Nine simple steps to succeeding post-Carnival
Your writing sucks. There, I said it. And it’s not because you’re an engineer or in computer science — I simply think that if your name isn’t Faulkner or Joyce or Eggers, you’re probably not writing the next great American novel. Nothing personal.
Unfortunately, in the coming weeks, no matter what kind of class project you’ve been working on, you’ll almost certainly have to write about it. Fact of life: You could have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t write a decent paper about it, your QPA is boned.
I’m here to help. I’ve suffered through courses in grammar, style, and professional writing so you don’t have to. Here’s a list of tips and tricks you can use to easily write papers that will earn a better grade without a lot of extra effort.
1. Write an outline first
I know. You’ve heard this so many times that it has lost all meaning. Well, is it really that crazy to think about what you want to say before you write it down? Just get a piece of paper and jot down some of your ideas and thoughts. Ten minutes of thinking could save you hours later on.
2. Love your writing
Although I just told you that your writing sucks, you need to love it. You were involved with this project or research. You want to show your professor evidence of all your hard work. You should take ownership and responsibility. Put yourself in the paper. Use “I” and “we” liberally. Handwrite your name on top. Leave a lipstick mark on the paper. Whatever it takes to feel proud of your writing.
3. Ignore the page or word requirements
Teachers basically guess how long your paper should be. Ignore them. Trying to fill that page count will probably leave you with a paper of, well, filler. They want to see how you think, not read 20 pages of hot, steaming garbage. State your thesis, provide your evidence, make your conclusions, and get out. You’ll write better if you don’t stress over the length. As the Drive-By Truckers say, “Just ’cause I don’t run my mouth don’t mean I got nothing to say.” Also, avoid double negatives.
4. People Do (Things)
Remember this: People do. Sometimes, People do things. Subject, action, maybe an object. In that order. In probably 90 percent of your sentences. “The circuits failed. We repaired them,” is so much clearer and cleaner than, “The circuits, having previously failed, were repaired by us.” There, I fixed most of your writing problems and took you from a C to a B+ just like that.
5. Stick with what you know
Keep it simple, stupid. If you don’t know proper semicolon usage or the difference between i.e. and e.g., don’t try to learn now; trust me, you’ll screw up, i.e., fail. Stick with the basics you’ve known since grade school: Use simple vocabulary — errr, words — and end every complete sentence with some kind of punctuation.
6. Divide and conquer
Here’s a really easy hack: Use descriptive subheadings at the beginning of major sections or ideas. Put them on their own lines and make sure they say something more informative than “My first point.” Subheadings tell your reader what’s coming, make your document easy to scan, save you the trouble of thinking up slick transitions, and take up space that you would otherwise have to fill with more original thoughts and ideas. Win win win win. It’s like cheating, but it looks smooth and classy — like Ocean’s 11.
7. Abuse cognitive psychology
Here’s a list of Beatles albums: Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, Yellow Submarine, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, Let It Be. Now, repeat those albums without re-reading them. You probably had no problem recalling the first and last items, but got a little muddier with the ones in the middle, right? That’s how memory works: The first and last items stick better. You can abuse this fact to make stronger-looking arguments. Say you have three pieces of evidence that support your thesis. Two are very strong; one is just OK. Put the weaker one in the middle when you write your paper. The reader will focus more on the points that you put first and last and your paper will look better. It’s science.
8. Fix the little things that instructors hate
Don’t forget page numbers. Please run spell check; it takes like five minutes. Graders go ballistic when they see the words “very unique.” “You’re” means “you are” while “your” signals ownership. Check your paper before you turn it in to unearth a bunch of other typos that got lost in the fog of coffee and tears.
9. Chop it down
Run your text through the Online Cliché Finder (http://cliche.theinfo.org) to find worthless phrases like “leave no stone unturned” or “pursuit of excellence” and eliminate them. Finally, try this exercise: Attempt to cut your paper in half. When you believe with conviction that every single word adds something valuable and cannot be removed, turn it in. You’re done.