Assess your paper, part 3
..........Do you communicate clearly?

Third--and more difficult: How well do you communicate?

  • 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 voice (also called active and passive moods). Go through your paper: wherever you find that you've used the passive voice, change it to the active voice. At times you'll judge that the passive voice is appropriate--but this will be rare.

      • Passive voice: "The coffee was spilled on the floor because of an accident tripping over the cat, resulting in some regrettably bad language." The passive voice ("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 VOICE: "I tripped over the cat, spilled my coffee on the floor, and used some regrettably bad language." See how the active voice ("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.

        For more information on active and passive voice see the excellent Passive Voice Handout developed by the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
    • 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