Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

The Write Stuff


Okay, so you've come up with a great idea for your paper, or you want your brochure to boost sales, or you must make a positive first impression with your cover letter. What's the secret? Once you have the title, headline or salutation, what next? Should you just start writing and hope that something brilliant will come to you as you write?

Building a well-written and thus well-received document doesn't happen instantly; it's a process of thinking, organizing, writing and, maybe most importantly, rewriting. Before you write, you must clearly understand the point of your paper, plan (either in your head or in a written outline) what you want to say, and begin to organize your ideas. Keep in mind that when you speak, you can get away with digressions and fragmented thoughts, but when you write, you must be clear and logical.

When you are ready to put pen to paper, or in most cases, fingers to keyboard, start simply. Give all your ideas a chance to sink or float by transmitting them to visual form; that gives your document the basic substance it needs to begin. This can be in a fragmented form as information gathered from reference materials, interesting tidbits about your topic or just random ideas you are considering using. Then, and only then, start to expand thoughts into sentences and paragraphs, discarding ideas or conclusions as you go, keeping the ones that are strongest and will have the best chance of informing or persuading the reader.

This "first draft" is nowhere near your completed work, as no amount of planning can totally eliminate the need for improvement. Now you need to step back for at least a short time, so that you can face your first draft with a clear head and an objective eye. It's time to begin rewriting.

Think first about the "whole" you are trying to create, rather than the details (punctuation, grammar, etc.), before you begin to alter its parts. Does the overall document convey your message in a logical, thought-provoking manner, or is it disorganized and clumsy? When you read from paragraph to paragraph, is there a clear, smooth transition? Did you rush through an explanation or description without giving it the proper attention? Have you supported all your claims or results with adequate background information, statistics or references?

Step back once again. Have a cup of coffee or go jog around the block. Clear your mind so that you can view your paper again with fresh eyes and mind. Now is the time to move sentences and paragraphs around, combine choppy thoughts into easily read sentences and delete unnecessary words, phrases or even paragraphs. Just as a personal trainer helps you tone your body, you are toning your paper into a lean, strong communications tool.

Surely you are now finished. But wait – what about the "details" mentioned above? Now you must carefully check your punctuation, grammar and sentence structure; sometimes passing a course, making a sale or getting a job hinges on a misused semicolon or a careless pronoun reference. This is an especially important step for ESL (English Second Language) writers because the rules of English are not easy to learn nor always sensible. First, use your Spell Check! Many grades have been lowered, customers lost and resumes tossed in the "reject" pile because of a misspelled word. Then closely examine your punctuation. Do you have more commas than necessary? Have you misused colons or semicolons? Can you read each sentence separately and have it make sense? On the way to making your paper the best it can be, you must focus on each and every detail.

Be hard on yourself. Question your phrasing and the appropriateness of word choice. Keep your thesaurus nearby and experiment with your vocabulary. Remember that just committing your thoughts to paper or monitor does not make them sacred; it only gives you a visual field in which to place your ideas in their strongest positions. By playing "Devil's advocate," you will identify weaknesses and make your paper even stronger.

Rewriting also indicates your concern for your reader. While many poets write for themselves and their individual personal passions, you are probably writing for a specific reader or audience. Read your paper as if you were the professor, the customer or the Human Resources Director. No technical skills or fancy vocabulary can make up for the need to read your message through your reader's eyes.

To recap

  1. Select a topic for your paper.
  2. Gather all your reference materials and thoughts, and put them down in a loose outline.
  3. Manipulate that information into a tighter outline, expanding and discarding ideas as you go.
  4. Begin formulating sentences and paragraphs, and placing them in a logical order to produce a first draft.
  5. First rewrite: Examine the paper for illogical sequences or unsupported claims or ideas.
  6. Second rewrite: Move sentences and paragraphs to more logical positions to strengthen your points.
  7. Third rewrite: Check the details of punctuation, grammar and sentence structure, and correct errors.
  8. Fourth rewrite: Read your paper as your intended audience will read it, and make necessary changes.
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