Style Advice for Undergraduate Papers


Do not abbreviate. Do not identify New York as “NYC” or Broadway as “B’way.”  If you intend to use an acronym for something identify it the first time it appears:  “…the Modern Language Association (MLA) publishes guidelines for student writers…”  Obvious exceptions include AD, BC, a.m., p.m., et al, etc., etc..   When in doubt, though, write it out. 


Do not contract. Your papers should not contain any of the following:  he’s, she’s, it’s, that’s, what’s, he’d, there’ll, she’d, we’ll, or any other contraction of a noun or pronoun with a following verb.  Use these forms only for informal writing, not for papers you write for class.


Avoid rhetorical questions.  “When, oh, when,” I often ask myself, “will I see an end to all these rhetorical questions?”  Normal questions lead to responses that can move the argument of the topic along.  Rhetorical questions mean to stop dialogue, not to encourage it. 


Avoid a “conversational” or otherwise casual tone.  You are writing college papers, not a text message to one of your friends or a post to an online listserv or chat-room.  Get used to adopting the appropriate tone in this and all of your other classes. 


Use complete sentences.  A sentence requires at least one subject and at least one verb.  They should match grammatically no matter how far separated they become in the sentence.


Run “Spell Check,” but also proofread carefully.  Spell Check cannot, however, tell if you are using “their” when you mean “there” or have accidentally put an apostrophe in “its,” which you would only use in its possessive sense (see “Do not contract”).  Since the arrival of spellcheck I have learned a great deal from student papers about just how many homonyms there are in the English language.  I have not used the grammar aids built into recent word processor programs, but I understand they can be helpful.  Do not rely on them, however.  They supplement a close and careful re-reading, but they do not replace it. 


Simplify, simplify.   Formal writing does not mean using more or longer words.  Do not write “at this point in time,” when “now” would do. 


Follow these guidelines when you post online or send email to me or to the class.   The fact that you are writing online does not mean that more casual “Web rules” take over.  Compose what you want to say on your word processor or text editor.  Check for spelling, grammar, and style.  Then copy and paste to the email. 


Gender Bind   You can rephrase any thought in a way that does not require the use of a gendered pronoun to refer to a subject or object whose gender is unspecified.  If you do nott see the way at once, look for it.  Do not use “he/she” as a subject or “him/her” as an object.  I do not object to the use of plural pronouns like “they” or “their” to escape this bind, as in sentences like “No one should be required to swear an oath if they object.”  Other college instructors and some style guides, however, sometimes do. 


Words to avoid.  The following make me wince when I read them.  You do not want me to wince when I read your paper.


“incredibly” or “unbelievably” as intensive forms of “very” – These words imply what your saying is beyond belief.  I can believe a lot.


“basically” – I have never seen a sentence with this word in it that was not improved when it was taken out.


“proactive” – psychobabble pure and simple


“Webster defines [fill in the blank] as . . . “     Very “High School”


“paradigm,” “parameters,” “existential,” “semiotic,” “postmodern,” “deconstruct,” or any other words whose intention is to impress the reader with the writer’s erudition, not clarify the matter at hand.  Bob and Ray used to call them “Suskindisms” in honor of a popular TV pundit of the 60’s.  I suppose I could say they give me the “George Willies.”


Overlong opening paragraphs   When you are doing your final revision ask yourself if your opening paragraph can be removed or drastically edited.  Almost all writers need to get up to speed when they start their first draft by meandering a bit through their first thoughts on a subject.  Professional editors routinely advise published authors to cut whole opening chapters from the manuscripts they submit.  Student papers typically “begin” with the second paragraph and the entire opening paragraph can be deleted without losing any of the argument.  Check and see if this is true of your paper.    


Use Active Verbs.  The best writing typically features a larger proportion of active to passive verbs than does mediocre or commercial prose.  The passive verb conceals the agency that creates the sentence’s action.   Much of officialese employs phrases like “Mistakes were made.”  Even very good writers use the passive voice now and then, but the best writers keep passive verbs to a minimum.  Learn to look critically at every sentence you write in passive voice and ask yourself if it can be rewritten as an active sentence.  In almost every case you will discover that the active version of the same sentence is better, more direct, and more effective.