Tag Archives: clarity

Organizational issues? Rip it up!

by Haley Schabes

Have you ever been so frustrated with a paper that you just want to rip it up? It turns out that you can—and have it be helpful.

When writing, sometimes I struggle with the direction and the clarity of my paper, or I struggle to keep all the information straight. For example, there might be paragraphs that have overlapping material or points that I feel like I can’t connect well. In cases like these, when I revise my paper, it feels like the paper is either repetitive or not cohesive. It can be frustrating as a writer to have all your evidence there, but seemingly jumbled on the page. But there is a fun and easy solution to this!

  1. Take some scissors (yes, scissors!) and “rip up” a hard copy of your paper by cutting between paragraphs.
  2. From there, find a big open space (like a table or the floor) and place your introduction and conclusion on opposite ends of the area.
  3. Begin experimenting with the remaining paragraphs’ order by placing them between the two. This will help you see what information connects and flows together.
  4. If there is a part of a paragraph that does not fit and should be moved, just take the scissors, carefully cut away the sentences, and slide them to a better position. In some cases, you may find that you need to create a new paragraph.
  5. When you are satisfied with the flow and order of your paragraphs, make the changes in your digital copy.
  6. Double check to make sure your thesis and topic sentences still hold despite having rearranged information. You may need to place additional transition sentences or make small edits to topic sentences to solidify connections between your thesis and other paragraphs.
  7. Read through your paper to make any further changes, finalize it, and celebrate!

This hands-on exercise allows you to visualize your paper’s direction more easily. By seeing all the components side-by-side (instead of just on the computer screen), you can see your thought process throughout the entire paper. This exercise can help you rearrange your evidence from a new angle, understand which material should be taken out, unveil where more transitions are needed, and improve the clarity and flow of your paper.

But remember: changes do not need to be revolutionary! Sometimes just changing the order of your paragraphs can make a big difference. By the end of this exercise, your seemingly jumbled information should be presented in a clean and logical order. For another take on this strategy, click here!

Happy organizing!

Haley Schabes is a junior majoring in business administration with minors in economics, Asian studies, and education.

Passive acceptance

by Genevieve Bergeson

Many of us have heard it before; many of us will hear it again: the infamous term “passive voice.”

Some instructors say in bold, capitalized, and not-at-all passive voices, “DO NOT USE PASSIVE VOICE,” as if it stands alongside splint infinitives and end-of-sentence prepositions as the cardinal (albeit mythical in some circles) sins of writing.

I have a confession. Let me whisper it to you.

It is okay to use passive voice. Sometimes it’s even preferable.

While it is true that passivization can impede clarity and concision (especially when used excessively), it is not a grammatical error; it is a stylistic tool for emphasis. Specifically, the subject of the sentence receives the action instead of doing the action.

Observe:

The mouse ate the cheese. (Active)

The cheese was eaten by the mouse. (Passive)

In the first case, the subject, the mouse, performs the action of eating; in the second, the subject, the cheese, experiences the action of being eaten. A nifty trick: To switch between passive and active voices, move the main words (e.g., cheese, eat, mouse) of the sentence.

Use passive voice…

  1. To emphasize the object or recipient of an action, not the doer of the action. [Note, this can also divert or hide blame.]

The mice in the science lab were accidentally let loose by the teacher’s assistant.

  1. When the doer is unknown or you wish to make the doer anonymous.

Class is canceled! (Which, I must say, is much more exciting than “The science teacher canceled class.”)

Be alert! While forms of “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) are good clues, they do not guarantee passive writing.

  • As a linking verb, “to be” simply describes something’s state of existence: the cheese is holy, er,
  • In progressive tenses, “to be” is a helping verb that indicates continuous activity: The mouse was nibbling the block of Swiss when the cat entered.

I invite you, therefore, to counter resistance—passive and aggressive—to this misunderstood element of style. Intentionally employing the passive voice can bespeak a mouseterful command of the written word.

Genevieve Bergeson, a former Principia College writing tutor and post-graduate teaching intern, delights in all things creative—art, words, and music. She has authored and illustrated the children’s book Racing Pajamas (read more at drawstheeventide.com) and has several other stories in the works.

Write detail by painting the picture

by Katya Rivers

Some of you love to write; others don’t. This is completely normal. Writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But before you toss it out the window, let me introduce writing to you as an art form—and something that can actually be fun. If you apply yourself wholeheartedly, writing can open your eyes to observational skills, critical thinking, and creativity, and it expand your thinking overall.

So how can writing be fun, you ask? It all lies with descriptive detail, observation and communicating what you see and experience to your audience. You can use descriptive writing to

  • make scenes realistic and memorable
  • help readers experience an emotion
  • share your feelings more clearly
  • bring characters to life
  • convey key ideas, especially complex ideas
  • help readers feel like they are in the scene, the narrative or the story

Here are a couple of suggestions to help you write descriptively and spice up your papers.

  1. Use the details to create a strong mood or feeling about the subject
  2. Make sure to draw on all five senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell
  3. Consider including figures of speech, the imaginative comparisons that will evoke feelings in your readers.

Here is an example of descriptive writing in a short story, but keep in mind that academic papers can include some of these moves. After reading the following passage from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and reflect on it. Ask yourself what you felt. What emotions did the author evoke in you, what was effective? Was it the word choice? The tone? And then apply your gathered information to your own writing.

Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, the fissure rapidly widened—there came a   fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the    deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently….

—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”

The author uses sensory details to paint a word picture of a person, place, scene, object, or emotion (see the bold words). Descriptive writing is about painting your message—you want your audience to engage, do be curious and intrigued or provoked. Detailed writing allows you to connect to your audience most effectively. What’s pretty neat about descriptive writing is that it not only helps your readers grasp your message, but it also serves as an effective tool to explain and persuade. So, write on!

Katya Rivers is a senior majoring in religion.

Out loud and backwards

by Laura Tibbetts

Sometimes, by the time you have written a paper, revised it thoroughly, and gotten to the final stages of editing, you’ve read through it so many times that you practically have it memorized. Even if you haven’t quite reached that point, you might at least have a basic idea in your mind of how the sentences look and sound. If that is the case, it can sometimes make be difficult to notice small grammatical mistakes as you’re reading.

When this has happened to me in the past, I have found it helpful to follow some advice I received from my dad, who was an English major at Principia. His suggestion was to read papers out loud and backwards. Just to clarify, that does not mean reading the entire paper backwards word-for-word. Instead, you read each sentence forwards, starting at the final sentence and working your way backwards until you reach the beginning of the paper.

This is helpful for two reasons. First, reading the paper out loud causes you to look at individual words more carefully than you might if you were reading in your head. It changes the pacing of how you are reading, which also helps you to notice mistakes that you might not otherwise see. Second, reading the paper backwards prevents you from getting caught up in the flow of the paper and allows you to focus on each sentence individually, which helps you edit more carefully.

The out-loud-and-backwards technique has helped me on multiple occasions, and I hope it helps you, too!

Laura Tibbetts is a French and art major, and her favorite college academic experience so far has been studying abroad in France.

Rainbow revision

by Shannon Naylor

I recently finished a draft of an important research paper. Like most of my first drafts, it needed many improvements before it was ready to be turned in. I printed out a copy, grabbed a red pen, and started editing. By the time I was done with the first page, I could hardly distinguish between the different edits, notes, and proposed additions that littered the page. Frankly, it was a mess. What to do?

Good revision, like a good paper, is organized so that you can make sense of what editing needs to be done. On my first pass, I hadn’t been looking for specific things to fix, and I had made the edits difficult to read. Here’s the revision strategy that I’ve been using since then in order to polish my papers.

This particular strategy works best with a hard copy of the paper. It allows you to have a tactile interaction with the process, but you can achieve something similar with Microsoft Word if preferred. I find that it is easiest to use three differently colored pens and a highlighter. Any colors will do so long as they are readable, but I like to use red, blue, and green pens with a yellow highlighter.

  1. Skim through your paper without making any marks to determine what its weaknesses are. (In mine, I needed to fix typos, add commentary, remove repetition, and edit for sentence clarity.)
  2. On your next pass, cross out typos and poorly phrased or unnecessary sentences with the red pen.
  3. Write in changes and additions with blue pen.
  4. Use the green pen to make marginal notes about what each paragraph says and does. (See Put It in Reverse for details on this strategy.)
  5. Go through with the highlighter to mark structural issues or patterns that need to be made visible. (This may change from paper to paper. For example, in one paper I marked places where I repeated words with a highlighter, but in another I used it to indicate where I already had commentary, where it was missing, or where I needed to add more.)
  6. Celebrate!

By the end of this revision process, you should have a good understanding of the current state of your paper as well as how you intend to fix it. You’ll be set to have a radical time revising!

 

Shannon is a junior studying theatre and English with a focus on creative writing. She is looking forward to studying and performing Shakespeare with the England Abroad in the fall.

Comma drama

by Carlie Sanderude

I’m sure I’m not the only one to know how easy it is to get tripped up over commas when writing. Sometimes I get “comma happy” and throw in commas after nearly every word. Other times I get “comma lazy” and don’t include enough commas at all. Commas really are not as complicated as we make them out to be if we follow a few simple guidelines. With a little help from my brother (who used to be a writing tutor before he graduated), let me offer the top five most common situations where you would need to use a comma in a sentence:

  1. Between items in a series. Note: the final comma is the somewhat famous Oxford comma that may be considered optional. Use it for clarity in most writing; do not use it in news writing and other mass communication courses.

Ex: Will you please give me a book, a pen, and a piece of paper?

  1. Between coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are those that could be connected with “and,” but instead you choose to use a comma.

Ex: The loud, angry man went storming out of the store.

  1. Before a coordinating conjunction joining independent clauses. The coordinating conjunctions spell FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

Ex: I guess I didn’t need to buy the shoes, but I wanted to anyway.

  1. After an introductory phrase or clause. An introductory phrase or clause is a group of words that sets up a sentence, but is not the main subject of a sentence. It just provides added information.

Ex: When I went to France, I ate bread and cheese everyday.

  1. After introducing a quote. Place a comma after words such as “said” or “stated.” The quote must be a direct quote. If you use the word “that,” then the quote just becomes part of the sentence structure and no comma is needed.

Ex: Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”

Follow these rules when using commas, and life will become so much easier. If you want to know more situations where commas should be used, visit the tutors in the writing café in the library and ask for a comma handout! Commas can be daunting, but once you get the hang of it, they’re not difficult at all. But remember: just because you make a pause in a sentence doesn’t mean that you need to add a comma! That’s the big myth in this comma drama.

Carlie Sanderude is a senior at Principia College studying business administration and philosophy. She plays on the college’s soccer and tennis teams and has been a writing tutor for two years.

Use WIRMI when you’re squirmy

by Ellen Sprague

A student just left my office, the third this week to whom I’ve touted what is fast becoming my favorite revision strategy—WIRMI. When students come to me feeling squirmy about their writing; when they are confused and uncertain about why their professor has told them to “clarify” or “explain”; when their professor has dared ask “What do you mean?” in the margin—that’s when I like to pull out WIRMI.

I learned about WIRMI in Linda Flower’s now out-of-print Problem-Solving Strategies for Writing in College and Community. That title zeroes in on just what WIRMI does; it solves problems.

WIRMI stands for this:

What

I

Really

Mean

Is

Here’s how to use it:

When you’re working on clarifying a thesis, just start with “What I really mean is” and follow with a direct explanation. You can refine the language once you get the right ideas  onto the page.

When you’re writing or revising a draft, WIRMI can act as a placeholder—again allowing you to get the ideas out before worrying how to craft them into graceful prose (which comes after other revision steps). After the paragraph, or perhaps in the margin, write “What I really mean is…” and complete that sentence simply and directly. The new sentence will likely serve as the basis for a clear and accurate topic sentence.

Don’t worry about the actual words “What I really mean is” cluttering up your paper. In some instances you can replace WIRMI in your draft with something like this, “This means that…,” and again, complete the sentence. It will flow. In other cases, you can drop the initial phrase completely because the rest of your revised sentence will be clear and say, believe it or not, what you really mean!

WIRMI will help your reader understand exactly what you mean because you’ll actually have to write it clearly. Quit squirming and give it a try!

Ellen Sprague teaches Principia College’s writing/research tutor training course, Teaching the Writing Process, and manages the tutor program and this blog. She holds an MA in French from Middlebury College and an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

An Awk-topodous Approach to Clunky Composition

by Genevieve Bergeson

Instead of imperiling my career in comedy (i.e., making a bad joke), I’ll cut to the chase: today we will explore how cephalopods and sentences are similar, that is, octopi and the syllable “awk.” “Awk”  is what professors and colleagues write in the margins of our writing next to confusing—awkward—sentences. Ah, but you probably want to hear the joke anyway.

Why didn’t the cephalopod share his writing?

Because it was too oct-word.

AwktopusSo, “awkward.” What constitutes an “awkward sentence”? Essentially, the individual parts of the sentence (phrases, clauses, etc.) don’t quite fit together; this in turn makes the meaning unclear or confusing. Instead of following the main idea (head) of the sentence (octopus), the reader gets tangled in the tentacles (phrases & clauses). On the other hand (or tentacle), the parts of an effective sentence work together smoothly to propel your denizen of deep thinking forward.

Awkward sentences (awk-topi) appear for several reasons, grammatical and otherwise. Perhaps you’re simply squirting ink and ideas everywhere because you haven’t figured out how to articulate them yet. Perhaps you’re unaware there are principles and strategies to help you eliminate awk-topi. Either way, my punny scientist friends Seth and Steph Allopod recommend this octet for eliminating awkwardness and making writing clearer.

Ready? Let’s get kraken!

  1. Make sushi. (I’d say “calamari,”  but that’s literally another animal.) Don’t cram too much into one sentence; separate the ideas into more manageable bites.
  2. Be direct. Say your idea in as few words as possible.
  3. Delete unnecessary words and information.
  4. Parse the sentence. Mark subjects, verbs, objects, phrases, clauses, etc., differently so you see the parts of the sentence and how they interact. (Sometimes words get caught between related parts and interfere with the relationships of those parts—subject/verb, pronoun/antecedent, independent/dependent clauses. Be clear about who’s doing what.)
  5. Start fresh. Turn your paper over (or scroll to a blank page) and rewrite the entire sentence.
  6. Switch things around. Putting key words and ideas in different positions may reveal a more fluid grammatical structure, which makes it easier for your reader to understand your point.
  7. Check verb forms. Eliminate unnecessary and confusing tense shifts. Use active verbs (unless passive voice is more appropriate for the situation).
  8. Word choice. Does the word mean what you think it means? Are there more accurate terms you could use? When in doubt, consult a good dictionary.

Happy thinking!

Genevieve Bergeson, in her second year as a Principia post-graduate teaching intern in writing, delights in all things creative—art, words, and music. She has authored and illustrated the children’s book Racing Pajamas (read more at drawstheeventide.com) and has several other stories in the works.

Revision strategy: cut your paper to pieces (seriously!)

by Liza Hagerman

So you’ve been told to revise a paper. What does that actually mean? Beyond making minor grammatical corrections, you need to make some significant changes to what you’ve written, considering your professor’s feedback. Often the toughest question that plagues anyone is: where to begin?

First off, don’t fret! Revising a paper isn’t so bad once you get started, and there are practical first steps you can take. I’ll tell you about my favorite strategy.

Print out a copy of your paper (without your professor’s comments) and find a large open floor or table space. Cut your paragraphs apart and spread them out so that they are each in different spots on the floor (or table) and won’t mingle. Then, cut your sentences apart in each paragraph, still keeping them in your separate groupings.

You’re off to a good start! Time to make some major improvements.

Focus on one paragraph at a time. Reorganize your sentences by moving them around. Try a variety of scenarios, and see what order makes the most logical sense. Each sentence should lead to the next, building upon one another. Physically moving them around will likely open you up to a new organization you haven’t thought of before but makes so much more sense!

See a sentence that’s irrelevant? Move it off to the side. Later you can see if it belongs in a different paragraph, should be the starting point for a new paragraph, or should just be removed.

Repeat the previous steps for each paragraph.

Once you finish reorganizing each paragraph, treat them like you did your sentences and make sure that they are presented in logical order too.

After taking these steps, you will likely have found sentences or phrases that you know you should rewrite. You also might have found logical gaps that need to be filled to clarify your argument for the audience. Rewrite these portions and fill the gaps, and don’t forget to proofread (multiple times)!

If you follow all these steps, chances are that you’ve written a solid revision!

Liza Hagerman graduated in May 2013 with a major in English; she served as a writing tutor for a year and a half, and was editor-in-chief of The Pilot as a senior. She is the English Department post-graduate teaching intern for 2013-14.

For another take on this strategy, check out Organizational issues? Rip it up!