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...."
- There are many poor ways to begin a sentence, but perhaps the worst is with "There". Like passive voice, this blank substitute for a real subject noun is a vague construction that conveys little or no information, as in "There was a lot of doubt about Churchill's strategy to attack in the Mediterranean." Who doubted the strategy, when, and for what reason? Say instead: "In 1942 Generals Marshall and Eisenhower feared Churchill's Mediterranean strategy offered no chance of a decisive victory." Now we know the answers to who, when, and why? It is also rarely good style to start a sentence with "It". And the same goes for sentences beginning with "And".
- Avoid awkward sentences. The prime culprits are: run-on sentences, which one often finds in high school papers that have not been carefully proofread because that is something they are too lazy to do or else think they can just rely on spell-check, a good example of how computers, which in other ways are so useful, actually hurt American education. Here we have awkward sentence structure, run-on subordinate clauses, passive voice, and a missing antecedent (to whom does "they" refer: "high school papers??). Generally, a good rule of thumb to use in avoiding such awkward sentences is to keep your sentences short, and subordinate or parenthetical clauses to a minimum. Read your prose out loud to yourself. You should be able to finish most sentences in a single breath. If you find yourself taking multiple breadths in a single sentence, the sentence is probably too long.
- Speaking of antecedents, be sure that your pronouns agree (singular or plural) with the nouns to which they refer. "Germany's policy was based on a miscalculation in 1939 because they figured Britain and France would never go to war over Danzig" is wrong because "they" has no antecedent. Write "Hitler's strategy ... because he figured...." or else "Nazi strategists miscalculated ... because they...." Similarly, do not use "they" instead of "he" or "she", "their" in place of "his" or "her." "Dumb mistakes stick in the mind of the reader like a thorn in her side" not "Dumb mistakes stick in the mind of the reader like a thorn in their side," though "Dumb mistakes stick in the minds of readers like thorns in their sides" is permissible.
- Avoid abbreviations or contractions. Spell out your words. The only major exception is the abbreviation "U.S." when employed as a nominative modifier as in "U.S. foreign policy...." That's O.K. On the other hand, acronyms or initialisms (e.g., NATO or EU) are to be preferred so long as you spell out what they stand for upon first mention. When using acronyms, be sure to keep in mind what the actual words that form the acronym are in order to avoid redundancy. For example, do not write "the NATO organization" since NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
- Do not split infinitives. Drawing and quartering is simply medieval. Splitting infinitives means you have inserted an adverb between "to" and its verb stem as in "to covertly support the Polish resistance." Write instead "to support the Polish resistance covertly" or better, "to give covert support to the Polish resistance." Alas, even top U.S. newspapers and magazines have surrendered to the splitters of helpless infinitives, but that does not make it right. To be sure, splitting infinitives sometimes makes for dramatic effect (as in "to boldly go" rather than "to go boldly"), but do not do it if you are not absolutely sure that it will have the intended aesthetic appeal.
- Avoid "wordy" prose—prose of excessive length. Think of a zippy noun, verb, or adjective that can substitute for a garrulous phrase. Instead of "The leaders of East Germany, who had always supported a more aggressive strategy toward the Allied presence in West Berlin, felt that the time was ripe to ask the Soviet Union to give the green light for decisive action" why not just write "East German leaders had always itched for the chance to seal off West Berlin. Now they pleaded with Moscow to strike." Hear how the latter is much shorter and punchier? You can often create crisp, punchy sentences just by substituting a vivid verb or noun for clunky adverbs, adjectives, or whole phrases. Again, read your prose out loud to yourself.
- Avoid colloquialisms or slang. It just makes you sound amateurish.
- Avoid dangling participles. "Flying back home from Munich, sighs of relief washed over Neville Chamberlain for saving the peace" literally means those "sighs" were the ones taking wing over the English Channel. Write instead: "Flying back home from Munich, Neville Chamberlain was greeted with sighs of relief." But since that is passive voice, better yet write: "The British public greeted Neville Chamberlain with sighs of relief when his airplane returned from Munich."
- Avoid being repetitive in your use of words. Shoot for variety (use your thesaurus). Better yet, shoot for greater precision and specificity. Thus, instead of writing "the United States" over and over again, refer at times to "America" or "the Truman Administration." Better yet, when possible, specify the precise actors to convey more information, as in "the State Department" or "U.S. Occupation Commanders."
- Similarly, avoid being repetitive in your expression of ideas. There is simply no reason to make the same point more than once in the body of the text. Repetition does not make your argument stronger. The only exception to this rule is when you "preview" arguments in an introduction or introductory paragraph, which you subsequently expand on in the main text. Similarly, it is useful to "recapitulate" your main points in the conclusion or concluding paragraph.
- Avoid using jargon. There is an overwhelming temptation to use jargon to signal your "cred"—that you have indeed read the literature and are now part of the "academic club." Unfortunately use of jargon makes your text more difficult to comprehend for those people who are not "in the know." Use regular language whenever possible. Sometimes a piece of jargon has acquired a very specific meaning in the context of a particular literature. Sometimes using jargon allows you to express an idea more compactly. In those cases, you should weigh the trade-off carefully and use jargon judiciously. Certainly the use of the word "dyads" has no real advantage over "country-pairs."
- Be sensitive to the nuance of words. For example, in common usage we often use the words "demonstrate" and "prove" interchangeably. However, they mean quite different things in academic writing. The threshold of evidence required for "proof" is much higher than "demonstration"—most theses will "demonstrate" not "prove."
- Avoid semi-colons. They make for choppy, often run-on sentences. When tempted to use one, try a period-plus-new sentence or else a dash. To be sure, semi-colons are correct in a list that follows a colon, as in "The German security settlement contained four main provisions: the Anglo-American guarantee; disarmament; the demilitarized zone, and; a 15 year Allied occupation of the Rhine." Otherwise, semi-colons are almost always bad news.
- Be wary of sentences with too many commas. Again, read your prose out loud to yourself and make a common sense judgment where punctuation is needed to facilitate understanding. But in all cases, if you open a phrase with a comma you must close it with a comma (or period if the end of the sentence). Consider: "The frequent turnover of governments, a perennial weakness of the Third Republic helped paralyze French foreign policy in the 1930s." You need a comma after "Republic" to close the phrase begun with "a perennial."
- Ellipses are a mystery, and not only in mathematics. The word refers to dots. When skipping over text in mid-sentence of a quotation insert three dots: "From Stettin ... to Trieste ... an Iron Curtain has descended upon the continent." When skipping over text that would have concluded a sentence insert four dots: "From Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended...." Why four? The fourth is the period ending the sentence!
- Ending Quotations can be a vexation, but the current (arbitrary) rule is that the close-quote marks reside outside the concluding punctuation in a sentence. See Churchill quotations above. The correct order is (1) final word; (2) period, question mark, or exclamation; (3) close-quote. But if the punctuation is yours, not that of the person quoted, then it falls at the end, outside the close quotes. As in: Why did Churchill use the provocative phrase "Iron Curtain"?
- Footnote or endnote indicators should appear after punctuation marks.
- Do not over quote. Most students do, either from lack of self-confidence, fear of plagiarism, or the erroneous belief they must document every fact they present. In truth, quotations should be rare because too many of them break up the flow of your prose and give your essay a cut-and-paste look. In our judgment direct quotations (rather than paraphrases) are advisable only in the following three instances: (1) the fact or idea you cite is so surprising and/or little known that the reader will want to know where you got it; (2) the words quoted are from a primary source critical to proving your argument; or (3) whether primary or secondary (i.e., some other historian) the quoted phrase expresses so eloquently the point you wish to make that to paraphrase it would be a shame (i.e., I couldn't have said it better myself). In all other cases, write in your own words and preserve the flow of the story you're telling. Finally, you are free to assume a good deal of knowledge from your reader. We are studying the same subjects and reading the same books, so you can assume we are familiar with the Weimar Republic or gold standard and do not need a quote or citation to persuade us that Clemenceau represented France at the Paris Peace Conference.
- Do not insert foreign languages in the text unless absolutely necessary. Assume that your reader will not understand the language that you are inserting (unless you know otherwise). If the reader does not understand the language, the quote will just be gobbledygook serving only to break up the flow of your text. You should only quote in the original language if doing so conveys a specific meaning that cannot be conveyed in translation. Even then always provide a translation. Otherwise, you should always quote in translation. If the translation is your own, you should indicate this by inserting [translation mine] at the end of the quote. If not, be sure to include the translator in the citation. For the purpose of this admonition mathematical equations count as a foreign language.
- Use data tables and charts sparingly. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes data are even more eloquent. But too often, they merely break up the flow of the text. If the data are integral to the argument you are making, then include the relevant table or chart as close as possible to the relevant portion of the text. (Avoid "see table # on page x..." which forces the reader to flip back and forth.) If the purpose of the data is not to advance the argument, but simply to provide additional or supporting evidence, put them in the appendix and describe the salient features in words in the main text. When using tables or charts, do not simply cut-and-paste material you find. Rather, take the time to reformat the table or graphic to be in line with the formatting conventions you are using in your text. All charts should have a consistent look. All tables should be formatted identically.
- Maps on the other hand are almost always useful. As IR majors, you will often be writing theses about far flung corners of the globe. It is unhelpful (not to mention unkind) to assume that your reader will know the region under discussion as well as you do. Thus, it is almost always useful to include a map (in appropriate detail and scale) of the region that is the central topic of your thesis.
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. 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. 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
- Know your possessives.
- 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
- Know your plurals
- 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.)
- Know the difference between "affect" and "effect." We will ignore here the rare exceptional uses of these two words. Most of the time the word "affect" is a verb meaning either: "to have an effect on" (as in, "your attitude will affect how successful you are in class"), or; "to feign" (as in, "she affected unconcern over her 'C'"). Most of the time, the word "effect" is a noun that means "the consequences of an action" (as in, "attitude does have an effect on grades").
- Do not make up words when there are perfectly good alternatives.
- "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.
- Make sure that you know what a word means before you use it.
- 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.
- Do not confuse i.e. and e.g. "i.e." stands for the latin "id est" and means "that is." "e.g" stands for the latin "exempli gratia" which means "for the sake of example." Note that latin (abbreviated or not) or for that matter any foreign language used in the text should be in italics.
- And while we are on the subject of latin abbreviations, here are a few more that may be useful:
- [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."
- Get basic formatting right.
- 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.