How do I know what I think until I see what I say? E.M. Forster again
I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters…It is, however, this hard work that produces a style. James Michener (1907-1997)
This is the time to make sure that your well-reasoned, thoroughly supported, strongly-felt ideas become solid output. Just as wine must spend some time in the barrel, the bottle, and the glass before it’s ready to drink, we must put our ideas into structured paragraphs, clear sentences, and appropriate words to prepare them for our audience and, if Forster is right, to be sure you really understand them yourself (Did you notice the metaphor and the parallelism there? Barrel to paragraph, bottle to sentences, glass to words).
Examine the shape of your output:
- Does it have a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is our thesis introduced clearly, developed with concrete examples, and brought to a strong conclusion?
- Have we anticipated our audience’s questions and objections? Have we addressed these concerns with convincing examples, data, analysis, and material from your sources?
- Does all the evidence that we have presented belong in our argument? Does each paragraph stick to the point and support our thesis? Do our points flow logically from our thesis to our conclusion? Are our transitions smooth?
- Is our conclusion what we set out to prove? Check it against the thesis statement. Have we stuck to our point?
- Have we introduced a new idea along the way (especially at the end) that needs support? If so, we might want to go back and make it part of our thesis statement. Or take it out and save it for another project.
- Beginning: Interesting introduction and clear thesis statement?
- Middle: Are we developing and sticking to our point with data or examples from our texts?
- End: Do we reasonably conclude our argument? Can the audience answer the question, “So what?”
Just as proportion in our overall structure will help an audience follow our argument more easily, attention to the details of sentences and words will win their respect and help insure they will seriously consider our interpretation. Revising and editing our writing—as many times as it takes—is the hard work that produces a style. Handbooks and manuals like this one or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style can set us on the right path. But remember, Virgil could only get Dante through the Inferno; he couldn’t get him into Paradise. At some point we’ll have to leave our guide behind (after it has helped us avoid obvious errors) and make the positive creative choices that lead us to develop our own style.
But we’re still here together, somewhere between the Inferno of the rough draft and the Purgatory of early revisions. So let’s clear up those obvious errors. Of course we should use a spell-checker. It will flag or automatically correct the obviously misspelled words, but we still need to proofread for word choice. The spell-checker won’t protect us from using the wrong word spelled correctly (using except when we meant accept, effect when we meant affect, discreet when we meant discrete, site when we meant cite, and even pubic when we meant public!). Proofread carefully. When in doubt, check the dictionary.
Here are some of the problems we find in many student essays over the years, and sometimes in our own early drafts, too:
Lack of agreement between subject and verbs
Faulty: He reminds Dante that each of the sinners have been justly judged.
Correct: …each of the sinners has been…
- (“Sinners” are not the subject, “each” is. Each is singular – as are everyone, anybody, someone, either, and neither.)
Faulty: Hamlet’s search for truth and understanding reveal his loss of faith.
Correct: Hamlet’s search…reveals
- Don’t be confused by the phrase; the subject is singular.
Faulty: The limits of language makes a profound impression on Descartes.
Correct: The limits of language make…
- Plural subject needs a plural verb.
Lack of agreement between pronoun and antecedent
Faulty: A medieval chronicle usually included very violent events, but they rarely included graphic descriptions of violence.
Correct: chronicles…they or chronicle…it
- “Chronicle” is the subject, not “events.”
Faulty: Nobody in Beowulf’s band helped their leader fight the dragon.
Correct: Nobody in Beowulf’s band helped his leader…
- Although there were a lot of men in Beowulf’s band, words such as “nobody”, “anyone”, or “somebody” are all singular.
Incorrect pronoun case
Incorrect: Socrates and them often met in the marketplace to debate.
Correct: Socrates and they often met…
- We need a subject pronoun here. You wouldn’t say “Them often met.” But you could say “Socrates often met them in the marketplace…” if that was what you were really getting at.
Incorrect: When Beowulf returned, the king gave he and his men rings and gold.
Correct: …the king gave him and his men…
- Object pronoun here. You wouldn’t say “The King gave he rings and gold.”
Subject and object pronouns
Singular: He, she, and I (subjects) wrote about him, her, and me. (objects)
Plural: We and they (subjects) painted a portrait of us and them. (objects)
Use active verbs to correct:
Boring facts: King Charles was beheaded on January 30, 1649.
Better: Cromwell’s victorious Parliamentary forces executed King Charles in a public beheading on January 30, 1649.
- Now we can see that specific people deliberately did something serious to another real person, and we can begin to wonder who they all were and why they did it.
Tortured, unclear interpretation: Raskolnikov’s salvation is credited to his love for Sonya, but his will to love is the more fundamental emotion that saves him.
Better: Raskolnikov’s will to love, more fundamental that his love for Sonya, saves him.
- Now we don’t have to wonder where that other opinion came from – we have the writer’s strong statement to anchor us to this argument.
Confusing passive: The witch is killed by Beowulf by having her head cut off.
Better: Beowulf decapitates the witch.
- Now we know who did what to whom. The first was a weak description of such a violent act.
Wordy and weak: Fire comes out of the dragon’s mouth.
Better: The dragon breathes fire.
- It did it deliberately, after all.
Something to Consider: [The Carmel River] rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through the shadows, is dammed to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live, drops in against banks where crayfish live. (John Steinbeck)
- We are probably more concerned here, with writing output that is more like an essay than like fiction. Still, we can learn something from this passage. Active verbs move writing along and carry the reader with them. Avoid “is..-ing” or is…-ed” constructions except where absolutely necessary. In this example it is appropriate that the river “is dammed” because the damming was not of its own volition. Active verbs, concrete nouns, straightforward word order, and minimal use of adjectives and adverbs constitute the style of this passage.
Faulty: In his new existence Gregor Samsa finds a modicum of freedom and enjoyed climbing on the walls.
Correct: finds…enjoys or found…enjoyed.
- Choose a tense and then stick with it. This is obviously harder over a longer stretch of words than a single sentence and it’s easy to switch tenses without noticing, especially if you are writing different parts of your essay at different times. When you are relating the details of a story told in a text, it is equally valid to use the present or the past tense. But you have to be consistent, so watch carefully!
Misplaced or dangling modifiers
Confusing: Being more than half a god, we would expect to see a Gilgamesh who has knowledge, compassion, and wisdom that is above and beyond that of normal men.
Clearer: We expect to see in Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god, superior knowledge, compassion, and wisdom.
- The clearer version puts the important point, “We expect to see,” at the beginning where the reader can’t miss it, and it replaces the whole final phrase with the word “superior.”
Dangling: Walking down to the second ledge, the voices of the damned arose.
Clearer: Walking down to the second ledge, Dante heard the voices of the damned.
Or, if the voices are more important: The voices of the damned rose as Dante approached the second ledge.
Awkward: Jeff asked Francesca to carefully explain her presence there.
Better: Jeff asked Francesca to explain her presence there carefully.
- Interrupting an infinitive with a modifier distracts the reader.
Awkward: As an escaped slave, Harriet Jacobs had to tearfully watch her children from a hidden crawlspace in a nearby house.
Better: Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave, watched tearfully from a hidden crawlspace.
Sometimes, although there may be someplace you could put the adverb that would “work” in the sentence, what’s really called for is a more complete, concrete description of the emotion you’re just brushing by with the adverb.
Incorrect: The book says that…
Even worse: It says that…
Correct: The narrator says… or the author writes…
Awkward: Poetic justice is when the punishment fits the crime.
Better: Poetic justice consists of the punishment fitting the crime.
Alcibiades crowns Socrates as a man “whose words bring him victory over all men at all times” (Symposium, p. 98).
- Use punctuation only if needed before the opening quotation marks. Closing quotation marks go after the exact quote and before the in-line reference (or footnote). Punctuation that doesn’t end the sentence goes before the closing quotation mark. If there is no inline reference, end punctuation goes before the closing quote. If there is an inline reference, end punctuation goes after it.
Socrates points out: “Men are quite willing to have their feet or hands amputated if they believe…those parts diseased” (p 85).
- Use three dots … (called ellipses) to indicate when you’ve left words out of the interior of a quote (not the beginning or end).
Aeneas journeys to the underworld solely “to go to [his] dear father’s side and see him” (Aeneid, VI, 162).
- Use square brackets [ ] to show that you’ve added words. In this case, in the original quote Aeneas probably said “my”.
According to the text: In the original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote, “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” but he changed to the familiar “we hold these truths to be self-evident” sometime before John Adams first saw the document.16
- Block-quote (indent) passages that would amount to more than three lines of your paper. Do not use quotation marks around the block quote (which means you can use double quotes inside it if necessary). Put the inline citation or the footnote after the final punctuation.
- Commas indicate a minor break in your train of thought, connect a subordinate clause to a main clause, or separate a series of items.
- Use commas after introductory subordinate clauses. When Dante descended into the pit, he feared for his life.
- Semicolons indicate a more distinct break in your thought; they separate independent clauses. Think of them as replacing a comma followed by “and”.
Faulty: Gilgamesh had no equal, he became arrogant and cruel.
More correct: Gilgamesh had no equal; he became arrogant and cruel.
Clearer: Because Gilgamesh had no equal, he became…
- Adding a subordinating conjunction makes one clause dependent and helps the reader understand your point.
- Periods show the end of a particular thought. That’s why the British call them “full stops.”
Miscellaneous common errors
- Criterion and phenomenon are singular; criteria and phenomena are their plurals.
- Prophesy is a verb. Prophecy is a noun. Prophesize is not a word!
- It’s is a contraction for it is. Its (like his and hers) indicates possession and needs no apostrophe.
- Possession is shown by adding ’s or s’ to a word. The book’s cover is singular; the books’ covers are plural.
- Plural nouns get ’s: children’s, people’s.
- Some writers add ’s to singular nouns or names ending in s, others do not. Bill Gates’s money is the same as Bill Gates’ money.