…never ever “you is”
Third Person: He/She/It is
First Person: We are…Never “we is”
Second Person: You are
Third Person: They are
Confusing “is” and “are” is the best way to discredit your writing.

A/An: This is somewhat confusing. You use “AN” whenever the article is followed by a vowel “sound” not necessarily by a vowel. For instance, you would not write “AN universe” even though “universe” begins with a vowel. Universe is pronounced “yoo-nee-verse” beginning with a consonant sound “Ya” so you would write “a universe.” On the other hand, you would not write “a umbrella.” In this case “umbrella begins with a vowel sound “uh” so you would write “an umbrella.” The word “history” presents some problems. Some purists like “an history” but you can get away with writing “a history” without anyone questioning your grammar.

Good/Well: GOOD is usually an adjective. It should only be used when modifying a noun unless referring to a quality of goodness as in the opposite of badness, or in economics as in the production of “goods.” WELL is always an adverb unless referring to the noun “well” as in “wishing well.” It should be used when modifying a verb. The most common misuse of these words happens when someone says “How are you?” The typical response is often “I’m good.” You may be “good” as in describing yourself as a good person, but this is not typically nature of the question. In fact, you are WELL since WELL is modifying the verb conjugation “I AM.” It is, therefore, inappropriate to use an adjective. If Sam is a GOOD runner it is because he runs WELL. In the first instance, “GOOD” is used to modify a noun (runner). In the second instance “WELL” is used to describe a verb (runs).

Your/You’re: Again, when you see an apostrophe “re” you are dealing with a contraction of “are.” “You’re going to win the race.” In writing, you should avoid this unless writing dialogue. Your is possessive, “This is YOUR ball.”

Then/Than: These words are also misused because of how we speak. THEN is used to show sequence. THEN is also used in logic statements such as “If I study, then I will pass the test.” “If Sam did not pass, then he did not study.” “Sam went to the store, then he went to school.” THAN is used for comparisons. “Sam is faster THAN Steve.”

Who/That: This is somewhat picky, but still, these words are often used incorrectly. WHO is used to refer to a person. THAT is used to refer to something that is not a person. “Sam is the one WHO broke the record.” not “Sam is the one THAT broke the record.” Sam is a WHO, not a THAT. You can think of this by saying “Who broke the record?”

Who/Whom: This is a tough one that even professional writers have a hard time with. I could say that “WHO” is always the subject of the sentence and “WHOM” is always the object of the sentence, but really, you’re not going to remember that. So here’s the test. If you could substitute “He” or “She” in place of Who/Whom then use WHO. If you would substitute “Him” or “Her” then write WHOM. “Who is going to pitch tonight?” could be written, “He is going to pitch tonight.” “The award is going to whom?” Could be written, “The award is going to him.” This gets more complicated with more complex sentences. The same rule applies to “Whoever” and “Whomever” “Whoever is pitching tonight is going to have a difficult game.” “The pie can be given to whomever.”

Got/Have: I misuse this often in speech, but it should not be misused in writing. HAVE refers to possession. “I have the ball” means that you have the ball in your possession. GOT is the past tense of GET. “I got the ball” means that you retrieved or acquired the ball from somewhere. “I got the ball; now I have the ball.” So the famous poster “Got Milk?” really should be written “Have Milk?”

You should write out numbers literally rather than numerically unless the numbers are uncomfortably long. “I have two pairs of shoes” is better than writing “I have 2 pairs of shoes.” However, “This house cost me $250,000” is better than “This house cost me two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

Words that end in “Y” almost always end in “IES” when they are plural. “Remedy –> Remedies”

You should almost always avoid using symbols like “&” for “and.” The convention is to write out AND. The same is true for @ for “at” unless you are giving an e-mail address. The only exception to this rule is the dollar sign “$.” It is acceptable to write “$250” rather than “two hundred and fifty dollars” or “250 dollars.”

Redundancies: Redundancies are very common in writing. We often don’t think about them. The rule of thumb is if you say it once it is not necessary to say it again. So avoid phrases like “past history.” There isn’t a “future history” so “past history” is redundant. If you write, “Steve is rich. He has a lot of money.” Well, yes, being rich means one has a lot of money. Get rid of one of those sentences. This sometimes confounds professional writers, so don’t despair. Something is also redundant if one word is understood by another word (that sounds weird, so here’s the explanation). For instance, “Bill nodded his head.” One can only “nod” one’s “head.” You can simply say “Bill nodded” without losing clarity. One of the most common redundancies is “going to go.” This one really doesn’t make sense, but we all use it. “I’m going to go to the store.” Write “I’m going to the store” or “I will be going to the store.”

In conclusion: This is one of my pet peeves! There is no reason to use “In conclusion” in a written work. If I’m reading the last page of your essay, or the last chapter of your book, I know it’s the conclusion. I don’t need you to tell me! “In conclusion” is useful in speeches because it allows the audience to know when it is time to wake up and prepare to clap. In a written work it is an insult to the reader’s intelligence.

Needless to say/Obviously: ​”Needless to say” and “obviously” are also insults to the reader’s intelligence. If something is “Needless to say,” then don’t say it. If it is “obvious,” then assume that I’m intelligent enough to figure it out on my own. When you write these terms and phrases you are saying “For someone as intellectually superior as I, what I am about to write is self-evident, but for a moron like you I feel it’s necessary to point it out.” Even if you feel that way, you should not admit to it in writing. Leave out “needless to say” and “obviously” or any such term or phrase.

A good rule to help you discipline your writing is to avoid using a word more than once in a sentence and minimize its use in a paragraph. This is easier for some words than for others, but that’s what thesauruses are for. Use them. For instance, you can write “The Bengal tiger is the world’s largest tiger.” That’s written correctly, but you use the word “tiger” twice in the sentence. Sloppy. Better for you to write “The Bengal tiger is the largest of its species in the world.” Or if you want to cut down your word count you can write “The Bengal is the world’s largest tiger.” You do not sacrifice clarity.

Sequence: When you are writing a sequence the correct way is “First…second…third…” or “First of all…secondly…thirdly…” It is not “First of all…second of all…third of all…” However, I would advise you to avoid this kind of writing. See the next piece of advice for more information.

Bullet-point writing: There is nothing more boring than reading bullet-point writing. This is the kind of writing that works for notes or Power-points but is horrible for essays or research papers. For instance, look at the following statement. “In this essay, I write about pollution. First I write about land pollution. Then I write about water pollution. Finally, I write about air pollution.” Yaaaaaaaawwwwwwn! Hey! WAKE UP! There. There’s a lot of bad style in the above statement, but let’s just deal with the bullet-point nature of the writing. Your writing should flow. How about this? “Pollution is a pervasive problem in our world. Trash and waste contaminate the very ground under our feet. Garbage and chemicals imperil the Earth’s waters. Even the air we breathe is tainted with toxins and particulates.” Yes, this is longer than the statement preceding, but it is easier and more engaging to read.

One should also avoid using first or second person in essays. In other words, you should not write yourself into the essay as in…”In this essay, I write…” Nor should you write the reader into the essay as in…”In this essay, you will read…” Yes, first and second person may be of value in writing a hook, but this style of writing should not be followed throughout the essay. Better for you to write “This essay explores…” If you have to write yourself into the work then refer to yourself as “the author” or “this author.” And don’t do this too often.

Passive voice: ​This is a little tricky, but if you follow this rule your writing will be clearer. Use active voice when you write. In other words, the subject of your sentence should be acting upon the object in your sentence. I know, I know. Just look at the following sentence. “The tree was struck by Sam when he lost control of his car.” In this sentence “The tree” is the subject. It is receiving the action from Sam, who is striking it. This is passive voice, and it’s not so engaging to read. Instead, you can write this sentence in active voice by making “Sam” the subject. “Sam struck the tree when he lost control of his car.” There, now the subject, “Sam” is doing the action in striking the “tree” or the object. So in your research paper you might be inclined to write “World War II was won by the Allies.” It would be better, however, to write “The Allies won World War II.”

I believe: Overall, there is little reason to use the phrase “I believe” or “In my opinion.” Assume the reader understands the difference between a factual statement and a statement of opinion. If you write an opinion piece then it is understood that you are of that opinion. There’s no reason to specify that what you are writing you really, truly believe.

Social Scientists Believe… This is related to the “I believe” issue above. Most of the writing that you will be doing in my classes has to do with social science analysis. Consequently, references to “belief” among social science analysts is usually flawed. For instance, when I see a sentence that starts with, “Functionalist sociologists believe…” I cringe a little. If it’s a matter of sociology or economics or history, it is better to reference their assumptions as an “approach” or a “theory” rather than as a belief. So, it would be more accurate to write, “The functionalist approach is…” rather than “Functionalists believe.” The distinction is subtle, but important. Beliefs are not subject to proof or to tests of validity and reliability. The grist by which social scientists do our work, however, is subject to such testing. When a social scientist decides upon an approach, but is confronted with data or theoretical models that contradict that approach, ideally they should change their approach without hesitation. Use the word “belief” or “believe” only when referencing actual belief systems. For instance, “liberals believe” or “Hindus believe.”

Andoscia’s Rule of Three: Opinions are great. I have a few myself. However, your opinion is meaningless unless you can substantiate it. No, your opinion has no value just because it is your opinion. If you were sick would you go to a mechanic? No? Why not? The mechanic would be a lot cheaper than a doctor. You wouldn’t go to the mechanic because the mechanic’s opinion about health matters is not as substantial as that of a doctor. Similarly, if your car breaks down you are not going to take it to a doctor. The doctor may be really smart and well educated, but she’s not a mechanic. When it comes to cars, the mechanic has the more substantive opinion. When you write you must demonstrate that your opinion is substantive. I like to follow what I call the rule of three. For every opinion you write you should substantiate it with at least three factual statements and/or three logical statements, or some combination thereof. I did this above. I made the statement that “your opinion is meaningless unless you can substantiate it.” I offered two facts: The mechanic is cheaper than a doctor. The doctor is smart and well educated. I led you through a logical sequence by asking you about your choices regarding taking care of your health or your car. In other words, I made my point. Let’s take another look. I am going to make the statement, “Aristotle is a great philosopher.” This is an opinion statement. Now I will substantiate it with factual statements. “Aristotle was a great philosopher. His works are referenced by writers and thinkers throughout history. It was the works of Aristotle, translated in monasteries and universities, that inspired the great philosophical movements of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. His emphasis on truth through observation became the foundation of modern scientific method. Today, those who study the humanities must become familiar with Aristotle’s work.” Here I offer four factual statements that can be confirmed through original research or review of existing research. The statement has substance. Here’s an example of a logical statement. “A great philosopher is one whose work has survived through the ages. For thousands of years, Aristotle’s writings have excited and challenged the world’s great thinkers. Even today, all educated people are taught this ancient Greek’s contributions. Therefore, Aristotle is among the world’s great philosophers.” It’s a logical sequence because I clearly define my terms (I answer what a great philosopher is in general). I then explain why Aristotle fits that definition. My opinion has substance. The more such sequences I add to my commentary, the more substantive it is. I could, for instance, add another definition for a great philosopher in general, that the great philosopher influences other thinkers. I can then measure Aristotle against that. At least three logical statements should do the trick. Or I can use a combination. Offer a logical statement reinforced by factual statements. Either way, I make my point. Compare that with responses that I often get on assignments and tests. “Aristotle is a great philosopher because he wrote great philosophy.” That’s called a tautology when you try to prove a statement by restating it. Yes, by definition a great philosopher writes great philosophy, but what is great philosophy? The reader should not be left hanging with this unanswered question. Or “Aristotle was a great philosopher because his writings are still read today.” Now the reader has to make a leap in logic. Why does it matter that his writings are still read today? You did not make the connection.

Avoid Hyperbole: “Since the beginning of time innocent readers have been tyrannized by literary sociopaths who inundate the world with a deluge of hyperbole.” Um…really? Okay, so there’s a time and a place to use hyperbole, or exaggerated claims not intended to be taken literally. There’s also a reasonable limit to using hyperbole. Using hyperbole is an art form. The quote above is not…in any way…artistic. In literary work you want to be careful using hyperbole. In academic work, like history essays, it’s best to avoid it. Just say what you need to say and be done with it. Using hyperbole takes away from the scholarly nature of your work. You are probably not going to be taken seriously using a sentence like that above.

Some may say… If you want to write a weak essay, premise your argument in “some may say.” It’s a meaningless statement. Some people MAY say just about anything, that does not mean you want to include this in your essays. Any variation of this theme is equally weak, such as “it could be said…” Anything COULD be said. Here’s a good idea for strengthening your essay. Wherever you are inclined to write “some may say” or some variation thereof, actually specify who is doing the saying. So, for instance, “Some may say that life is a meaningless series of events…” is better written, “existentialists believe that life is a meaningless series of events.” This is an especially powerful tool when analyzing competing arguments. “Some may say that social safety nets are important for coping with poverty. Others belief that spending money on welfare programs slows down the economy.” Be specific about what groups you are talking about. “Progressives support safety nets as an important strategy for coping with poverty. Conservatives, on the other hand, see spending money on welfare programs as bad for the economy.”