for Good Writing
Copyright 2005 by Richard F. Hirsh
Richard F. Hirsh
Professor, History and STS (0117)
Blacksburg, VA 24061
Send e-mail to Professor Hirsh at
Here are some useful tips for writing papers that earn good grades in my
- Generally, I will give high grades to papers that I can
read quickly. In other words, if the papers are interesting, have few
typographical errors, grammatical problems, etc., they will receive high
grades. If I need to correct spelling, grammar, sentence structure and so
on, I will be slowed down, and I will lose track of your major arguments.
So, your goal should be to write papers that I can read quickly!
- Though you are not learning to be journalists, at least
one journalistic technique will prove useful, at least in writing short
papers. Namely, consider writing an interesting first paragraph that
broadly outlines the goal and main theme of the paper. In successive
paragraphs, develop those themes introduced in the first. This technique
provides the reader with important information quickly and efficiently.
(In journalism, this technique is often referred to as the "inverted
pyramid," in which 80% of the story content can be obtained in the
- Use interestingly written topic sentences near the
beginning of each paragraph. We sometimes forget this simple approach,
taught to us in grade school, in the hope that more convoluted and
"sophisticated" paragraph structures make us appear more
- Avoid phrases that use lots of commas. For example:
"This book represented, in general, a good effort."
Better: "In general, this book represented a good effort."
Best: "This book represented a good effort." (Consider whether you
truly need the modifier, "in general.")
- Use shorter rather than longer sentences. Long
sentences that have lots of parenthetical phrases are hard to digest and
understand. Also, you will find that you often use more words than
necessary to convey an idea. Write economically, as if every word costs
you money! Of course, you don't want lots of short, choppy sentences
either. You'll need to find a balance between the two extremes.
- Read your papers aloud. If you can't read a sentence
without gasping for breath, it is too long. Moreover, listen to yourself.
Do the sentences sound like something you would say in public?
- Avoid passive voice. (For example: "It was
decided..." Who made the decision?) Also shun the verb "to
be." Use active verbs instead. They make sentences more lively.
- Don't start a sentence with the words "What,"
as in "What I'm arguing is..." because it usually means you'll
use the verb "to be." You can write the sentence better
without this construction. ("I argue that...) Of course,
use "What" if the sentence is a question. ("What is
going on?" she asked.)
- Likewise, don't start a sentence with the word
"Which" unless it is a question, as in "Which is why the
president signed the bill." You may see this construction in
the popular press, but it is incorrect, since the sentence doesn't
properly contain a subject.
- Don't internalize knowledge. From your readings, you
will have become very familiar with a certain subject and its jargon.
Don't assume that your readers know as much as you do. If you use
specialized terms or expressions, provide short definitions of them.
- When you use pronouns such as "this" and
"it," make sure they clearly refer to the appropriate nouns.
Consider these sentences: "The motor in the first French automobile
evolved well before its introduction in America. This proves
the hypothesis offered by F.W. Langweilig." What does the
"its" refer to? The "motor" or the
"automobile?" And what does "This" refer to? In other
words, be careful when you use such pronouns.
- Remember that "it's" means "it
is." Don't use "it's" instead of the possessive
"its." Know the difference.
- Please proofread papers and use spell-checkers,
dictionaries, etc. I dislike correcting typing and spelling errors.
- I encourage you to have colleagues read and edit your
drafts before you turn them in to me.
- Avoid using the same words (especially verbs and nouns)
in the same sentence or paragraph. Employ different words to provide
variety and interest. Utilize a thesaurus if necessary. (See how I avoided
the word "use" in each of the last three sentences? On the other
hand, I dislike the word "utilize." It sounds too formal and
- Technically, you should not use split infinitives. (For
example, "to boldly go...")
- Avoid clichés like the plague. (A joke, but do you get
the first tip: quickly read papers get the highest grades!
Finally, here are a few links to sites that can help you with your writing:
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