Walter McDougall and Tomoharu Nishino
Thorough and rigorous analysis is only half the battle when it comes to your thesis. You need to persuade the reader with a clear and effective presentation. If you cannot persuade through your writing, then it does not matter how good your ideas are.
Great writing is hard to learn. Good writing is not. All of us have some bad habits that are easily corrected once we understand what they are. This page contains tips to help you identify those bad habits, and write clearly and effectively.
(Our thanks to our lecturers for their input.)
The cardinal rule of writing
Seek clarity, accuracy and efficiency of prose above all. Mean what you say, and say exactly what you mean, as clearly and as compactly as possible.
Never write to a page count. There is no "magic" number of pages that a thesis is supposed to be. Rather, start at the beginning, say just what you need to say, and stop when you come to the end. Note the emphasis on "just." A paper is done not when everything that is necessary has been put in, but rather when everything unnecessary has been taken out. One writer wrote to a friend, apologetically: "I'd have written you a short letter, but I didn't have time, so I wrote a long one instead." He was right to apologize. Less is (usually) more.
This requires that you know exactly what you want to say before you begin writing. This does not mean knowing exactly how you want to convey your ideas before beginning to write—that will only give you writer's block. In your first draft, pay no attention to the writing. Simply get your ideas down. Then do a serious second draft that applies what follows below.
Tips for effective prose
Effective prose is concise, punchy and to the point. More importantly, it is clear and transparent. Your words should never get in the way of your ideas.
- Write from an outline. Outlines force you to do two things. First, it imposes structure on your writing (and consequently your thinking). In your final product, retain the explicit structure—section and sub-section headings. Such explicit organization makes it easier for the reader to follow your argument. Second, outlining forces you to critically evaluate which ideas and arguments are necessary components of your thesis, and which are not.
- One paragraph one idea. Many people write inordinately long paragraphs that contain multiple ideas or assertions, and stretch across multiple pages. Do not. A paragraph should contain one idea. You should usually lead with a topic sentence, and the rest of the paragraph should be an elaboration on that sentence. If you find yourself moving to a new topic, start a new paragraph. Combined with point (1) above, you may want to outline your writing to the level of the paragraph.
- Write clear, punchy and compact sentences. In effective sentences, the subject and verb are generally close together. The further apart they stray, the foggier the sentence becomes. The subject and verbs should be close to the beginning of the sentence. The later they appear the more "sluggish" the sentence will appear. Finally, periods are relatively benign. Commas and semicolons are less so. Hemingway used periods profusely and his prose did not suffer. Your sentences should be long by necessity, not by choice.
- Get to the point. Before you start writing your paper, you should know what you want to say. If you know what you want to say, there is no reason to keep it from the reader. With analytic prose, your reader will be happiest to find your argument (the point of the paper) in the first few paragraphs. Similarly, sections and sub-sections should lead with a concise presentation of the argument(s) contained in that section. Paragraphs should lead with the topic sentence.
- Avoid the passive voice (note, not, the passive voice should be avoided). A passive voice is a construction in which the object of a sentence is turned in to the subject. Such as: "The 1954 Geneva Accords were not seen as a tolerable solution to the problems of Southeast Asia." Passive voice is almost always poor style: it is just passive. It is also an author's dodge because it does not require one to identify who was "seeing" what in this way and why. The essence of analytical writing is to explain cause-and-effect. That is, someone does something to something or someone for reasons you need to explain. A normal active voice sentence contains all elements of that causal chain. Such as: "The Eisenhower Administration refused to adhere to the Geneva Accords lest it legitimize an expansion of Communist power." Here you have a clear causal relationship and some added information besides. Always try to rewrite passive voice sentences, choosing actors (not abstractions) as your subject, plus a vivid verb.
- Use vivid nouns and verbs. Avoid "jazzing up" flat nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs. If you are tempted to use words such as "very" or "somewhat" or "mostly" chances are you need to pick a more expressive noun or verb (think "torrid" instead of "very hot," or "pummeled" instead of "beat badly").
- Avoid using words that signal "dodges"
- "Appropriate" is never appropriate because it means nothing (which explains why politicians always promise to take "appropriate action at the appropriate time"). Without accompanying standards of propriety the adjective "appropriate" is a waste of four syllables.
- Never use the verb "feel" unless you really mean it. "To feel" means to harbor some emotion, but in our touchy-feely era of "self-esteem" and "getting in touch with our feelings" the word has become an icky substitute for "to think." Do you really mean "I feel"? Or do you actually mean "I think", "I conclude", "I believe"? Are you making a rational or emotional argument? (An editor of some newspaper is said to have written in response to a letter-to-the-editor: "Sir, what you have is not an opinion, much less an argument or a point of view. What you have is a feeling.")
- Never use the verb "hope". Say only those things that you "can" or "will" demonstrate. If you only "hope" to demonstrate something, it is probably best to just leave it out.
- By the same token, do not be afraid of the pronoun "I". Do not be afraid to take credit (and responsibility) for your ideas. Do not say, "this thesis will argue...." Rather, say "I will argue in this thesis...."
- "was angered by" rather than "ticked off by"
- a few more examples here...
You might make a habit of reading your prose out loud to yourself. This is because our ears are much more attuned the the flow and nuances of language than our eyes are. You are more likely to discover awkward, ineffective or even erroneous prose when you hear it.
Avoid dumb mistakes
Your writing affects your credibility. You cannot persuade if you are not credible. Here the writer's Hippocratic Oath applies—first do no harm. Your writing should never get in the way of your argument. This means, at a minimum, avoiding dumb mistakes that tend to stick in the mind of the reader like a thorn in her side.
- In this day and age of spell-checkers, there is simply no excuse for spelling mistakes. But be wary of spelling mistakes that spell checkers will not catch. Here are a few of our favorites:
- cite vs. sight vs. site (and similarly incite vs. insight)
- weary vs. wary
- tenet vs. tenant
- forego vs. forgo
- council vs. counsel vs. consul
- You get the idea. If you are ever in doubt of the proper use of a particular word, or are having difficulty choosing between similar sounding or looking words, Common Errors in English by Paul Brians, is a very good resource to consult.
- It's = it is, but; Its = possessive form of "it".
- Czechs = plural of Czech; Czech's = the possessive form of a singular Czech person, but; Czechs' = the plural possessive for multiple Czechs
- Plural of index is indices; the plural of "matrix" is "matrices"
- "Data" is already plural, the singular is "datum". (So make sure other elements of the sentence agree: "these data are..." not "this data is...".)
- If you must use Latin words, use them properly. (e.g. alumnus = singular male, alumna = singular female, alumni = plural male, alumnae = plural female.)
- "Irregardless" is not a word. It is either "irrespective" or "regardless" to mean pretty much the same thing.
- There is no such verb as "incent" in the English language. Worse still is "incentivize." We will be incensed by such abuse of the English language, which should give you incentive to get it right.
- Sometimes anthimeria (look it up!) are effective. Most of the time they are not. For example, never use the word "leverage" as anything other than a noun, unless used as an adjective (as in "leveraged buyout"). Please note that the suffix "-age" is used to derive a singular noun from a verb (as in "wreck" and "wreckage"). The word "leverage" is a noun derived from the verb "lever". Thus, the use of the word "leverage" as a verb, as in "the country is leveraging its advantage" makes about as much sense as saying "I am wreckaging the English language with my abuse of anthimeria."
- The last two are examples of MBA jargon. They are not even the worst of the bunch. But they have started to creep into mainstream usage. Just say no.
- For example, the word "ultimate" and "penultimate" mean very different things. The inclusion of three additional letters in the latter should be a clue that these words are different.
- On the other hand the words "inflammable" and "flammable" pretty much mean the same thing, as do "invaluable" and "valuable", despite the additional two letters.
- [sic] means "thus" or "just as that" to indicate that any incorrect or unusual spelling, phrase or usage in quoted material has been reproduced accurately and is not the result of transcription error.
- "viz" for "videlicet" and means "namely" or "to wit"
- "ca" for "circa" to mean "about"
- "cf" for "confer" to mean "compare"
- "et al." for "et alii" or "et aliae" which means "and others" and can be used to shorten the list of authors in citations.
- "ibid" for "ibidem" which means "in the same place" and to be used in the footnote to indicate that the footnote in question is identical to the one immediately preceding.
- "op cit" for "op citatum") which means "the work cited". To be used in footnotes/endnotes to indicate that you are referring to a previously referenced (though not necessarily immediately preceding) work by the same author.
- Note that "vs." (versus) and "v.s." (vide super) mean very different things. The former means "against," the latter "see above."
- Though not abbreviations, remember that "per annum" means "per year", "per diem" means "per day", and "per capita" means "per person."
- The first paragraph of each section or sub-section (any paragraph that follows a heading) should not be indented. The first lines of all subsequent paragraphs in that section or sub-section should be indented.
- Block quotes should be used for any quote that extends beyond a couple of lines. When employing block quotes, the quote should be offset from the rest of the text by both right and left indentations, and the text should be justified. Regardless of the line spacing for the rest of the text, the block quote should be single spaced.
- Use a consistent style (justification, line spacing, heading style, font, etc.) throughout. The "style-sheets" feature of modern word processors are useful in imposing style discipline.
- Never use bold. If you want to emphasize something, use italics. The use of italics is preferable to underlines when referencing a book title.
- Know the difference between a hyphen, en dashes (used to indicate a range, as in "between the years 1980–1990" or contrast values, as in "the Supreme Court voted 5–4 to uphold), and em dashes ("—" which are used to indicate parenthetical thoughts in the middle of a sentence, similar to parenthetical commas). While it may be difficult to tell them apart on the web page, they are of different length. Hyphens are shortest, the en dash is about the width of the letter "n", and em dashes are about the width of the letter "m" (hence their respective names). In mono spaced fonts (such as Courier), it is conventional to use two hyphens ("--") for en dashes, three ("---") for em dashes. Note that there is never a space before or after any of these.
- The rule "double spaces after periods" was a convention of the typewriter age when everyone had no choice but to use the monospace typewriter font. It is considered unnecessary when using proportional fonts. Unless you are using a monospace font (e.g. Courier) there is no need for that second space.
- Use the right font. You should never use a monospace font (e.g. Courier) unless you have a very specific reason for doing so. Proportional fonts (which varies type spacing according to character width) are much easier to read than monospace fonts. Similarly, you should never use sans-serif fonts. Sans-serif fonts were designed for on-screen legibility where the serifs may be lost on the relatively low resolution of computer screens. However, in print, the "serifs" contain visual information that makes it much easier to read. Before you get too creative with your font choice, you should seriously reflect on the fact that Times was originally designed to be the typeface of the Times of London.
Finally, you may at some point want to seek professional assistance. One of the most underutilized resources the university has to offer is its writing center. You can find more information about the assistance they can provide on their webpage. One or two meetings to go over even a small section of your thesis could improve your writing dramatically, if you learn how to spot the particular weaknesses in your writing style through those sessions.