Writing in Sociology at Queens College

Tips on Writing Well

Adapted from E.B. White's The Elements of Style

Place yourself in the background
Remember that the paper is not about you. It is about the topic! People often sit down to write and worry about what readers will think of them. We all want our readers to think we are brilliant (or at least passable). It is a natural impulse, but a bad approach to writing. The essay isn't about you. It is about your subject. Focus on how you can make the reader understand what you know about the subject. Think of the paper as a vehicle for giving information to someone else. What does the reader need to know? How can you best present the information? If you worry that someone will judge you for not writing well or being smart enough or if you start to think that you can really show how smart you are in this paper: Stop. Remember that the paper isn't about you. It is about your topic.
Write in a way that comes naturally
While writing and speaking are not identical, they should be related. Avoid the temptation to use big words and long sentences. Write the way that you think and speak. You may want to be a little more formal in your writing than you are in you speaking. Don't use slang or sentence fragments without good reason. But use your own thoughts and words. It is fine to push yourself and use some new words or concepts, but keep the paper 90 percent grounded in words that make sense to you.
Make a plan
A paper is an intellectual road trip. You are going to start one place, move through interesting areas, stop for a while to look at an idea, and then ultimately arrive at your destination, the conclusion. You want to plan a trip that makes sense. You wouldn't drive from New York to California to have coffee and then to New Jersey to have lunch and then to Texas to have desert. That trip would be a lot of driving around for not much payoff. The same thing can happen in a paper. You want a trip that makes sense. You don't want to get lost along the way. An outline is your intellectual road map. When you start planning you paper, write out what you want to cover. Once you have a good plan, you can make changes along the way. If you want to add an idea or take one out that isn't working, that is fine. The changes that you make should improve your paper. To do that, always keep one eye on where you are going. Make sure the road you are taking makes sense.
Write simple and clear sentences
Simple sentences are powerful. It is the really, really, important English language constructions to make an increasingly valuable point very clear to the multitudes of readers that don't work. See my point? Say it simply and clearly. That way we will hear you.
Avoid the use of qualifiers
Any time you use a qualifier, such as very, really, or extremely, think about whether it helps make your point. The sentence will probably be stronger without it.
Do not overstate
When you overstate, your readers will instantly be on guard. They will lose confidence in your judgment. (If I told you that the food on campus was the best in the world, would you wonder about me? Perhaps be suspicious of my taste?) The best advice is to call them as you see them. If you've done your research and thought seriously about the question, be confident in your views. Then state your thoughts clearly and simply. * A related caution: the sinister brother of the overstatement is the "snow job". Writers are sometimes tempted to write big, powerful sentences to cover the fact that they don't know much about the topic. The readers are presumed to be idiots who will not notice that the writer isn't really saying anything. They will notice, and they will not be amused.
Write, revise, and revise again!
What comes out of the printer after you've written the final word of your conclusion is the first draft. Don't hand it in. Read it. Try reading it out loud. Listen to the words that you've written. Do they make the points that you want to make? Don't assume the words say what you wanted them to say. Listen to the words that you wrote as if someone else had written them. Are there words that sound funny? Take them out. Are some sentences so long that you can hardly say them? Shorten those sentences. Do some ideas seem like they aren't as important as you thought they were? Cut them out. Are some ideas that you thought you had explained missing or choppy? Add more information into the paper. It doesn't matter what the first draft looks like. What will make you a good writer is how well you listen to your own words. Have the courage to get rid of ideas or sentences that don't work. Move the paragraphs around. If you have a word processor, you can save one draft and just play around with another copy of it. If it is a disaster, you can always go back to the original draft. Writing should be like pottery or painting. Get in there. Get dirty. Play.
Use orthodox spelling
It is becoming common to write words in shorthand: Nite for Night, u for you. Don't do it. Your reader might know what you mean, but might wonder how serious you are about what you are writing. You are writing to get your point across as clearly as possible. Don't let quirky spelling get in your way. *A related caution: If you are a poor speller, get someone else to go over your papers and make sure there are no mistakes. Good spelling and good writing are two different things, but you don't want spelling mistakes tripping up your reader.
Do not inject opinion
We all have opinions about almost everything. It is tempting to toss them out freely. Resist that temptation. Now you might be confused. So far, I've advised you to use your own voice and to say what you think. How is that different from your opinion? Consider this: I could tell you about the political strategies of the 2000 presidential election. I could talk about public opinion and when and how it shifted. I could tell you about the policy differences between the candidates or how money was spent. I could do all this without ever telling you which guy I thought was a bozo. That is the difference between analysis and opinion. In analysis, you are taking a hard look at the facts and really trying to sort out what happened. You accept the results even if you don't like them. An opinion is what you feel. Readers want your analysis; they don't want your opinion. You probably don't want mine either.
Enjoy Writing
Writing is hard work, which you have probably noticed. What you might not have noticed is that it is thrilling. There is nothing fun about dashing off a bad paper on too much coffee and not enough sleep. You don't enjoy writing it, and your reader doesn't enjoy reading it. No one's time has been well spent. You and your readers walk away wishing never to do anything like that again. That isn't really writing. That is just getting words on the page. You may have typed many papers in high school or college and yet never really written. When you think, research, write, revise, think again, and write more, you begin to understand what ideas are all about. You begin to write. If you have never been a "good" writer, if you have failed when you tried to write papers too fast and without any guidance, then you can't write bad papers well. Good for you. Neither can most good writers. Writing is a process. It takes time to learn. It takes practices. But it opens up worlds to you.