Tips

This page is meant to provide you with suggestions on the writing process. Most of these tips are geared towards a Writing 100 or English assignment, but can, of course, be adapted for other disciplines. If you are looking for information about grammar or punctuation, try the mechanics page.

Style Tips:

Appointment Tips

To ensure that you can get the time that's best for you, it's a good idea to schedule your appointment at least two days in advance. We do accept walk-ins, but we cannot guarantee that a tutor will be available at any given time.

We realize that things come up, and you cannot always keep your appointment. If this happens, please call ahead so we may give the time slot to someone else. If you are 15 minutes late for an appointment, we will assume you are not coming, and we will accept any walk-ins at that point. In either case, you are always free to reschedule.

Because sessions last only 50 minutes, it is best to come with a specific goal in mind. Do you want to brainstorm ideas to get started? Do you want to work on organization? Are you concerned about the appropriateness of the language for your audience? Are you saying too much or too little about your topic? Make the most of your time by having a goal.

Also keep in mind that the tutor might bring up an issue you might not have thought of before. If you disagree, that's not a problem at all – this is your piece of writing. We encourage you to keep an open mind, but we realize that you must decide what will work best for your audience.

Try not to come in the day your paper is due. Leave enough time after the session to reflect on what you discussed with the tutor and to make changes, if necessary. You may also want to schedule another appointment to discuss the paper further before handing it in.

If you make an appointment for an academic piece, please bring a copy of the assignment with you so that both you and the tutor know exactly what is expected. If you have any questions about the assignment, it's always best, if possible, to ask your professor about it before you come in for your session.

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Getting Started

If you are given an assignment, read it over several times to be sure you understand it. Don't be afraid to ask questions if something is unclear.

Immediately jot down some ideas. What are your thoughts on the topic? How much do you know about it? You might even want to choose a position for your paper right away.

If you are not given a specific topic, you will have to do some extra brainstorming before you begin writing. Again, consider what you know about the general topic, and what interests you about it. For instance, if the paper must be about Hamlet, but the instructor did not specify any topic, you have a wide variety of choices. You could discuss whether or not you think Hamlet was insane, the importance of the ghost, the role of Ophelia, or a multitude of other topics.

Now that you have a topic and possibly a position on it, will you need to do outside research? If so, start gathering sources right away. A good place to start is the James P. Adams library at Rhode Island College (http://www.ric.edu/adamslibrary/). Our library also offers access to the HELIN system, used by Rhode Island Universities, which allows you to request books from the comfort of your own home (or one of the computer labs) and have them sent to the RIC library.

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Organization

Once you have a topic, a position, and some extra sources for backup...what now? For starters, it might help you to make a list of the major points you want to include in your paper. This can also help you if you have not yet chosen a position for your topic. Here is an example of what this might look like:

Hamlet's mad Hamlet's sane
  1. He sees a ghost

  2. He speaks in circles

  3. He plays with Ophelia's emotions
  1. Other characters see it too

  2. He told his friends he would seem mad

  3. Ophelia hurt him; he could be acting out of jealousy or revenge

This side-by-side method can be very effective for persuasive writing. You have your opposition's point of view right in front of you, so you can easily disprove it if you have enough evidence to support your own claims. Alternatives to a list could include web diagrams. Using these, you start with the main topic in the center and "branch out" to more specific areas. You have the chance to be creative at this stage, so you might want to play a little by using colored markers or even 3-dimensional building toys to draw, map out, and "build" your paper.


The Introduction

Now you must consider the order in which you want to say things. It's generally a good idea to start with an introduction, which can vary greatly in length from a paragraph to a page or more depending on how much background information you need to include. You may want to start with a very general statement ("Shakespeare wrote some great plays") and gradually narrow it down to the specific topic of your paper. Or, you may want to begin your introduction in a more creative way with a dialogue, a story, or a quote from an expert on Shakespearean tragedies.

Somewhere in your introduction, you may want to let your reader know what will be your position in the rest of your paper. This is generally referred to as the thesis statement, though it can be longer than a single sentence. It need not summarize all you plan to say, but should serve to guide your reader through your paper.


The Body

The body of your essay will be divided into logical sections. If you only have two pieces of evidence to support your position, that's not a very strong paper. On the other hand, if you try to cram nine different sections into a three-page essay, that's overkill. Find a happy medium. In the above Hamlet example, I used three main ideas because, quite frankly, that's all I could think of off the top of my head. You, on the other hand, might be able to come up with five main points. Nothing wrong with that. Just make sure that you have some kind of evidence to support them. Also, keep in mind that we're talking about sections, not necessarily paragraphs. Take as long as you need to explain your point thoroughly, and as soon as you do, move on to something else.

The Conclusion

The end is in sight! Time to wrap up your paper.

Take a little time to let your readers down easy. For an essay about Hamlet, you may choose to summarize a few of your most salient points and end with a general statement. But, as with the introduction, you may want to be more creative. Perhaps you could offer an alternate ending, or theorize how a modern jury would view Hamlet. For other types of writing, you may want to elicit some sort of response from your reader. For instance, if you're writing about the dangers of rabies, you may ask your readers to make sure their pets are immunized.

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Don't Do This!

Scenario: This 7-page paper is worth 60% of your grade and it's due in two hours! Panic! You only have five pages. If you're like most of us, you'll be tempted to try one or several of the following tricks to pad your paper:

  • Increasing the font size
  • Changing the font to Veranda or some other huge typeface
  • Increasing the margins
  • Using extra spacing
  • Repeating information in different words
  • Saying the same thing more than once but in another way (case in point)

These visual cues scream, "I didn't complete the assignment, but I want it to look that way. Maybe you won't notice." Your professor will notice. So how can you meet the requirement without these tricks? Well, sorry to say, if it really is due in two hours, you are pretty much out of luck. Hand in your five pages and see what happens. With some careful planning, however, you can avoid this scenario entirely. Take a look at the getting started section for tips on planning your paper. If you find that you come up a little short, try adding another main point to your essay. Read some outside sources for inspiration. Don't forget, you can always come to the Writing Center for some more suggestions.

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Style Tips

Passive Voice

You may have been taught to avoid the passive voice at all costs. Most of the time, this is good advice. Consider the following example:

Active: John threw the ball to Mary.

Passive: The ball was thrown to Mary by John.

Obviously, the active voice creates a clearer picture in the reader's mind in that example. But now consider this:

Active: His girlfriend's reaction to the news shocked Thomas.

Passive: Thomas was shocked by his girlfriend's reaction to the news.

In this example, the passive voice may be the better choice for two reasons:

1) The subject, "his girlfriend's reaction to the news", is long, forcing the reader to remember at least four pieces of information before even reaching the verb, "shocked".

And

2) This depends entirely on the rest of the piece, but the passive voice implies that the important part of the sentence is not the girlfriend's reaction, but how it affected Thomas. By using the passive voice wisely, you can control the flow of sentences and their emphasis.

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Parallel Structure

This is one of the simplest ways of maintaining clarity in your discussion, and it is simple to achieve. Simply make sure that words in a series are from the same part of speech (nouns, verbs, etc.):

Parallel: Asbestos, cigarette smoke, and radon all cause lung cancer.

Not parallel: Asbestos, smoking cigarettes, and radon all cause lung cancer.

Parallel: In the summer, I enjoy swimming, bike riding, and painting.

Not parallel: In the summer, I enjoy swimming, bike riding, and to paint.

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Use of First Person

You may also have heard that the first person (I, me, we, us, etc.) has no place in formal writing. This can be true sometimes, but it is more a matter of opinion and personal style. For instance, if you have strong feelings about a piece of literature, you might very well want to say, "My first reaction to this piece was total disbelief," and then support your statement with reasons why this was the case. On the other hand, be careful that your use of first person does not weaken your argument. Consider the following:

  • I believe Hamlet is mad. It seems to me that he speaks in circles, and he admits to seeing a ghost. I think this is evidence that he is not in his right mind.
  • Hamlet is mad. He speaks in circles and admits to seeing a ghost. This is evidence that he is not in his right mind.

Have conviction in your opinions! The first example tiptoes around the real meaning that the author wants to express. By adding unnecessary words like "I think" or "my opinion is," you are not only making your sentences longer and more wordy, you are also watering down your argument. The second example seems stronger because the author comes right out and says what he means, without making excuses like, "well, this is just what I think." Also, keep in mind that what you say in your paper is obviously your opinion. After all, you're the one writing it.

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Page last updated: Sep. 21, 2011