Writing Tips

Student Writing in English Studies

Function and Flair: The nuts and bolts of good writing

  • Clarity—don’t make anyone read something twice; or, as Wallace Stegner wisely asserts: “Hard writing makes easy reading.” The papers and blog posts you write do not simply ask you to demonstrate knowledge; they ask you to to communicate knowledge strategically and elegantly.
  • Concision—give yourself more space.  The strongest essays are written by those who have mastered certain strategies such as the use of active voice, the deployment of vivid verbs, and the reduction of prepositional phrases in their writing.  Wait–that took me 33 words.  Why not name that tune in 12 words and let others spin their wheels? “Strong writers favor active voice, deploy vivid verbs, and reduce prepositional phrases.”  That’s better.  Imagine what you can do with all that extra space!  As English Majors, it’s tempting to view our jobs as filling up paper–but half of our job should be claiming back space for our ideas.
  • Correctness—don’t let minor mistakes or grammatical tics make you appear less intelligent than you are.
  • Control—take organizational control of the essay: choose apt words; construct elegant, varied sentences; write unified and cohesive paragraphs; connect your paragraphs with meaningful transitional elements that help your argument unfold: think of your paper as an architectural wonder, not a a stack of pancakes.
  • Patterns and Flair–write sentences that are smarter than you are.  Your professor won’t know the difference; soon, you won’t either.  The Art of Styling Sentences, which I linked above, is a classic, and Stanley Fish’s new book, How To Write a Sentence, is pretty good as well.  Below, I offer three of my favorite sentence patters, along with superb illustrations from Sue-Im Lee’s article “We Are Not the World.”

Sentence Patterns x 3

  1. Experiment with the em dash–a.k.a. the double-dash–as a way to include details or offer a pronounced aside.
    • Here is Lee: “As Los Angeles becomes the site of inexorable coming-together—of bodies, labor, capital, and geography—the question becomes: in a novel filled with indictments of false universalisms, can a singular plural “we” be formulated without the unidirectional imposition of intimacy and collectivity?” Here, Lee uses the embedded em-dash phrase to include details. She could achieve different stylistic effects here by altering how she presents those details as well: she could include an “of” before each item, or omit the “and,” or offer balanced pairs (“bodies and capital, labor and hegemony). Each option gives us something new and fresh. Ah yes–you can also use a single em dash at the end of a sentence, where it acts like the hipper, more casual younger brother of the somewhat more severe colon and somewhat more refined semicolon.
  2. This next sentence pattern not only allows you to recast crucial info, but also takes us somewhere new. It’s called a paired construction, and you just read one.
    • Here is Lee again: “Not only does the novel sit at the nexus of current discussions of universalism; it also postulates its own model of universalism that I call a romantic universalism.”  And again, this time with the “also” elided and exemplifying as well the single em-dash from the previous pattern: “Indeed, Manzanar’s romantic universalism is foundational to a greater vision—a single totality that encompasses not only the geographical span of Los Angeles, but [also] of countries, continents, and oceans.”
  3. We saw this next one embedded in the first example as well: it’s all about the colon offering a more detailed explanation of what came before. This pattern works very well to offer more emphasis or to add more details.
    • Here is Lee once again: “In constituting a “we” out of “my” experience, the white woman’s global village universalism performs a unidirectional conscription: she speaks for the millions and billions of others in prescribing the supposed unity and the intimacy.

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