Avoiding Common Pitfalls in Academic Writing
The written word is a powerful tool, the command of it an important skill. When writing in the humanities, one should have a core set of tools including a good dictionary (I suggest the American Heritage Dictionary [AHD] and/or the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]), a thesaurus, an encyclopaedia, a world atlas, a general text on world mythology, a bible, and texts such as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, the Chicago Manual of Style, and whatever discipline-specific style guides and sources you may need, such as the MLA, AP, APA handbooks, or Sylvan Barnett’s A Short Guide to Writing About Art. I also recommend foreign dictionaries and a dictionary of and of foreign words and phrases. There are many other sources that are available in print and on-line, but this basic list should suffice for any academic or scholarly writer from grade school to the professional level.
The body of work opens with a thesis statement where the author lays down the foundation of the argument. Some academic writers like to begin with statements such as ‘in this essay I will be discussing…’ and then launch into their topic. This method is wordy and uninteresting. The thesis statement should grab the attention of the reader while asserting your hypotheses or ideas in a clear and simple fashion.
The temptation to use a quote of another author or speaker as a springboard from which the thesis launches is too great, and academically lazy. This practice relies too much upon what has already been said or done, rather than asserting the fresh, new perspective of the author (you). Even if the objective is to refute or support the claims quoted, explain your approach clearly, using the quote as support for your arguments within the body of the text. Thesis statements should be clear, concise, and to the point.
The Meat of Your Argument
The body (or argument) is the meat of your work, and is where your story, proof, ideas, and theories are presented and substantiated in clear prose. Whenever possible, avoid jargon and colloquialisms, and never use contractions in a scholarly paper. Be specific in your writing and avoid making vague and broad statements. It is important to always substantiate your ideas with proof. Your writing should not only be clear to you, but also to your reader. impersonal pronouns such as “it,” “they,” and “that” are referring. The pitfall to combating vagueness is repetition. Use your thesaurus to find other words, or restructure sentences to restate your point without sacrificing meaning. Big words however, do not necessarily mean better writing, especially if they are misused or overused. Sometimes a simple work is more effective than a multisylabic, grandiose one that may ultimately detract from your point. One can choose simple phrasing and clear language without becoming dull, however it is a delicate balance indeed. In order to avoid run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and vague constructions read your prose aloud. If you can neither speak it fluidly, nor can a listener understand it, the work needs to be revised.
Give Credit Where Credit is Due
When quoting or paraphrasing another author or authority, one must include citations or footnotes or endnotes, whichever you choose be consistent throughout your work. The Chicago Manual of Style has a beautiful chapter on this topic. Most word-processing software programs have automatic features for formatting footnotes and endnotes. Place footnote and endnote markers in superscript after the final punctuation mark of the quote, or at the end of the appropriate paragraph. In the actual note, give a bibliographic citation that includes the page number and any other pertinent or anecdotal information that enhances your argument(s), but that might detract from the clear, fluid momentum of the presentation. The prose should lead to a conclusion (or set of conclusions). With few exceptions (mostly in scientific writing or multi-chapter works) the conclusion should not restate all of the points made in the body of the essay. No scholarly work is complete without a bibliography or list of works cited. These should be listed in alphabetical order by author’s last name. Multiple works by the same author should be listed in chronological order. The bibliography should also include publication information and page numbers where relevant.
There are three basic stages at which an editor can become involved with your work: proofreading, copy editing, and substantive editing. If you want an editor to proofread or copy edit your work, your copy should have already been through several drafts already. These two stages assume that you have done most of the work to prepare a work that needs another pair of eyes to catch errors that you may have missed. Substantive editing requires greater involvement between you and the editor, and may include altering or restructuring whole sentences or paragraphs as necessary, and depending upon the nature of your agreement.
Writing is a beautiful thing. It communicates our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and discoveries. But because these intangible things somehow becomes concrete and immortalized when placed into print, it is the task of the writer to uphold a certain standard of excellence by writing well and avoiding these common pitfalls and temptations. Happy writing!