Because many postcollegiate careers require facility in written communication, students should write frequently and receive prompt, constructive criticism of their efforts. We all can benefit from a close examination of our written work by those able to suggest improvements in format, content, style, grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Do your utmost on every essay, so that your readers will know where you are in the pursuit of excellence. In this model essay we provide suggestions to help you improve your writing.
All essays require a title. Choose the title carefully. Make it appealing and informative. You might start with a working title and then revise to reflect what you eventually write:
Working title: Sage Suggestions to Student Scribes
Revised title: Several Suggestions for Better Essays
Final title: An Essay on Short Essays
Although uncommon and often unnecessary in short essays, subheadings appear here as an instructional tool. Subheadings help the reader immensely as essay length and complexity increase. For more guidance, see the Almost Done section.
Even if subheadings seem inappropriate for your paper, by all means use paragraphs to assist the reader. Focus on a goal of, say, five related sentences per paragraph, and then vary the number depending on the topic. Paragraphs should in almost all cases (99 percent) contain more than one sentence. If you discover a paragraph of only one sentence, add sentences to that paragraph, combine the lonesome sentence with another paragraph, drop the sentence, or leave it (and prepare to defend your decision).
For all paragraphs, no matter what the length, your reader should be able to identify the key (topic) sentence. In fact, write so that the reader who scans the essay for topic sentences can learn the essay’s gist from them. Try scanning the essay you are now reading for topic sentences. In this paragraph, as is often the case, the topic sentence comes first.
Use your initial paragraph(s) as an introduction to the subject of the essay. Some writers like to cite an incident from their personal experience.
No matter how you structure the introduction, however, use it to interest your reader and to prepare him or her for what follows. The end of paragraph one is a good place for the thesis statement of the essay.
Paragraphs found between the first and last constitute the body of a short essay. Use the body to make your argument. Keep your reader interested here and throughout your essay by varying the wording, length, and structure of your sentences.
Use the ending to collect your thoughts and to exit gracefully from the essay. Do not merely end the paper with the last of your points about the topic. On the other hand, seldom is it necessary in a short essay to list again all your main points. Conclusions (and introductions) tax most of us more than does the body. Some writers prefer to do the body first, then the conclusion, then the introduction, and finally the title.
Use sentences of various lengths. Avoid grammatical sentence fragments lest your reader suspect you of being a poor writer. Know, however, that an occasional emphatic fragment, like “Nuts!” (attributed to an American general, Anthony McAuliffe, at Bastogne in World War II), spices your prose and in no way calls into question your writing ability.Experiment with the relative placement of sentence parts. Instead of beginning all your sentences with the subject and following with the predicate, which quickly becomes boring, use a periodic structure (as it is done in this sentence). With the periodic sentence, items of a lesser nature precede the heart of the sentence:
Boring: The map lacks a legend because the designer forgot.
Better: Because the designer forgot, the map lacks a legend.
Choose the forceful active voice over the feeble passive. Instead of having your subject receive the action, make your subject the actor. Doing so saves words and keeps your reader informed about who did what to whom. Examples follow:
Passive: Computers will be used more frequently by cartographers in the future.
Active: Cartographers, in the future, will use computers more frequently.
Passive: I am being asked by my geography professor to write better.
Active: My geography professor is asking me to write better.
Passive: The Colorado Riverwas explored by John Wesley Powell.
Active: John Wesley Powellexplored the Colorado River.
Passive: It is believed geographers should write in the active voice.
Active: I believe that geographers should write in the active voice.
Choose words carefully. Although it is fine to begin some sentences with the, a series of five in a row tends to annoy the observant reader. Habitually notice first words (I is another word to watch) when you proof. If you find repetition of the first word or others, seek an alternative word. Consult a dictionary if you are not absolutely certain that the new word says what you want. Sometimes recasting the offending sentence is easier than finding the right synonym.
Silly Errors to Avoid
Silly errors leave your reader wondering whether you did not know the correct way or overlooked the errors in your haste to finish. Neither conclusion flatters you. Here is a list of common mistakes that students make in papers:
Using contractions in formal prose: don’t, wasn’t, it’s.
Choosing the wrong word: principal confused with principle, its confused with it is or it’s, affect with effect, thier with there, to with too, complimentary with complementary.
Making up a word: alot instead of a lot.
Employing pronouns (this, it, these, those) whose antecedents are unclear: This is confusing.
Failing to follow years, states, and countries with commas: January 5, 1943, was the date; Kansas City, Missouri, was the place.
Failing to space properly around the dash and the hyphen: dash–dash, hyphen-hyphen.
Do not allow a single draft to satisfy you; use subsequent drafts to improve your composition. Check your spelling after the first draft, and edit later drafts for typographical errors and superfluous words. Ask someone you trust (who knows about writing) to examine your work. Polish your final product as others polish their classic auto or fine silver. Be proud to turn in the results of your efforts.
Now make final preparations for submission. Center the title above the text and two inches from the top of the sheet. Use only capital letters. Italicize those parts of your title that ordinarily require italics, such as the name of a book, newspaper, magazine, or journal. For the typewriter and many word processors, underlining is the equivalent of italics. Begin the first paragraph on the third line below the title. Indent the first word of all paragraphs five to seven spaces. Double-space all text, including block quotations and footnotes. Employ margins of one inch on the sides and bottom of all pages and on the top after the first page.
If you need subheadings, keep the following rules in mind. First, leave two blank lines (triple-space) between the last line of the previous section and the subheading; leave one blank line (doublespace) below the subheading. Second, center the subheading between the margins (high priority); or begin the first word flush with the left margin (lower priority). Third, increase the priority of a subheading by italicizing it. In priority order, therefore, from highest to lowest, you may choose subheadings that you (1) center and italicize, (2) center but do not italicize, (3) set flush with the left margin and italicize, and (4) set flush with the left margin but do not italicize. Fourth, whenever you use a subheading at a particular priority level, you must employ at least one other subheading at that level in that portion of the essay. Finally, capitalize the first and last words plus all other words of the subheading except a, an, but, for, nor, or, the, to (when an infinitive, as in Learning to Write Environmental Impact Statements), and prepositions.
If the essay requires more than one page, use additional sheets of paper–not the back sides. Number the sheets in some convenient spot, such as bottom center. For short essays, use no cover sheet or fancy binder. Secure multiple sheets, in the proper order, with a staple (slanted like a virgule [/]) in the top lefthand corner. Place your name and the date in the top right-hand comer of the first page.
Writing (especially good writing) requires hard work. Strive for improvement; profit from constructive criticism.