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Suggestions for struggling student scribes
General Writing Tips

Be concise.

Someday, you will have this problem: You are supposed to turn in an eight page paper, but your paper is only five pages long. You are tempted to "pad" it by adding extra words, or by re-writing some sentences to make them longer. Don't do this! All of your professors have seen this a hundred times before. They don't like it. Remember that one of America's favorite writers is Ernest Hemmingway. He was famous for writing simple, direct sentences. ("The sun was hot. The bulls were angry. There were guns everywhere, and I was drunk.") Be like him. Say what you mean with a few well-chosen words - as few as possible.

But what do you do to make your paper longer? One possibility is to find another point to make, or another topic to discuss. You can add detail. Just don't add junk. A longer paper should have more meaningful content than a shorter one. In the end, you might even be better off turning in a short, better-written paper than a long, fake one.

Don't mourn - organize!

You may already understand that your choice of words, punctuation, and sentence structure can make your paper easier or harder to read. But the most important way of making a paper easy to read and understand is to organize it carefully. Make sure that you know what your paper is supposed to do. Then, give your paper a structure that helps it to do that. For example, if your paper presents an argument, you might start by discussing the issue that you are arguing about, then your position on that issue, and then the method you will use to support your position - all in the first paragraph or two. In this way, you help your reader understand that they are supposed to see the next few paragraphs as support for your position, which you will restate at the end of your paper. Otherwise, they may understand your words, but not understand why they are supposed to care about what you are saying with those words.

No B.S., please.

Many professors are not stupid people. Furthermore, they spend a lot of time reading papers and homework written by students. Add these facts up, and the sum is this: Even a relatively inexperienced professor can spot common forms of written nonsense a mile away. Don't try to bluff your way through a paper or exam.

Non-sexist language

The English language has traditionally used words that properly refer only to men to refer to people of unknown gender. For example, "man" has been used to refer to the human race in the abstract, and a single person of unknown gender is often referred to as "he". Many people feel that this type of usage subtly excludes or devalues women. Many suggestions have been made about how to solve this problem without making the language awkward or strange-sounding. Some say that nothing should be done at all, and the traditional usage should continue. There has been a lively debate about this throughout the English-speaking world for several decades now. People on both sides of this issue are very emotional about their positions. Since intellectuals work closely with language, and tend to be strongly concerned with politics, many of your faculty will have strong opinions about this. At this time, it appears that the dominant usage of the future will refer to people of mixed or unknown gender with words that are not specifically male.

  • Many people do this by using plurals: "they" for "he", "their" for "his", etc. Although this usage is simple and popular, it is also a little awkward.
  • Another solution is to use combinations, like "she or he", or "he or she", or even "s/he". These are also seen by many people as awkward, mostly because they are awkward.
  • An approach that is currently popular in academia is to alternate female and male forms. That is, the first time you need a pronoun for a single unknown person, you may use "she", and the second time, "he", etc. This has the advantage of being as "natural" sounding as the traditional approach.
  • Another possibility is to switch from singular to plural cases, so that you can use "they" without awkwardness. For example: "An idealist is a damgerous man; he should be watched carefully." can be changed to "Idealists are dangerous people; they should be watched carefully."

There are a few other cases that you should be aware of. For example:

  • When referring to all of us, "humankind", "humanity" and "the human race" are now preferred to "mankind" and "man".
  • The names of jobs are changing, too. "Mailman" is now "mail carrier" or "letter carrier". "Fireman" is now "firefighter". For "policeman", use "police officer". Other professions follow this pattern.
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