Chapter 8: Writing in University: It’s All About the Process!
A draft that exceeds the page requirements for your essay is just fine; the wordy, repetitive nature of first drafts means that when you edit, you will end up with fewer pages anyhow. If you have fewer pages than required for an essay, think about improving and expanding explanation and examples to what you’ve already drafted.
Once you’ve written a draft, you can start editing. After editing, you will be proofreading.
What’s the difference between editing and proofreading? For now, think of it this way: editing is the large-scale work of moving paragraphs, reorganizing sentences, reading for meaning and clarity, cutting repetition, and adding information. Proofreading is the smaller-scale work of fixing punctuation, spelling, grammar, and typos.
Editing consists of many tasks, including checking whether sentences are clear and precise, whether the purpose of the assignment has been fulfilled, and whether the essay is clearly organized. You will check paragraphs for cohesiveness, and for whether they connect clearly to your thesis statement. Does your essay need some transitions to make connections between sentences and paragraphs clearer? Is the language in your essay clear? Precise? Is the tone formal enough? Does your conclusion re-emphasize your main argument and convey a sense of completeness?
Principles of Good Writing to Keep in Mind While Editing
When you read something “good,” chances are that it’s clear, concise, has a variety of sentence structures, and uses exact language.
- Clarity: Clear writing is nearly invisible in the sense that you aren’t thinking about the fact that it’s clear; it’s just easy to read. You’ll notice that with unclear writing, you will have to re-read certain passages or paragraphs, struggling to understand it. However, this can happen with clear, good writing in academic journals because the journal articles are written for experts in the field, not for undergraduate student readers. Textbooks should be clearer because they’re written to you as their audience. If they aren’t clear, they are probably poorly written! Clarity is more difficult to achieve in one’s writing than in speech since so many non-verbal cues are missing on the static page (such as facial expression, tone of voice, gestures, body language, and so on). Clear writing might seem easy to do because it’s so plain, but it requires planning and revision. Here are a few pieces of advice: a) in the drafting stage, don’t write for your professor or for a similarly intimidating reader. Instead, write the first draft for yourself (one student told me that he writes his first draft so that his grandmother could understand him!). This is so that you understand what it is you’re trying to say rather than trying to sound impressive (which usually leads to incomprehensible prose); b) in your revisions, ask yourself whether you’re using plain language, a much-respected style of writing that favors clarity through the use of audience awareness, logical organization, active voice, short sentences (fewer than 20 words), strong verbs, and familiar language.
- Conciseness: Concise writing strongly affects clarity. Imagine a weedy vegetable garden: there are the plants that are needed for eating, and there are the weeds that are choking out those plants. Think of your prose in the same way: there are words that have a job, and words that are unnecessary and in the way. Your reader will have to pick through those words to find the good stuff.
Read your drafts aloud to find the following:
- Long, repetitive, awkward sentences: break longer sentences into smaller ones. Cut out repetition. Play with word order and the order of phrases to reduce awkwardness.
- Unnecessary words: shave off all of those “word whiskers” such as “very” “perhaps,” “really,” and unnecessary inclusions of “that.”
- Weak verbs, such as “is,” “was,” “were,” “to be,” “have,” “has,” and “had”: Prefer stronger verbs, or look for nouns in your sentences that you can promote to verbs. For example, “The crime rate was on the rise” can be revised to “The crime rate rose.” The noun “rise” is promoted to a verb and now replaces the weak verb “was.”
- Combine sentences: when you start a new sentence, you must repeat information from the previous sentence to maintain context. For example, the paragraph, “The poem has a normative line that is clearly iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is used in sonnets. Because this poem has fourteen lines ending with a rhyming couplet, and because its normative line is iambic pentameter, it is a sonnet.” This can be revised to “With iambic pentameter and fourteen lines ending with a couplet, this poem is a sonnet.”
- Finally, the best piece of advice I received from an old professor: press “Control” and the “F” on your keyboard to find these words in your drafts: IS, TO BE, OF, BY, WHICH, THAT, WHO, and WHOM.
Wordy: His intention was not to ruin the flowerbed.
Better: He did not intend to ruin the flowerbed.
Wordy: The voice of the speaker is sounding angry.
Better: The speaker’s voice sounds angry.
Wordy: The French king who is known for his rich taste is Louis the VIII.
Better: France’s Louis the VIII is known for his rich tastes.
Wordy: Due to the fact that he was invited to run for president of the group, Murray became more confident.
Better: Because* the group invited Murray to run for president, he became more confident.
- Sentence Variety: Did you know that there are only four types of sentences in the English language? Good writing includes all four: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Simple sentences tend to be shorter, and the rest of the sentence types are a little longer. That’s not the only difference between them. They also can show connections between things in different ways. Good writers don’t necessarily know that they’re including a variation of sentence structures, but you can make your writing less choppy and more fluent (think of making your writing “flow”) by varying sentence structures.
- Exact Language: Choose your words with care. When we read unclear writing, sometimes it’s because it contains vague language. Can you defend every word that is chosen? Are you being specific? Are you misusing words (e.g., “uninterested” means something very different than “disinterested”)? Are you relying on clichés (e.g., “since the dawn of time,” “give it 110%”)? Watch out for the following words: “I feel that”; “Society”; “thing”; “nice”; “many”; “really” and “very.”
After you’ve done some work on editing, and you’re satisfied with your draft in terms of organization and content (try to read it aloud to catch any incoherencies or repetition), start the process of proofreading. Before you begin proofreading, I would strongly recommend putting away your draft for several hours so that you approach it with fresh eyes.
Check with your campus whether you can download and use Read and Write software for free. Read and Write helps students with reading (e.g., text to speech, pronunciation), writing (e.g., word prediction, audio maker), studying (e.g., highlighter tool), and research. If you are an English language learner, Read and Write can be particularly helpful.
This chapter focused on the process of writing more than the products of writing (such as essays, reports, and reviews) because there is great diversity in the types of writing you will do in post-secondary education. Having a process that works, and which spaces many required tasks over time, will be the key to approaching any kind of writing challenge. Adapt the approaches outlined in this chapter with your preferred approaches to learning.
A final piece of advice: Remember to find your own academic voice. You can do this by relying on good evidence and by using your imagination and creativity to question and to connect the ideas and facts you encounter. Making imaginative and logical connections between different sources, and thinking critically about what you read and learn is how you go from good work to excellent work.
Good writing, then, is not only about correct spelling and sentence structure. Higher-order concerns also should be a strong thesis, clear focus, attention to audience and purpose, logical organization, and full development of ideas and arguments (OWL Purdue “Higher Order and Lower Order Concerns”).