Writing Better Papers

The college experience wouldn’t be complete without constantly cranking out papers. Whether it’s a short, essay-style reflection or an in-depth twelve-page research paper, the unending writing assignments can make you feel like a human word factory! And the fact is: there is always room for improvement when it comes to our writing. If you’re managing to pull off straight A’s for every paper you turn in, maybe you don’t feel it as much. But most of us are aware there’s room for growth! Listed here, for your benefit, are a couple easy and practical ways to improve your writing overnight.

Be Organized. No matter the type of paper, it’s important to be direct and know where you’re going. In an effort to be concise, it’s helpful to construct an outline before you start writing, even if it’s super short and simple. This will help you avoid tangents and stay on track. If you’re not able to identify your thesis statement, you’re not writing clearly enough. It’s often best to keep your paragraphs fairly short (this is also easier on your reader’s eyes) and when possible, use headings to break your writing down into manageable chunks (as in this article).

Keep It Simple. Good writing is clean and uncluttered. If it’s hard to understand, what’s the point? It’s not strong communication. Resist the urge to use flowery language or sound smart. Say what you mean; mean what you say. Watch for redundancy like a hawk, and don’t let yourself become repetitive. When you notice you’ve used the same word back to back (even in the same paragraph) check your thesaurus and use a fresh term! Cut all unnecessary words as they only add noise to your writing. My favorite English professor taught us to avoid using “very” and I’ve found he’s right! Another hint from him: consider cutting out your first paragraph once you’re done writing. Often what we say first is an attempted “warm up” as we get our thoughts flowing; it ends up being unproductive to the larger body of writing. I’m surprised by how often this ends up being the case!

Vary Sentences and Punctuation. When sentence structures stay the same, readers get bored. Change it up! Ideally you should have longer sentences interspersed with shorter ones which breaks up monotony. The same is true with punctuation. Learn to effectively use colons, semi-colons, dashes and an occasional parenthesis. Like ornaments or notations in a musical piece, creating beautiful changes in dynamics and sound, punctuation adds interest, variety and better flow to your writing. Take advantage! However, be wary of using punctuation inaccurately as it can also become a distraction. One of the most overused punctuation marks is the comma. One general rule of thumb for when to use a comma is this: if two parts of a sentence can stand alone, break them apart with a comma. Otherwise you can generally leave it out.

Use Striking Imagery. No one likes dull writing. Spice up your papers with some commanding language and sensory imagery. Help your reader hear, smell, taste and imagine what you’re writing about. This is important even when you’re writing nonfiction. If your first sentence doesn’t grab attention in some way, your audience–and yes, even your professor–will not engage. Good writing compels the reader with a “why” and presents information as important and necessary! Ditch cliché whenever possible. Don’t write phrases like “in my opinion” or “in conclusion.” Instead, simply state your opinion or conclusion. And trade out adverbs (descriptive words ending in “ly”) for more descriptive phrases. For example, instead of saying “the car drove slowly” say “the car crawled down the narrow street.” It simply more creative and interesting.

Proof Read. Once you’re done with your paper, go back through it carefully to check for errors. Be ruthless in this task! Half our writing problems could be fixed if we simply slowed down to re-read and re-think. It an attempt to keep my writing simple and straightforward, I’ve found it helpful to set a goal of cutting a given number of words (maybe 100 from a shorter paper, and 300-400 from a longer one) right off the top of my “finished” work. This causes me to comb back through my writing for unwanted “debris.” It keeps things understated and readable. A critical eye is key to becoming a better writer. If after employing your own you still aren’t improving, borrow the eyes of another good writer and let their feedback sharpen you further.