General Advice for Writing

As I have tutored over time via instant messaging, certain problems come up again and again among the students that I have taught English writing to.   As I have corrected student essays over the past few years online, I have developed this set of advice for writers with less experience.  Much of this advice is influenced by Strunk & White's and Payne, so I don't claim much originality here.
General organizational advice for essays:
1. Don’t take the reader’s attention for granted. In the introduction, use attention-getting devices, such as a set of leading questions, interesting statistics, a famous quote from a famous person, a striking assertion or claim, etc. The following sentences in the first paragraph should narrow down the topic to the more specific point made in the thesis.
2. Always put the thesis statement, or main point to be proven or explained, at the end of the first paragraph. Aim to write it as a single sentence, not two or more.
3. Less experienced writers should aim to make the first sentence of each body paragraph a topic sentence. A topic sentence is like a “mini thesis” that summarizes the main point being made in that one paragraph. Then each topic sentence should prove some part of the thesis.
4. Using different words, repeat the thesis at the beginning of the last paragraph, or draw a further conclusion related to the thesis. Try to end the last paragraph with a strong rhetorical point, such as a striking quote or summary statement that helps to prove the thesis.

Some general grammatical points:

5. Aim to use singular nouns with verbs that indicate plurality, and plural nouns with verbs with the corresponding verb. Avoid shifting from one to the other in the course of a sentence. Don’t change from “he or she” to “they” or “them” in a sentence when referring to the same persons. It would be incorrect to write, “Anyone can park their car in the parking lot.” “Anyone” is singular, “their” is plural. Instead write, “Anyone can park his or her car in the parking lot.” If the “his or her” construction seems to be clumsy, then use plural nouns with compatible plural verbs, such as in this sentence: “They can park their cars in the parking lot.”

6. Don’t use subject pronouns as objects. That is, don’t use “I” when “me” should be used instead, or “us” in place of “we.” For example, this is an error: “John gave the ball to Sally and I.” This is correct: “John gave the ball to Sally and me.” In a normal English sentence, subject pronouns are used before the verbs that describe what they are or do. Object pronouns receive the actions done by the subjects. Don’t use the English reflexive “myself” when “me” should be used instead. It’s incorrect to say, “John kicked the ball to myself.”

Some general stylistic points:

7. Normally writers with less experience should avoid using the first person, “I” or “we” in essays, or the second person, “you,” or the impersonal third person “one.” It’s best to use the third person, such as “he,” “she,” “they,” “it,” etc. Writers sound more objective, confident, and knowledgeable when they avoid using personal pronouns that refer back to them. Consider this comparison. Which is more confidently stated? “I believe cats are better than dogs.” “Cats are better than dogs.” The second sentence sounds better. Often by using the imperative, or command form, writers can avoid using the first or second person. For example, compare these two sentences: “You should eat a healthy breakfast every morning.” “Eat a healthy breakfast every morning.” Writers shouldn’t explain how they learned something, such as from a book or article, unless they are writing an autobiography. Likewise, the use of “you” can come across as morally judgmental or bossy. Compare these two sentences: “You should get more exercise.” “People should get more exercise.” Of course, exceptions arise to these generalizations. When authors write an autobiography or relate personal experiences, then it’s fine to use “I.” Similarly, writers may really want to push the readers to do something, and preach, so then “you” may be fine.

8. Avoid generally passive verb constructions in most cases. These sentences are less interesting to readers on average than ones using active verbs. Here is an example. “Mistakes were made by John” is less interesting than, “John made mistakes.” Notice how the second expression uses fewer words as well.

9. Even when a long sentence isn’t technically a run-on sentence, it’s still often a good idea to break it into two or even three shorter sentences. In English, as a general rule, shorter sentences are more forceful, vivid, and easily understood by readers. The famed novelist Hemmingway wrote this way for good reasons.

10. To allude to a point that the famed English grammarian Henry Fowler made, beware of the love of the long word. Often shorter, everyday words are fine when more precision isn’t necessary. As a general rule, the shorter, more common words of English are derived from the Germanic or Anglo-Saxon side of the language. These words are more easily understood by readers, and are less abstract and vague. Writers shouldn’t try to show off their knowledge of vocabulary to readers. Don’t use big words unless it’s necessary. Don’t write “assistance” if “help” is fine. Be careful of using synonyms in a thesaurus if the connotations of the words aren’t well known. Don’t make the mistake of referring positively to someone who likes saving money by using the (negative) word “stingy” instead of (say) “thrifty.”

11. Avoid normally the use of “there is,” “there are,” “there were,” “it is,” “it was,” etc., at the beginning of sentences or clauses (parts of sentences). As a general rule, try to write using active verbs and/or specific subjects instead of these “filler expressions.” This practice will make sentences more interesting to readers.

12. Within reason, try to use different words in successive sentences that mean the same thing so long as the connotation (or sense) of the words are similar or identical. “Elegant variation” is a good practice, so long as it isn’t pushed to extremes. But make sure that the synonyms taken from a thesaurus and/or dictionary have the right meanings for what’s intended.

13. Write lists of items using parallel constructions, not in different grammatical forms. Therefore, write like this: “John received a ball, a bat, and a mitt.”

14. Use “which” in non-restrictive or non-essential clauses. These can be omitted while leaving the rest of the sentence complete. These kinds of clauses add extra information about the subject. But use “that” in restrictive or essential clauses. In these sentences, if the “that” is taken out, then the sentence becomes a fragment or otherwise bad. These clauses aren’t optional when written as is.

15. Use different lengths and structures for sentences. Don’t write too many compound sentences or simple sentences or complex sentences. Don’t write too many long or short sentences in succession. By varying sentence structure, writers make their sentences more interesting on average to readers.

Two good sources for advising writers are Lucile Vaughan Payne’s “The Lively Art of Writing” and William Strunk and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style,” which heavily influenced many of the points made above.


Eric S.

Experienced History Instructor and Writer

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