Assess your paper, part 3
..........Do you communicate clearly?
Third--and more difficult: How well do
- Did you organize your paper in a way that's
appropriate to the topic and type
of paper you've written--a report
or an essay? The crucial question is not whether your
paper matches a standard format for an essay or report. Instead:
Does the structure of your paper help your
reader to grasp easily the ideas you want to communicate?
- Structure aside, do you communicate your
ideas in a way that an intelligent reader will find interesting
and easy to follow? A few pointers
for this huge topic are:
- Writing well is hard work! Be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to write
a first draft, and then let it rest for a few days. Then you
can read, assess, and revise your paper with a fresh eye.
- Have you expressed your ideas in your
own words, or does your paper consist
of a string of quotations? If the quotations are correctly
documented, you will avoid academic dishonesty, but excessive
quoting will suggest either that you're overly fearful of plagiarism
or that you didn't take enough time to reflect on your reading:
that you haven't fully "digested" your material.
- Use the ACTIVE rather than the passive
mood. Go through your paper: wherever
you find that you've used the passive mood, change it to the
active mood. At times you'll judge that the passive mood is appropriate--but
this will be rare.
- Passive mood:
"The coffee was spilled on the floor because of an accident
tripping over the cat, resulting in some regrettably bad language."
The passive mood ("the coffee was spilled") invites
grammatical blunders, wordiness, and loss of clarity. Who spilled
the coffee, did an accident really trip over a cat, and who used
bad language--the cat?
- ACTIVE MOOD: "I
tripped over the cat, spilled my coffee on the floor, and used
some regrettably bad language." See how the active mood
("I tripped ... and spilled ... and used bad language")
clarifies things? And unless your professor specifically forbids
it, don't be afraid to use the first person ("I") as
it will help greatly with clarity.
- Does your writing tend to be over-compressed,
wordy, or a mixture of the two? Over-compression
and wordiness both cause loss of clarity, but how do you find
and resolve the problem? Go through your paper slowly--reading
aloud. If the spoken word sounds wrong, then there's
a problem with the written word. Revise until it sounds right.
Add clarifying words, phrases, or even sentences to over-compressed
writing. And look for ways to simplify wordiness. Cut redundant
phrases, and replace wordy phrases with a simple word or two.
For example: "at the present time" converts easily
to "now" or "today." Also, consider your
choice of words--as I discuss below.
- Use small words; be sparing with big ones. Some students think--or even have been taught--that
the writer of a scholarly paper should use big words to make
their work seem more professional. Not so. A simple writing style
is far more clear, and hence more professional. Or, as G. K.
Chesterton explains in the passage below, "The long words
are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard":
Most of the machinery of modern language is
labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much
more than it ought. . . . Long words go rattling by us like long
railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too
tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is
a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion
one holds in words of one syllable. If you say "The social
utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists
as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane
and scientific view of punishment," you can go on talking
like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter
inside your skull. But if you begin "I wish Jones to go
to gaol [jail] and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,"
you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged
to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short
words that are hard.1
- An excellent, concise, and gracefully
written guide to clear writing may
be found in Menzel, Jones, and Boyd's Writing
a Technical Paper. The authors wrote this
book with the scientist in mind--Menzel was an astrophysicist--but
anyone who wants to improve his or her writing will benefit greatly
from studying chapter 4, "Grammar," and Chapter 5,
"Style." The book was published in 1961, so some of
the other chapters--such as the one on preparation of a hard
copy manuscript--are out of date.
- See also "Style in Writing"
on pages 193-225 of the 11th edition of Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing About Art
1G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
(1908; reprint, Garden City, New York: Image Books, a division
of Doubleday& Company, 1959) 124.
© Jan Mainzer