A Checklist for Better Writing

Compiled by Ross Frank

1) Subordinate description to analysis when writing paper or essay. Analysis consists of arguments, examples, and other material which responds directly to the question or topic at hand. Employ a narrative description of events only in order to present or explain an interpretation or piece of specific evidence that you are using to support a particular point.


2) Organize your paper and its component arguments, themes, and sections. Almost as much time and thought should go into the organization and reorganization of your material as goes into the actual writing. You do not need to chain yourself to an outline, but some form of prior organization is necessary in order to take the greatest advantage of your ideas.


3) Work relevant quotations into the argument of your paper. Quotations need to be introduced and then explained. Do not leave a quotation standing alone to speak for itself. A quotation contains someone else's voice, and you must make it connect to your argument by explaining who wrote it and its relevance and significance to your material. Always keep the source quoted in its original form as fully as possible. If you omit material within the quote, indicate this with an ellipses (...). If you need to insert or change something in order to make the quote grammatically correct, indicate this by placing the material changed inside of brackets [ ]. In general, you should use a quotation only when the passage contains something significant that could not be retained by simply providing a summary.


4) The basic unit of composition is the paragraph. Each paragraph will normally start with a topic sentence stating the central idea that it will present. Your supporting evidence follows the topic sentence, and the conclusion of the paragraph contains a concluding sentence or sentences. Each paragraph will ideally contain one idea, and will convey to the reader a new step in the development of the larger argument. Paragraphs must be longer than one sentence.


5) Footnote or cite all direct quotation or paraphrases from other works. Failure to properly credit the source of ideas other than your own constitutes plagiarism and is grounds for failure.


6) Writing is not the same as speaking. Avoid the use of contractions in writing prose. Do not use colloquial phrases unless they are specifically called for by your argument or material. Write out things fully — do not abbreviate or use words like "versus" or "ect...." Use the first person sparingly, if at all. Do so only when you need to speak directly to the reader.


7) Use the ACTIVE voice (example a), rather than the passive voice (example b), wherever possible.

(a) Bernal Diaz felt that Cortés' division of the spoils of the conquest favored the captain and his closest friends and advisors.

(b) Cortés' division of the spoils gained during the conquest was unequally divided, favoring the captain and his closest friends and advisors.

Since one can almost always make a passive sentence by providing it with a subject and an active verb instead of is, was, or some other conjugation of to be, you should only use the passive voice when you wish to underscore the fact that the subject of your sentence has something done to him/her that made the person into a passive actor:

(c) In the tale given by the Gesta author, Kerboga's mind was sapped of the will to vanquish the Franks by the prophecy related to him by his mother.


8) NEVER split an infinitive:

WRONG: In the Acoma Origin Myth, the Tsichtinako tells Nuatsiti and Iatiku that Uchítisi forbade them to ever think of having children.

RIGHT: In the Acoma Origin Myth, the Tsichtinako tells Nuatsiti and Iatiku that Uchítisi forbade them ever to think of having children.


9) Use semi-colons correctly. Semi-colons may only be used to divide an independent clause which could otherwise stand alone as a valid sentence; they do not serve the same function as does a comma.


10) Different takes from, not than. Both in writing and in speech, "different" compares two items. The items are different from each other. Other comparatives such as "bigger," "louder," and the like take "than." Please distinguish!


11) Revise! Revise! Revise!. Look over your paper to make sure it actually says what you want to convey, and what you thought you had typed in the mad rush to finish. If possible, have someone else read your paper to ensure that it makes sense. Proof-read the final draft of your paper for spelling and typographical errors, along with the relevant points mentioned above. If the paper is written on a computer, run the text through a spell-checker; misspelled common words are inexcusable. Otherwise, use a dictionary.