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Writing Well: An Incomplete Set of Guidelines

Frustrated child

“If there’s anything [God] hates, it is… oozy writing.”
—William James (1905)

It’s that time of the semester: final essays. But before you mash the print button or send that paper to your professor, you should take a quick look at this writing advice from Prof. Matthew Bagger. Prof. Bagger gave these tips to his REL 360 course but they are helpful for any papers you may have coming due this semester.

A good persuasive essay presents a cogent and compelling argument with clarity, elegance, and verve. The following guidelines should help you craft an effective essay:

  • Write as if your reader knows little or nothing about the topics and/or texts at issue.
  • Your first sentence should identify your specific topic, engage the reader, and set the right tone (e.g., “In late February 1692 three young girls leveled a disturbing accusation that roiled the tiny hamlet of Salem Village, Massachusetts” or “In The Anti-Christ (1888), Friedrich Nietzsche assails the self-satisfied pieties of nineteenth century Europe”). Steer clear of both the risibly grandiloquent windup (e.g., “Born in flames, hurled through space, this spinning orb silently mocks the mortal passions played across its surface”) and the vacuous or unsupportable generalization about human nature or the course of world history (e.g., “Since prehistoric times societies have sought to comprehend the conditions of their existence”). To begin an essay with a claim you could not possibly support detracts from the impression that evidence matters to you. You know well enough not to run with scissors; learn not to get a running start with a shovel.
  • Regard writing as analogous to “architecture, not interior decoration” (Ernest Hemingway, 1954). Howsoever gracefully appointed, an argument, like an edifice, must possess structural integrity. No less than architectural design, writing demands attention to both structure and style.
  • An argument requires a thesis—a succinct statement of the position the argument purports to validate. Your thesis should appear early in the paper, generally at the end of the introduction. Try to avoid a stilted presentation of the thesis (e.g., “This paper will….”). Keep the focus on the ideas and arguments, not on the paper itself or on you. A good statement of your thesis will implicitly adumbrate your argument so that your arguments and your conclusion mutually inform each other as the reader works his or her way through the essay. Although consumers of fiction may appreciate suspense or a certain level of initial perplexity, readers of argumentative essays deplore them! How do you feel when you read a scholarly article for a class, and halfway through you can’t state its point?
  • An argument requires evidence. In most instances texts will supply your evidence. In these cases, you must integrate quotations into your argument. First, establish the context for the quotation. Don’t just drop it in like a meteor crashing through the roof. After inserting the quotation, digest it. Paraphrase the quotation to help the reader assimilate it. Next, analyze it. What that the reader might not see on his or her own repays notice? Finally, explain explicitly how the evidence the quotation provides supports your argument.
  • Knit the components of your argument together with transitional sentences that relate the paragraphs one to the next (e.g. “Not only is Georgia thus the geographical focus of our Negro population, but in many other respects, both now and yesterday, the Negro problems have seemed to be centered in this State”—W.E.B. DuBois, 1903).
  • Channel the reader’s attention within the bounds of your argument. The topics you address and claims you make should serve your thesis, not draw attention away from it. Avoid offhand superlatives (e.g. “C.S. Peirce, the deepest thinker of the nineteenth century, died penurious”). Gratuitous superlatives distract readers—and potentially diminish your credibility—by in effect inviting them to ponder and try to falsify your summary pronouncement (e.g., “In what sense ‘deepest’…? Does she mean depth of insight into semiotics…? That can’t be right… Probably logic… Well then, what about Hegel…? Or, maybe Frege…? But then, of course, there’s Boole… How could her judgment be so myopic? Oh, what was the point of this essay again!?”). Omit likewise any potentially controversial claim not strictly pertinent. Why make yourself liable for extraneous assertions? Creating a limited liability composition, so to speak, will help maintain your credit rating with the reader.
  • Strive for “lean, hard, athletic… prose” (New York Times, 1926). Banish the flaccid and flabby.
  • Refrain as much as possible from using the verb ‘to be’ or any of its forms (e.g. is, was, been, etc.). Try to use verbs that convey information. In most of its non-philosophical uses, ‘to be’ performs the copulative function of linking a subject to a predicate, but expresses nothing descriptive. Vivid prose uses ‘to be’ sparingly. In almost all cases a writer can substitute an informative verb for ‘to be.’ Note well how infrequently ‘to be’ appears in these guidelines! If, when revising your essay, you have trouble identifying a suitable verb with which to replace ‘to be,’ you can often locate the verb you need concealed—and syntactically deformed—in a clump of verbiage. In these instances emancipate the verb and eliminate the verbiage (e.g. “Hume is skilled at exposing the absurdity entailed by ideas he confronts that are entertained by his contemporaries and others alike” yields “Hume skillfully exposes absurdity”).
  • Convert inert ‘ions’ into active ingredients. Where possible restore nouns ending in ‘ion’ to their verb forms (e.g., “Marx makes a prediction that the state will wither away” vs “Marx predicts that the state will wither away”).
  • Avoid passive constructions (e.g., “Nietzsche’s books are compared by William James to ‘the sick shriekings of a dying rat’.” vs “William James compares Nietzsche’s books to ‘the sick shriekings of a dying rat’.”). As a wise teacher of writing once said, “Figure out who’s doing what to whom and write it that way [not who had what done to them by whom]!”
  • Stringing together more than two prepositional phrases in a row risks confounding or boring one’s reader (e.g. “The use of meaning-symbols for institution of purposes or ends-in-view, for deliberation, as a rehearsal through such symbols of the activities by which the ends may be brought into being, is at least a rudimentary form of reasoning in connection with solution of”—John Dewey, 1938).
  • Employ sophisticated diction (but do not use a word unless you know precisely what it means).
  • Avoid empty words (e.g., ‘interesting’—People describe something as “interesting” when they can’t think of anything substantive to say about it) and pointless, pretentious words (e.g. ‘utilize’—Note that the sentence previous to this one does not say “…do not utilize a word unless…”).
  • Do not resort to colloquialisms (e.g. “Thrasymachus just doesn’t get it, so Socrates jumps all over him.”).
  • If possible, forgo jargon; if not, provide a rigorous definition of the offending term (e.g., “Stemming from the work of J.L. Austin, ‘performativity’ refers to the capacity of behavior—linguistic or otherwise—to institute what it thereby expresses”). On pain of triteness and/or superficiality, never quote a dictionary definition (e.g. “Webster’s defines ‘functionalism’ as…”).
  • Spurn the neologisms (often unwittingly) coined and perpetuated by administrators or other bureaucrats. University orientation programs, for example, orient first-year students to their new environment. They do not “orientate” first-year students. One should, to take another example, try to anticipate future challenges, not “be proactive” with respect to them. If you happen to become a bureaucrat someday, an ability to express yourself without recourse to bureaucratic barbarisms will distinguish you from the ordinary run of managers.
  • If you must qualify an adjective by modifying it with an adverb like ‘extremely,’ ‘rather,’ fairly,’ ‘somewhat,’ or ‘quite,’ you have likely selected the wrong adjective (e.g., “Rousseau’s emotional instability and paranoia greatly irritated Hume” vs “Rousseau’s emotional instability and paranoia infuriated Hume”).
  • Beginning a sentence with ‘however,’ ‘therefore,’ ‘moreover,’ ‘furthermore,’ ‘for example,’ ‘of course,’ etc. interrupts the flow of your prose. Bury these words/phrases in the middle of a sentence (e.g. “Exceptions, of course, abound.”).
  • Use the pronoun, ‘it,’ anaphorically or cataphorically, i.e. to refer to an antecedently or postcedently occurring expression (e.g., “Throughout the seventies and early eighties leading scholars roundly criticized Mircea Eliade’s method and by 1985 they had discarded it entirely”). Do not use ‘it’ where no obvious antecedent or postcedent exists (e.g., “It is important to consider all aspects of a situation.”). Like adding sawdust to a recipe, littering your prose with non-referring pronouns contributes nothing vital and lends it an unappealing woodenness.
  • When using ‘this’ or ‘that’ as a definite article, do not omit the noun it modifies (e.g., “G.E. Moore contends that this fallacy invalidates John Stuart Mill’s ‘proof’ of the utility principle” vs. “G.E. Moore contends that this invalidates John Stuart Mill’s ‘proof’ of the utility principle”). Taking care to include the noun helps to combat woolly thinking.
  • Vary the structure and length of your sentences. Like musical notes performed staccato, short sentences heighten discontinuity. Relatively complex and longer (but not bloated or lumbering) sentences better enable you to express the intricacy and nuance of your argument. Including some short, simple sentences, however, acknowledges that complicated syntax can “destroy the effect of a strong thought by stringing it out into a long sentence” (Francis J. Grund, 1839). Intersperse an assortment of different sentence constructions as they suit your rhetorical needs.
  • Resist the temptation to slip into the first person (e.g., “I believe…” or “I will…”). Presumably, you believe everything you assert, so mentioning that you believe your claims serves no purpose while needlessly making your argument seem subjective. Why undercut the force of your own argument? Admittedly, accomplished writers do sometimes make judicious use of the first person, but masters of any skill break the rules set out for novices. In game 3 of the 2001 American League Division Series, Derek Jeter flipped the ball to Jorge Posada, who tagged Jason Giambi out at home plate. To make the play Jeter defied the maxims that every high school baseball coach in the United States teaches. He abandoned his position and cut a throw off mere yards from the plate. Despite violating baseball convention, the play ranks among the greatest defensive plays in baseball history (if you have not seen it, behold: YouTube footage). You are not Derek Jeter (yet).
  • Police your grammar and usage. Attention to these matters may seem fastidious, but grammatical errors and eccentric usage interfere with clarity of expression.
  • Make sure to use the correct prepositions (e.g. Despite the Southern idiom, one bases an opinion on some form of evidence, not off of some form of evidence).
  • Adhere to the rules regulating the proper use of relative pronouns: ‘that,’ ‘which,’ ‘who,’ and ‘whom.’
  • Confusingly, a clause that defines which one or ones it describes requires ‘that’—even in reference to people (e.g., The clause beginning with ‘that’ in the sentence, “The philosopher that non-philosophers most love to vilify wrote The Meditations,” identifies which philosopher wrote The Meditations).
  • In a clause that simply adds more information about something already adequately identified, use ‘which’ (e.g. “The Meditations, which indeed displays Descartes’s commitment to the ‘substantial union’ of mind and body, elicits much misplaced resentment as the alleged cause of modernity’s ills.”). Bracket clauses that use ‘which’ in this way with commas.
  • The same rule applies to clauses adding information about adequately identified people, but in this case use ‘who’ or ‘whom’ instead of ‘which’ (e.g., “Descartes, who attended school at LaFleche, convinced his Jesuit teachers to allow him to spend his mornings lying in bed thinking”).
  • ‘Who’ functions as the subject of a verb and ‘whom’ functions as the object of a verb (e.g., “Descartes, who hated to get up early, died soon after submitting to Queen Christina’s demand that she receive her philosophy tutorials at 5:00 AM” vs “Hobbes, to whom Descartes condescended, supplied a set of objections to The Meditations”).
  • Extra credit: Why does the third sentence in this item (“In a clause that…”) use ‘that’ rather than ‘which’?
  • When trying to avoid gendered language, do not forsake pronoun agreement. Assigning a plural pronoun to a singular noun phrase (unless the phrase refers to a specific individual who expressly prefers a plural pronoun) disfigures your prose (e.g., “A serpent handling believer generally refuses medical attention when a venomous snake strikes them”). You can often resolve pronoun quandaries by phrasing your sentence uniformly in the plural (e.g., “Serpent handling believers generally refuse medical attention when a venomous snake strikes them”).
  • To “split” an infinitive means to insert one or more words (usually an adverb) between the participle ‘to’ and the verb in the infinitive form (e.g., “to fiercely resent grammatical niceties”). Most arbiters of prose style no longer unconditionally prohibit split infinitives. In some sentences, in fact, to split the infinitive clarifies the meaning or simply seems aesthetically preferable. To split infinitives wantonly, however, can diminish the precision and appeal of your prose. Consciously decide in each case whether or not to split the infinitive (Nota Bene: a decision not to write “to wantonly split infinitives” produced the sentence before last). Above all, do not uncritically consult Gene Roddenberry as a guide to felicitous usage (e.g., “To boldly go where no man has gone before”)!
  • Do not confuse ‘comprise’ and ‘compose.’ ‘Comprise’ means “to include” (e.g., “At minimum a sentence comprises a subject and a verb”). ‘Compose’ means “to form by combination” (e.g., “A subject and a verb together compose a sentence”).
  • Heed the distinction between ‘lie’ and ‘lay.’ ‘Lie’ does not take an object (e.g., “A psychiatrist asks patients to lie on the couch”). ‘Lay’ always takes an object (e.g., “An elementary school teacher orders misbehaving pupils to lay their heads on their desks”). Whereas one lies somewhere, one lays something That in the past tense ‘lie’ becomes ‘lay’ (and ‘lay’ becomes ‘laid’) does not affect this distinction, of course.
  • Do not use ‘less’ when you ought to use ‘fewer.’ When comparatively quantifying countable nouns, use ’fewer’ (e.g., “Classical Protestantism acknowledges fewer sacraments than Roman Catholicism”). When comparatively quantifying so-called mass nouns, use ‘less’ (e.g., “All that I have here said explains why the English display much less aptitude and taste for the generalization of ideas than their American progeny”—Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835; Consider also: “The poor, it is said, are peculiarly incited by their condition to envy; and yet are we sure that there is less envy among the rich, that there are fewer jealousies and heartburnings growing out of competitions and neglects in fashionable life, than spring from indigence?”—William Ellery Channing, 1839).
  • ‘Fortuitous’ means “by chance” or “accidental,” not “fortunate” (e.g., “Marshall Sahlins argues that Captain Cook’s fortuitous arrival in February, after the Makahiki festival had ended, led to his death, because the Hawaiians, mistaking Cook for the God, Lono, killed him to restore cosmic order”).
  • ‘Bemused’ does not mean “amused.” It means “confused,” “bewildered,” or “distracted” (e.g., “Is there a parson, much bemus’d in beer…?”—Alexander Pope, 1735)
  • As its Latin root suggests, ‘misnomer’ (Lat.: nom=name) designates a misapplied or misleading name or appellation (e.g., “The term ‘Greek philosophy,’ to begin with is a misnomer, for there is no philosophy in existence”—George G.M. James, 1954). Do not use the word to characterize other sorts of erroneous or misleading beliefs or assertions; to label them misnomers qualifies as a misnomer.
  • Use the past tense when describing the actions of people in the past (e.g., “Kant never traveled more than 10 miles from Konigsberg.”). Use the present tense when discussing the texts or views of people in the past (e.g., “In the Critique of Practical Reason Kant argues that reason presents its own unconditioned end.”).
  • Don’t forget an inviting, but informative title.

Note: Apart from its use in quotations and examples of what not to do, the verb ‘to be’ crops up exactly once in these guidelines. Did you notice its cameo? (Hint: New York Yankees all-time hits leader) Why does ‘to be’ put in an appearance at just that point? Let these guidelines serve as an example to convince you that you can dispense with ‘to be’ at will. Use it with discretion.

This post originally appeared on the Department of Religious Studies blog Studying Religion in Culture