Writing Tips

These writing tips are by Yin Liu, the instructor for this course. The first set of Tips is from 2019-2020, responding to student questions. The second (numbered) set is from 2017-2018, and they can be read in sequence.

2019-2020 Writing Tips

Q: How does MLA Style work?

The purpose of a citation format is to inform your reader of the sources of any information, ideas, words, or images that did not come out of your own brain. Citation formats are not actually very complicated. I’ll explain the basics of MLA Style, which is common for English language and literature studies in North America.

1. MLA Style uses, by preference, in-text parenthetical citations. So after the bit that you got from another source, you put a little note in parentheses. The in-text citation provides just enough information for you to find the rest of the details about the source in a list of Works Cited at the end of your text. This system is different from using numbered footnotes or endnotes, so although you can use numbered footnotes in MLA Style, it’s best to avoid them unless you absolutely have to say something that can’t be said in the main text.

2. MLA Style is an author – page number citation format. That means the only things that go in your in-text citation, most of the time, are the author’s surname and the page number(s) of the part(s) of the source where you got the information. Sometimes you have to add the author’s first name or initials (e.g. if you have two different sources by W. J. Giblet and L. Giblet) or a short form of the title if you are citing two different things by the same person (e.g. L. Giblet wrote two different articles and you need to specify which one you are citing), but those are the only exceptions. Do not put URLs, or publication dates, in an MLA in-text citation.

3. The name that goes in the in-text citation must correspond to the beginning of an entry in the Works Cited list. The Works Cited list is in alphabetical order so that it is easy to find the entry you are looking for. That is also why the first author’s name is reversed (surname, then given name[s]) in the Works Cited list. If a source is not cited in the main text, it shouldn’t be listed in the Works Cited.

4. The Works Cited entry should include enough details to enable your reader to track down the same source and find the same information that you did, as efficiently as possible. Thus I should not have to read half of the Library of Congress to find the exact paragraph you are quoting from; I should be able to find the author, the book, the edition, and the exact pages you looked at, for example.

If your citations do all these things, they are doing their job. If they don’t enable your reader to find exactly the same sources that you used, then you are missing some information or you are not citing properly.

Q: How can I write more clearly and concisely?

There are no short easy answers to this question, but start by making the grammar of English work for you, not against you.

The default clause (a.k.a sentence) structure of English is a noun phrase followed by a verb phrase (NP+VP if you want to make it look like a math formula). To write clearly and directly, focus not on the noun phrases in your sentences but on the main verb. Muddy writing often results from focussing on noun phrases and ignoring verbs. For example, you could write ‘How can my writing have more clarity and conciseness?’ A sentence like that suggests to me that the writer is trying simply to put together three noun phrases: ‘my writing,’ ‘clarity,’ and ‘conciseness’. The main verb is weak: ‘have’. What’s the action you want to see in this sentence? It’s about someone writing. Can we rephrase it so that ‘write’ is the main verb? (Note: ‘writing’ by itself isn’t a verb; it’s a noun.) If so, who or what is writing? It’s you, isn’t it? So let’s start the sentence like this: ‘How can I write . . . ‘ Now we can change the other nouns into adverbs that describe the action of writing, and we get this much improved sentence: ‘How can I write more clearly and concisely?’

Let’s try this with another sentence: ‘Monasteries were frequent targets of Viking raids.’ There’s nothing really wrong with this sentence and it’s perfectly grammatical, but we can make it stronger. Again, it strings together three noun phrases: ‘Monasteries,’ ‘frequent targets,’ and ‘Viking raids.’ The main verb is ‘were,’ which is quite weak. Mere existence is not particularly exciting. In this sentence, monasteries just sit around waiting to be raided. It’s a deceptively peaceful scene. Where are the yelling attackers, the axes smashing at the monastery doors, the frightened monks running for shelter?

What’s really happening in this sentence? Well, Vikings are raiding monasteries. So let’s rewrite it so that ‘raid’ is the main verb, not a mere noun in a prepositional phrase tacked onto the end. Here’s my revised version: ‘Vikings frequently raided monasteries.’

See what we’ve done? Now ‘raid’ is the key word, the main verb, of the sentence: it now refers to an action, not to an object. It’s also clear who the perpetrators of violence are: the Vikings. We’ve taken out the extra noun ‘targets’ altogether, and ‘monasteries’ now refers more obviously to the object of the raiding action. The original sentence was fine, but the revised sentence is clearer and more concise. Subject-Verb-Object (SVO): basic English grammar.

Q: How do I find good research sources? Part III.

This part is about Search Strategies, or how to use keywords (a.k.a. ‘search terms’) and little tricks like Boolean operators.

Some principles for searching the open Web (using a search engine like Google) or a research database (like the MLA International Bibliography):

  1. You have to get your terminology right. This is one reason why I’m so annoyingly insistent on precision and specificity in language. If you are trying to find information on lexical change in late medieval English but you ask the Web to look for middle age words, you will get a lot of useless hits.
  2. Use quotation marks to keep words together when you are searching for a specific phrase. If you enter the search terms english middle names you will get very different results than if you search for “Middle English” “place names”. Or let’s say you are curious about Caxton’s friend ‘sheffelde, a mercer’ from the famous story about asking for eggs. If you search for sheffelde mercer, Google will auto-‘correct’ the first term to ‘Sheffield’ and give you a lot of results you don’t want, about people and places called ‘Sheffield’ or ‘Mercer’. But if you put the exact phrase “sheffelde a mercer” in quotation marks, you will get lots of hits about the passage by Caxton. Try it yourself.

For the rest, here are some websites that will walk you through good search strategies and tips.

If you want someone to coach you through a search for sources, have a good idea of how you want to focus your topic (for example, make sure you know the scope of your topic, such as what historical period you are focussing on or what languages you will be concerned with), and then ask for help from (a) the reference desk staff at the library, or (b) your course instructor. Reading about research is all very well, but you will learn most by actually doing it.

Incidentally, if you use Google as your main search engine, it is worth reading what Google itself says about the way it interprets your search terms: https://www.google.com/search/howsearchworks/algorithms/. It all seems fairly benevolent until you get to the last section, ‘Context and Settings’, which explains why a football fan in Baltimore will get different results than a football fan in Barcelona, even if they enter exactly the same search terms. Google also uses your own search history, so if you have been looking for used vehicles online and then you try to do research about Arctic ecology, the search term ‘tundra’ might inundate you with a lot of websites trying to sell you a Toyota truck before you get to what you really want.

Q: How do I find good research sources? Part II.

One of you asked a good question about where to find good research databases, and I will try to answer that here, but I want to take a more general approach to our question by telling you how I find research sources. It’s not quite Hot Tips From The Pros, since there is only one of me, but since I get paid to do research, I suppose you can consider me a Pro.

  1. Search the open Web. I admit that, like everyone else, the first thing I do is to type some search terms into Google and see what happens. Often I find good stuff this way. Often I don’t. There’s nothing wrong with this method of looking for information as long as it’s not the only method you use and as long as you critically evaluate the websites you look at. Don’t simplemindedly use the first five hits you get on Google. Be intelligent. If you have questions about the suitability of a website, feel free to send me a link to it (if you are a student in my class) and I would be delighted to walk you through an assessment of the site.
  2. Read bibliographies and footnotes. Probably the most reliable, and actually the most common, way I find information about a topic is to read other scholars’ citations. If you find one good article or book about the topic, especially a very recently published one, you can use it to lead you to other sources, which will lead you to other sources, which will lead you to other sources, and you can see why research never ends.
  3. Search the library catalogue. Of course, I mean your university library. The USask Library home page will start you off with USearch by default. I find USearch mostly useless for the type of research I do. Go to the library catalogue to search for books, and use a database (see next point) for journal articles or chapters within books.
  4. Use an online database. Probably the most useful one for our purposes is the MLA International Bibliography, which you can access from the Databases tab on the USask Library home page. Research databases like this make it possible to search through thousands of articles published in reputable scholarly journals, and in books that collect articles, around the world.

Pro Tip: when you find a good source on the library catalogue or in an online database, go to the Subject Terms part of the entry and click on the words and phrases there for more entries about that subject.

Also, for students: you can always ask the nice staff people at the Reference Desk in the library. They get paid to stand there and wait for someone like you to come along and ask them intelligent questions. They will be delighted to get a question like ‘How can I find information about the history of Middle English pronouns?’ rather than ‘When is there not a long lineup at Starbucks?’

Q: How do I find good research sources? Part I.

I have three points to make in answer to this question.

1. Whatever you do, don’t think of research as ‘finding sources that will tell me what to think about the topic’. I don’t want to know what Source A thinks about the topic. I want to know what you think about the topic. Don’t make ‘research’ a methodology of laziness, a way of letting someone else think for you. The heart of research is wondering about stuff, and asking good questions about it. The skill of doing that well will take you much further in life, and be of greater benefit to you, than knowing what Source A said about Obscure Topic B that only six people in the entire world actually care about. Let’s say, for example, you come across the claim that Shakespeare introduced thousands of new words into the English language. (This is a claim that floats around the Web a lot.) You ask yourself (and this is a good question), ‘Is it true?’

2. Look at your primary sources first. This could be data like wordlists from the OED, or a passage from a literary text, or even your own personal experience of a phenomenon you have noticed and are wondering about. The questions you have about those primary sources, or the ideas and observations you generate by examining your primary sources, should always be the starting point of your research.

Where would I go to find out how many words Shakespeare introduced to the English language? Not to random people making the claim on the Web with nothing to back them up (including some exceptionally unreliable Wikipedia articles, by the way). Well, since you’re an experienced student in our course, you know that the OED tries to record the first written occurrence of a word in English, and even tells you who wrote it or what text it appeared in. There’s even a link right on the home page of the OED Online called ‘Sources’ that shows you the top 1,000 sources of quotations in the OED. So you click on it, and bingo! Shakespeare is #2, with 32,893 quotations. But we want to know how many new words he invented, right? So you note that Shakespeare quotation supplied the first written evidence in the OED for 1,463 words. But wait. That doesn’t mean Shakespeare invented those words. Maybe they were already being spoken and he was the first person to write them down, or, more likely, he is the earliest person whom anyone noticed had written them down, because he’s so famous. It’s highly unlikely that Shakespeare invented the word pignut or the phrase silk stocking, even though he supplies the earliest quotations for those items in the OED. So you will have to be a lot more careful about figuring out which of those 1,463 words might actually have been invented by Shakespeare and which are more likely to have been merely recorded by him.

3. Use secondary sources if you need them to give you information about your primary sources. For example, how were quotations in the OED collected? Might the high number of Shakespeare quotations in the OED have more to do with how famous Shakespeare was and continues to be, than with how much of an impact he had on the English language? What about Shakespeare himself? What kind of education did he have? Is there anything in his own life and background which would lead you to suspect that he had a larger vocabulary or more linguistic creativity than other English speakers of the time? Finally, you might find some secondary sources by scholars who have studied Shakespeare’s vocabulary, but pay careful attention to how they back up their claims about Shakespeare’s linguistic innovations.

You may notice, from this Shakespeare example, that no straightforward answer emerges from your research. In fact, if you research this question responsibly, you will probably come to the conclusion that there is no way of knowing for sure which words Shakespeare invented, but there is a very high probability he didn’t invent as many as some people say he did. That is not a simple and easy answer, but it is a much more interesting one, it’s more accurate, it opens up further questions, and it helps us understand a lot more about the complexities of collecting evidence for the history of English.

Q: What resources are acceptable to use in an academic essay?

There is no easy short answer to this question. Whether a source is appropriate to use in an essay depends on the topic of your essay and the credibility and usefulness of the source. All of those are judgement calls on your part. Finding good sources, and evaluating them critically, are a fundamental research skills.

That being said, there are two distinctions you need to bear in mind: the difference between primary and secondary sources, and the difference between scholarly and non-scholarly sources. Any of these may be appropriate for you to use in an academic essay. Here are some Writing Tips, below, that give more details:

Tip 2

Tip 10

One question I am often asked by students is whether Wikipedia is an acceptable secondary source for an academic essay. To make that decision, you should first understand how Wikipedia works. Then you need to evaluate each Wikipedia article you wish to use on a case-by-case basis. Some articles on Wikipedia are good. Others are not. I usually don’t use Wikipedia as a research source, but I do often use it for finding other sources. If the Wikipedia article I consult is based on good sources, I go to those sources and bypass the Wikipedia article. If the Wikipedia article isn’t based on good sources, I shouldn’t use it anyway.

Q: What do I need citations for?

There’s an easy answer to the question of what should be cited: everything that didn’t come out of your own brain. This includes ideas, quotations, and images. If you didn’t invent it, imagine it, or know it from your own direct personal experience, you should cite the source of the information. Please note that if you get an idea from a source outside of your own brain, you need a citation even when you put it into your own words. If you use the exact wording of your source, you need to put it in quotation marks as well as supplying a citation.

Many students think that the main purpose of citing your sources is so you don’t get in trouble for plagiarism. It’s a good reason to cite your sources, but it’s not the only reason, and it’s not even the most important one. Here are two more reasons.

  1. If you did research for your paper that involved finding and using primary and/or secondary sources, your citations are an integral component of your argument. If they are set up correctly, they show the range and depth of your research and the quality of your information. They show that you have examined the original text of a primary source, or that you are familiar with some of the scholarship on your topic. One of my academic articles took me two years to write: one year for the text of the article and one year for the footnotes. I had to make sure that I covered all the documents and scholarship pertinent to my article before I felt safe submitting it for publication. I knew that my readers would be scrutinising my citations just as much as the main text of my article. Real scholars actually read citations and notes. I will be reading yours.
  2. Citations are an important part of writing in the real world. Acknowledging the sources of your information shows your professional integrity as a writer. It shows that you treat other writers with professional courtesy and that you expect to be treated with professional courtesy. To become a better writer, you should be learning not only technical skills like how to put a sentence or an essay together, but also the ethical responsibilities of writing. Citing your sources is simply the decent thing to do. When someone does something for you — perhaps pays the extra dollar when you were short of cash in the grocery line, or stops on the road to help you change your flat tire, or opens a door for you when your hands were full — it’s appropriate to acknowledge the help by saying thank you. When you have used someone else’s work in your writing (even if you were using it to disagree with), it’s appropriate to acknowledge that by citing it.

Q: How many research sources should my essay use?

First, read Tip 2 below, and note the difference between primary and secondary sources.

Next, you can probably guess that I’m going to tell you that there’s no magic formula that will answer this question. The answer is: as many as you need to support your argument. It depends on what your argument is, and what sort of essay you are writing. A personal essay may use no published sources at all. An academic research essay may use many. What is more important than the number of sources you use is the quality and appropriateness of the sources.

However, it is almost always a very bad idea to depend on only one secondary source, or a small number of secondary sources by the same author, in a typical academic paper. Even if the author of the source has great credentials, it means you are relying on only one point of view, rather than informing yourself more thoroughly about the topic. Furthermore, if you are using only one source a lot, the chances will be greater that you are just following your source and not thinking for yourself.

Q: At what point in the writing process should I decide on a thesis?

Q: Where in my essay should my thesis go — the first sentence or the last?

Let’s rephrase that first question. A better question to ask is ‘How do I develop a thesis for my essay?’ And to answer those questions I’ll point you to the following Writing Tips:

Tip 4: Construct an argument.

Tip 6: Turn your topic into a thesis (but not necessarily a thesis statement).

I suspect that students (and many professors) obsess about the ‘thesis’ of an essay more than is necessary. Instead of worrying about your thesis, ask yourself what your One Big Idea is. Then check to see if it is specific enough and well-supported enough to be the conclusion of a persuasive argument. If it is, that’s your thesis.

You’re not going to have a thesis until you know quite a lot about your topic. So you will probably need to inform yourself about your topic to the point where you are asking intelligent questions about, and seeing significant patterns in, the information you are discovering. By the time you’ve reached that point, you’ve probably started to develop a thesis.

Q: How does one effectively and efficiently narrow down an essay topic?

First, please read Tip 3 below.

So that’s why I tend to set very broad essay topics for classes: I prefer that students have some freedom to take their writing in directions that interest them. However, this means, if you are my student, that you will have to do some extra work to narrow down your topic.

Before you even choose a topic to narrow down, however, try starting with the questions that you have about the course material. What have you encountered, the classes so far or in the assigned readings, that has nudged your interest? What would you like to learn more about? What has caused you to start generating ideas or questions of your own? Choose one of the most compelling of these (please choose something related to the course content, not something like ‘I wonder why that person sitting in front of me has that weird tattoo?’) and then see if it will align with one of the listed essay topics in our course outline. If you can’t see a good match, or if you are wondering whether the idea that interests you would work for a paper, you are welcome to consult your instructor.

Many great essays contain just One Good Idea. This may be a relief to you, if you are worried that you don’t have enough good ideas to write an essay. I’m one of you; honestly, I am happy if I get one good idea every couple of months. If you have just One Good Idea, then you have already narrowed down your topic; the essay will then be focussed on explaining, exploring, and supporting your One Good Idea (often called the ‘thesis’ of the essay). However, if Good Ideas are fizzing out of your brain like lava bombs from a very active volcano, you will need to Focus Focus Focus. You can do this by seeing if some of your many ideas are actually related to each other, and finding their common ground (is there one vent that is spitting out most of the lava bombs?), or by choosing the best of the ideas and making that your One Good Idea (follow the biggest and most exciting lava bomb). You may have to let go of some of your other ideas, possibly with some regret, but you can always write them down somewhere and save them for another paper.

2017-2018 Writing Tips

Tip 1: Write to communicate.

Many students, I darkly suspect, feel that academic writing is an arbitrary and meaningless exercise, invented by teachers as one more silly hoop to jump through in order to pass a course and eventually get a degree. If you feel this way, you will hate every minute that you spend slaving away on your English essays, and the result will probably be awful. So don’t think about academic writing in that way. Rather, remember what the primary purpose of writing should be: to communicate. That means using your words to get your ideas across to a reader. Communication is yours: they’re your words and your ideas. Make your writing meaningful to yourself. But also remember that communication means consideration for your reader. Make your writing meaningful to your reader as well. The primary virtues of good writing are substance (having something worthwhile to say) and clarity (saying it so that others understand it). Those are the basics. The rest are details.

Tip 2: Ask questions and find information.

Practically every essay you write for a university course — that is, anything other than looking deep into yourself and pulling out what you find there — will involve research of some sort. This should not frighten you. All research means, fundamentally, is that you wonder about stuff and then try to find answers. Then you write about what you found.

There are two main types of research sources: primary and secondary sources. As always, all sources must be acknowledged by proper citation.

Primary sources are what you ask questions about. For example, a literary text is usually a primary source. So is data collected from a survey. If you were writing an essay about invented English in Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange, the text of the novel itself would be a primary source. You should probably quote from it fairly often in the essay, so that you have evidence to back up your statements about the text. If you were writing a paper about the use of the term bunnyhug in Saskatchewan English, your primary sources might include people who tell you how they use it, or text from social media platforms or other places on the internet. Your own experiences are also a potential primary source. If you use your own experience, you won’t need a formal citation for it as long as you explain where the information is coming from; and yes, if you are writing about yourself, it is entirely appropriate to use ‘I’.

Secondary sources are published materials that represent others’ research. So, for example, an article about Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange would be a secondary source. A blog post about bunnyhug would be a secondary source. Usually, when students think about research papers, they are thinking about using secondary sources. There are no magic numbers or formulas for how many secondary sources to use or what they should be: it all depends on your topic and your argument. The quality and reliability of secondary sources should always be evaluated thoughtfully. Two good places to read about evaluating research sources are:

University of British Columbia Library, ‘Evaluating Information Sources’

Purdue University, ‘Conducting Research’

Tip 3: Start with your own ideas.

I’ve met many students who seem to think that writing means following a formula, e.g. ‘in an academic essay you need an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph’. Don’t think like this. The problem is that this approach starts with a structure and then you have to squeeze your ideas into it. This is exactly the opposite of what should happen when you write. The point of writing (in this course, anyhow) is to communicate your ideas. I want to read your ideas. So start with your ideas. The structure of your essay (or blog post, or whatever it is) should reflect your ideas, not the other way around.

Even in a ‘research paper’ where you are using secondary sources, it’s important to build your argument with your own ideas. The information you use, and ideas from other people, should be there to support or to contrast with your ideas. Research is not cut-and-pasting a lot of stuff written by other people into your own essay; that doesn’t really take much thought. Good research writing engages critically and intelligently with its sources.

If you start with ideas, you will learn how to adapt to different formats and expectations. If you start with a structure, you’ll be thrown for a loop every time someone asks for a different kind of structure, and it will also be much easier to fall into the deadly trap of writing something with no ideas in it. There is no such thing as a ‘normal essay’. An essay is a shortish thoughtful piece of nonfiction prose that tests your ideas (the word comes from French essayer, to try). It’s an art form. I don’t want you to follow any specific format. I want to read your ideas.

By the way, if your 2000-word essay has only five paragraphs, chances are your paragraphs are going to be too long and rambly. The five-paragraph structure might have been fine for a shorter high school assignment, but it usually doesn’t work very well for a serious university paper.

Tip 4: Construct an argument.

It’s rather unfortunate that we use the word argument to refer to the structure of an academic essay, because it makes us sound like we are always trying to pick fights with other scholars. So let me be clear that what I mean by argument, in the context of a writing an academic paper, is simply that the paper leads the reader to well-supported conclusions. There are two parts to this idea. The first is that the paper should include evidence to support its ideas. Depending on the topic and on what you want to do with it, this evidence could take many forms: quotations from other texts, paraphrases or summaries of what others have written, images or multimedia, information of all kinds, personal experience, previously published research, your own analysis, etc.  The more specific, appropriate, and accurate the evidence is, the more valuable it will be for supporting your conclusions.

So the second part is that the argument should come to some conclusions, which are are your ideas about the material you have assembled as your evidence. They don’t even always have to be very conclusive: perhaps they are a series of intelligent questions raised by the material. (But it is a good idea at least to try to answer some of the questions.) In most university writing assignments, you are not going to solve the problems of the universe in 2000 words, so your conclusions don’t have to be of cosmic import. They just have to be well-supported and thoughtful. It helps if they are interesting, at least to you. Conclusions should answer the question ‘So what?’ Often the conclusions are called the thesis of an essay, but I will deal with that in Writing Tip #6, below.

Sometimes an assigned topic sets you up to argue towards a particular conclusion, e.g. ‘What was the most significant event in the history of the English language?’ That question requires you to pick an event and then argue in support of its significance. More often, though, the topic leaves you to draw your own conclusions. What that means is that you start by gathering information — it could be historical data, or passages from a text that relate to the topic, or quotations from many different sources that use the same word in different ways, for example — and then you look for patterns, trends, contrasts, anomalies, and insights. You connect those, or explain them, or explain the connections between them, and your conclusions should grow out of that analysis. That should also mean that they are your own conclusions, and that’s exactly what you should be aiming for in an essay.

Tip 5: Think of writing as a 3-stage process.

People who teach writing often break it down into a process with three stages. It works. Think of your writing process for an academic essay like this:

  1. Prewriting: this is where you focus on your topic, gather your materials (i.e. ‘do research’), and organise your ideas. Most people don’t spend enough time on this stage, and that is why they get stuck later.
  2. Writing the first draft: if you have done a good job in the Prewriting stage, you should be able to roar through this stage quite quickly. Produce a complete first draft as quickly as you can. Don’t get distracted by fiddling with your spelling or looking up unimportant details — you can deal with those later, in stage 3. The purpose of stage 2 is to form your ideas into an argument and get them written down. If you get stuck at this stage, you need to go back to stage 1 and work some more at getting more information or thinking through your ideas in more detail.
  3. Revision: go through your paper at least two times, working on a different level of revision each time. First, deal with matters of structure and content. Make sure your paragraphs are well-formed, your ideas are in a logical sequence and are connected into an argument, and that all your statements are accurate and specific. Second, proofread the paper for ‘technical aspects’ like spelling, grammar, punctuation, and accuracy and completeness of citations. Then you should be done. Make sure your name is on the first page and that you have a title, and hand it in.

Most people don’t spend enough time in stages 1 and 3 and spend too much time in stage 2. It helps to plan out the process and schedule time for each stage. The University of Saskatchewan even has an online Research Paper Planner tool to help you do this. Try it out for your next paper.

Tip 6: Turn your topic into a thesis (but not necessarily a thesis statement).

You may have been taught that every essay needs a one-sentence thesis statement at the end of your first paragraph. You won’t go too wrong doing that, but here’s the radical idea: you don’t have to. Lots of very good essays don’t follow the one-sentence-thesis-statement-at-the-end-of-the-first-paragraph formula (henceforth ‘the thesis statement formula’ to save us all that hyphenated pain). The thesis statement formula is a device that is taught to beginning essay writers to ensure that they actually create a focussed thesis, turn it into a statement, and put it in a predictable place. But a good writer doesn’t have to follow the formula.

You can state a thesis in lot of ways. It doesn’t have to be entirely encapsulated in one sentence. A complex thesis often takes more than one sentence to explain. In fact, an essay may have more than one main point or thesis. As long as your essay forms an argument that leads to clear and definite conclusions, you are fine. Also, you don’t have to state your conclusions right up front in the first paragraph. Maybe you want to leave the reader in suspense and make the clearest and most comprehensive statement of them at the end of the essay. That’s fine too. Your structure should follow your ideas, not a formula.

A topic is a phrase, but a thesis is a statement. The thesis is the shining, earth-shattering, profound, astonishing, utterly convincing conclusion to which you want your readers to come by the time they finish reading your essay. The topic is just the roadmap or the tourist brochure; the thesis is the place where you want actually to arrive.

For example, a topic might be ‘the standardisation of English spelling.’ Notice that this is (a) a noun phrase without a verb in it, and (b) it doesn’t assert anything. Now you could try turning it into a thesis like this:

‘Standardisation of spelling happened in Modern English.’ This could be a thesis, but it is a pathetically weak one. It lies limply on the page, sloshing around gently in a puddle of its own wishy-washiness. Anyone could make a statement like that without firing more than about half a neuron (I know that’s not possible, but you get my point). It basically just says that something happened, but it doesn’t make me care about it. So let’s try again.

‘Standardisation in the spelling of Modern English happened for social, not linguistic, reasons.’ Now you are saying something meaningful and creating an argument, not just stringing together some facts. The argument now goes beyond ‘what happened?’ to investigate ‘how and why did it happen?’ This is much more likely to produce a strong piece of writing.

‘Standardisation in the spelling of Modern English happened for social rather than linguistic reasons, but those reasons are now so deeply ingrained in English-speaking societies that mastering standardised spelling confers significant social advantages.’ Now this is a really intriguing thesis. It goes beyond the topic to suggest a line of argument and then put a twist in it. It may take you more work to get to this point, but if you write an essay that produces a thesis like this as the place you want your reader to go, and you can present clear and well-organised evidence to get the reader there, you have probably written something good.

Tip 7: Read like a writer.

Every good writer I have met, among professional as well as student writers, reads a lot. There is no better training for writing than to read extensively, across a wide range of different text types, and thoughtfully. Find an example of writing that you consider effective — that is, you enjoyed reading it or were impacted by it in some way. Now look at it closely: why did it work so well? What things did the author do that you might be able to implement in your own writing?

One reason so many students struggle with academic writing is that they never read it in order to learn writing technique — at most, they use academic texts as fodder for research papers, which means that they are reading these texts for content and not for style. So now consider an academic source that you found useful for your last research paper. What do you notice about how it organises information, how it constructs an argument, what kinds of evidence it uses, how it employs citations, what kinds of vocabulary it uses, and how it establishes credibility? You can even analyse an example of academic writing that you found less useful — it was badly organised, difficult to understand, pretentious, unconvincing, unreliable, or pointless — to learn what not to do in your own writing.

Not only should you write for actual readers, you should read like an actual writer. It will take time to build up experience in this way, but it is probably the single most effective thing you can do to improve your writing skills.

Tip 8: Quotation marks demystified.

There are four main reasons to use quotation marks (examples in square brackets to avoid unnecessary punctuational confusion):

(a) When reporting direct speech. [‘Bertie,’ she wailed, ‘how could you do this to me?’]

(b) When quoting directly from a written source. [As Schaeffer notes, ‘the margin of error is negligible’ (201).]

(c) When giving an example of language use or a translation. (You can also use quotation marks to indicate a lexeme, or a word that refers to itself, but I prefer italics for that.) [Old English beforan originally meant ‘in front of’ (OED s.v. before).]

(d) When you are using the word to mean something other than it usually means, because it is sarcastic, or ambiguous, or questionable. (These are sometimes called ‘scare quotes’.) [We listened as the reportedly ‘brilliant’ Professor Clagwort gave us a brilliant display of his ignorance.]

There are two main conventions that govern the use of quotation marks and the punctuation around them. Choose one and commit to it.

British convention (which is what I follow in my posts on this blog) uses single quotation marks (sometimes called ‘inverted commas’) as the default, and double quotation marks only in a quotation within a quotation. Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks when it belongs to whatever is being quoted, and outside the quotation marks when it doesn’t. The examples in square brackets in items (a) through (d) above follow British convention.

North American convention uses double quotation marks as the default, and single quotation marks only in a quotation within a quotation. Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks, and colons and semicolons go outside. Question marks and exclamation points go inside the quotation marks if they belong to the quotation and outside if they don’t.

In both conventions, if a quotation is followed by a parenthetical citation, the end punctuation for the sentence goes after the citation. See the examples in (b) and (c) above.


  • [British convention] ‘Officer Khan testified that the supposed “crisis” was “not a real emergency”. Very few citizens were affected’, according to one report (Sanchez 23).
  • [North American convention] “Officer Khan testified that the supposed ‘crisis’ was ‘not a real emergency.’ Very few citizens were affected,” according to one report (Sanchez 23).

It is becoming quite common to use single quotation marks around single words (uses [c] and [d] above) and double quotation marks for phrases, sentences, and quotations from spoken or written sources (uses [a] and [b] above). DON’T DO THIS. Go default single (British) or default double (North American); don’t flip back and forth like an unprincipled, indecisive, lost soul. In other words, DO NOT write

  • [No one’s convention; avoid this] “Officer Khan testified that the supposed ‘crisis’ was “not a real emergency.” Very few citizens were affected”, according to one report. (Sanchez 23) [Aargh! Gag!]

Full disclosure: one of my recent published papers (a chapter in a collection of essays) performs exactly this horrible punctuational vacillation, even though I protested; apparently I was overruled by the copyeditor or the publisher’s house rules or whatever. I have no other complaints about the publisher, who did a noble job in all other respects. Maybe there’s yet another set of conventions in Belgium.

If you want a rambly, gloriously confusing discussion of the differences between British and North American punctuation conventions, try this: https://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2011/may/19/mind-your-language-punctuation-quotations

Tip 9: Avoid VUGs.

VUG is an acronym I invented for ‘Vast Unsupportable Generalisation’. VUGs are sweeping claims that you couldn’t possibly find enough evidence to support, and even if you did, you couldn’t present all the evidence convincingly within the word limit of your writing assignment. It doesn’t really matter whether the VUG is true; the point is that your sceptical reader is not likely to assume it is true, because you can’t support it.

An example of a VUG is a statement like ‘Since the beginning of history, people have always looked for better ways to communicate’. Any time you try to fit all of human history, or the entire universe, or anything else that huge, into one sentence, you are probably creating a VUG. Are you seriously going to show me evidence of this statement for every single human being since the beginning of history? I doubt it. And if you can’t supply the evidence to support this claim, don’t make it. Furthermore, this statement is demonstrably false; what about the people who try to confuse others rather than communicate with them, or antisocial people who don’t want to communicate with others, or people who simply don’t care about looking for better ways to communicate and muddle along with the methods they are used to? In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that most people aren’t spending their waking hours trying to find better ways to communicate. All it takes is one counterexample to falsify a VUG.

It is better to be more modest but more accurate in your claims. Go back to the topic of your essay. Chances are you haven’t been asked to write about human communication since the beginning of history (and if that is really your topic, give up now). So don’t bother trying to make a statement about it. If you must make a statement about an idea that huge, at least qualify it so that it’s more reasonable. Take out ‘since the beginning of history’ and that deadly absolute ‘always’. Try something like ‘At various points in history, some people have tried to find better ways to communicate’. But even that sentence isn’t really specific enough. What points in history? What people? So revise it again, and now we’re getting to the real information: ‘The invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, in the middle of the fifteenth century, made mass-produced written communication more viable than ever before.’ That’s much more meaningful than a VUG.

Tip 10: Recognise the differences between scholarly and non-scholarly sources.

Not all information out there is created and published in the same way. An important distinction to make is between scholarly and non-scholarly research sources. What makes as information source scholarly is, essentially, a combination of the credentials of the author and the publishing process. The scholarly community has developed, over centuries, standards and procedures designed to encourage reliable information to be published and questionable or non-reliable information to be screened out. Its methods are obviously not foolproof (lots of garbage has been published even in scholarly sources) but they are implemented for good reasons.

So check the credentials of the author. A good scholarly source will always identify the author, so that you can do so. Obviously a grade-6 student doesn’t have the credentials of a professor of economics when it comes to, say, explaining capitalism. Most scholarly sources are written by professional academics because they have had years of training to become knowledgeable in a specific field of expertise, and they also get paid to put extensive amounts of time and energy into this sort of writing. But note: an expert in one field of knowledge may not be an expert in another. Just because I have a PhD in English literature does not mean I am an expert in economics — actually, it probably means I’m not, and if you have passed a first-year economics course, you probably know more about economics than I do.

So there is also a system of publishing to ensure that scholarly sources have high standards for accuracy and good research. The most reliable scholarly sources are published after peer review. This means they have been read through by at least one other expert in the field (usually at least two) before they are allowed to be published. University presses and scholarly journals all use this peer-review system. That is why checking the publisher of the book, or the credentials of the journal, is important.

Non-scholarly sources may not be written by people with academic credentials, and they are usually not peer-reviewed. This does not mean that they are less valuable or less reliable than scholarly sources. You should certainly feel free to use non-scholarly secondary sources when appropriate. But the system of checks and filters used by scholarly publishing won’t be there, so you do have to exercise your own judgement about the reliability of non-scholarly sources. Check above, in Tip 2, for a couple of links to good websites that will explain how to evaluate research sources.

Incidentally, there are now many bogus ‘academic journals’ that often claim to be peer-reviewed but are basically scams that will publish anything as long as the author pays. Sometimes good work can be published in these, but in these cases publication is not a guarantee of quality. It’s a jungle out there. If you have any doubts about the credibility of a research source, feel free to ask your instructor to check it out for you.

Tip 11: How to write an exam.

Now that exam time is coming up, here’s a final writing tip about how to write exams. However, I’ll start with a disclaimer: two days before the test is probably too late to tell you how to ace it. Truth is, if the exam is well designed and truly tests your knowledge of the subject, you should have been reviewing and studying and processing and understanding the material from the very beginning of the course. Studying for an exam a couple of days before should be simply a review of what you already know. It’s probably too late to learn it now if you didn’t learn it before — that is, to do well, the material should now be in your long-term memory and the course skills should be in your skillset.

With that (possibly depressing) statement behind us, there are still some things you can do to raise your chances of doing well on an exam.

  • Get a good sleep the night before (if you can). It is better to study half the material, go to sleep, and remember it for the exam, than to stay up all night to study all the material and forget it all during the exam because you are so sleep-deprived.
  • Make sure you are well fed and well hydrated. Your brain needs energy to function well, and dehydration has been shown to have (bad) measurable effects on brain function also.
  • Read the instructions and the exam questions very carefully. Every word matters. If you don’t understand the question, or don’t understand what kind of answer is expected, you should ask the instructor. Things to watch for:
    • what kind of answer does the question ask for? an example, a definition, a technical term, an IPA symbol, a modern English word, a sentence?
    • how many answers are expected for the question? If it asks for ‘a minimal pair’, that’s two words, obviously.
    • what are the parameters placed by the question? E.g. does it ask specifically for 17th-century examples, or standard Modern English words, or people who lived before 1900?
  • If there is a section on the exam that gives you a choice of topics or questions to respond to, make it very clear in your answer which option you have chosen.
  • Give the most specific answer(s) that the question asks for. The number of marks assigned to each question may give you a clue. A question that is worth more marks probably requires a more specific answer, a longer answer, or multiple answers. So if the question is ‘Give an example of a non-Indo-European language’ (2 marks), the answer ‘sign language’ is not sufficient (there are many different sign languages).
  • In my exams, I take the first answer(s) that the question asks for, no matter how many answers you provide. So if the question asks for two answers and you give me five, I will take the first two and disregard the rest. Therefore, you need to decide which answers you are seriously giving, because the rest won’t count, even if they are right.
  • In my exams, I don’t subtract marks for wrong answers, so even if you don’t know the answer to a question, try anyway. You never know. At the very least, you could write something tastefully witty, or draw a happy cartoon, and put your marker in a good mood.

Tip 12: Organise your ideas.

One common way to teach essay-writing is to give students a format to follow. You may have been taught to follow a ‘keyhole’ diagram (general-specific-general) or to have three main points corresponding to three body paragraphs in every essay. This approach will only take you so far — probably only as far as graduating from high school. For the rest of your life, or at least for the rest of your university life, you will need to think more carefully about essay structure.

There is no one structure for a good essay. The structure of your writing should reflect the structure of your argument. Here are a few things you can do to figure out what that is:

(a) Identify the main points or important clusters of ideas that you want to communicate. These could be statements or subtopics. For example, suppose that your essay is about the history of South African English. In your research, you noticed that there is a lot of vocabulary in this regional dialect that is specific to the geography and cultural context of South Africa. You also noticed that there are borrowings from other languages like Zulu and Afrikaans. You also want to say something, but not very much, about pronunciation.

(b) Take another look at the topic and ask yourself if it suggests a structure. For example, a comparison-contrast essay can be organised a couple of different ways to set up parallels between the two things being compared; a historical essay might be organised chronologically; a critique can summarise an argument and then assess its major ideas point by point. In the case of our South African English essay, you might notice that it is supposed to be historical, so you should make sure you don’t just describe the distinctive features of the dialect but also how they came to be.

(c) Decide what your least and most important/interesting points are. In the absence of any other very obvious organising principle, try to build toward your strongest point. That means, again to use our example, that if you have the least to say about pronunciation, you should discuss it first and then move on to other things you really want to write about. Maybe it’s the multilingual environment of South Africa that you think is the most important factor in making South African English what it is today. So that should be the point you save for last.

(d) Now you are ready to lay out your argument, but when you do so, remember that there may be different ways of doing it. For example, you could present the history of South African English as a story, starting from the first arrival of English speakers to South Africa and the linguistic challenges they faced, and then dealing with stages in the development of the dialect to the present day. Or, alternatively, you could organise our argument by linguistic feature, starting with phonology and ending with lexicon, and in each section explaining first what the distinctive features of South African English are in that aspect of the dialect and then explaining where they came from. There may be yet more effective ways of structuring this essay. It’s up to you to choose a structure and to make it work.

Notice that nowhere in here have I explained how many paragraphs the essay should have. That’s because it doesn’t matter as much as figuring out the main points and how to organise them. If you do that job well, you will probably find that the essay naturally develops a sequence of paragraphs.