Tag Archives: writing process

Let’s agree to agreement

by Mackenzie Batten

One of my most traumatic writing experiences in high school was when my literature teacher senior year told me that for each incorrect subject-verb agreement, he would take off ten percent of my final paper grade. When I graduated, I thought the harsh grading was over—but here at Principia, I have had professors with similar rules and grading patterns as my high school teacher.

Subject-verb agreement is when the subject and the verb of a sentence match—that is, a singular subject must have a singular verb and a plural subject must have a plural verb. I believe that subject-verb agreement is crucial because it helps the clarity and the flow of your writing. If you write using a singular subject and then use a plural verb, it might confuse the reader as to how many people you are writing about. So to avoid confusion and impress your teachers—here are some of the rules I have learned while trying to master this skill.

Here are the four main scenarios where confusion arises. To help demonstrate these concepts, the subjects will be bolded and the verbs will be italicized.

  1. In a sentence where the subject includes more than one noun and there is an “and” between them, use a plural verb.

Nancy is selling her house this summer.

Nancy and Bruce are selling their house this summer.

In the first sentence, “Nancy,” singular, agrees with “is,” because “is” is also singular. But in the second sentence, there is an “and” between the two singular nouns, making them a plural subject, so the plural “are” is used. That wasn’t so hard, was it? But it gets trickier, so stick with me.

  1. In a sentence where the subject uses more than one singular noun and there is an “or” between them, use a singular verb.

Emily or Ava is in the room with Barrett’s guinea pig.

In this example, the use of “or” makes the singular nouns of “Ava” and “Emily” a singular subject, so “is,” a singular verb, is correct. I know that that idea can be confusing, but just remember that the use of “or” between two singular subject means a singular verb!

  1. In a sentence where “or” is used in between a singular noun and a plural noun, the verb should agree with the closest noun.

Either Charlie or his friends work at the pub every day.

In the first sentence, the verb agrees with the plural “his friends” because it is closer to the verb. Just remember—whichever subject is closer is the one that needs to be in agreement.

  1. In a sentence where there is a quantifier—a single subject that refers to multiple people—have the verb agree with the quantifier, rather than the noun it is referring to.

Everybody knows about Principia’s rugby team.

“Everybody” is a quantifier, since it is a singular subject, it is correct to use a singular verb. I know that seems backwards because “everybody” refers to multiple people, but it is actually singular!

I hope this helped! Please come to visit any of the writing tutors if you have any more questions!

Mackenzie is a political science and economics double major. She enjoys competing in Principia’s Moot Court and on the Mediation Team.

It’s all just communication

by Jessica Barker

While working on a paper, have you ever thought to yourself, “This would be so much easier if I could just discuss the topic, rather than write about it”? If you have, you are not alone. Recently, I spent some time working with students in an FYE class, and a number of them expressed that that they felt much more comfortable discussing than writing. When this comment first came up, I didn’t quite know how to respond. However, after sitting in on a graded discussion, I realized something—speaking and writing aren’t actually that different from one another!

Speaking and writing are both basic forms of communication, so the skills needed to have a fruitful discussion are similar to the skills needed to write a successful paper. This became clear to me while I was working with the FYE. At the beginning of class, the professor asked the students to brainstorm a list of discussion strategies in preparation for the graded discussion. As the students brought up different discussion strategies, I noticed I could use many of these same strategies in my writing.

The students mentioned the following discussion strategies to take note of:

  • The importance of supporting ideas with quotes from the reading,
  • The value of connecting your comments to other’s comments.
  • The benefit of listening to others’ ideas.

We regularly apply these three skills to both our casual conversations and our academic discussions, which are tools that help us communicate effectively.

Like many writers, I include these skills in my writing for the same reason. Writing, like talking, is just another form of communication. When I write, I

  • include evidence from different sources in order to back up my points,
  • use transition words to move from one idea to the next, and
  • expose myself to a variety of sources to develop a well-informed argument.

All of these strategies help me successfully communicate my ideas with the reader, just as they help me communicate with my peers in a discussion.

So why are these similarities important? Well, for starters, being able to see the similarities between writing and speaking can help us to rethink the way that we approach the writing process. It can be useful to think of writing as a conversation, because that mindset puts the focus on communication, and when we focus on communication, we tend to strive for clarity. In some cases, writing is literally part of a conversation because some papers, like research papers, can add to a scholarly conversation within a particular field. This is something that one of my professors mentioned to me during my freshman year, and it has stuck with me ever since!

Thinking of writing as a way of communicating could give you a greater sense of purpose, or improve the clarity of your writing, so give it a try next time you start to dread the idea of writing.

Jessica Barker is a junior from Massachusetts studying both theater and sociology.

Making quotations work for you

by Samuel Sugarman

Quotation integration sounds wordy and abstract but, put simply, this procedure is how you make a quotation work for you. Quotations are fantastic literary tools that, when used correctly, can greatly improve the clarity and strength of your paper. I’m sure that you have run into a situation where you were writing a paper and found a great, supporting quotation, but didn’t know how to fit it in your paper. If this sounds like you, don’t worry, it happens to everyone. There are some great ways to make your quote fit into your paper seamlessly, and you have probably already used them without knowing it.

There are three main ways I like to integrate quotes:

  1. In the first style, introduce your quote with a complete sentence ending with a colon. Then boom, you insert your quote. I’m a visual guy, and I’m not good at picturing literary styles, so let’s try it with an example. Let’s say I’m quoting Chuck Norris when he says, “Violence is my last option.” If I use this first style, I will start with a sentence ending in a colon and then insert my quote. So here we go. When asked about his martial arts, Chuck Norris always said the same thing: “Violence is my last option.”
  2. But wait there’s more, and it’s an elegant trick. You can introduce your quote with an introductory phrase followed by a comma, and then your quote. It looks like this. The wise Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
  3. Now check this out. I can use this same quote and integrate it into my sentence without using punctuation. All I must do is replace the comma with the word “that” and it works perfectly. The wise Benjamin Franklin once said that “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” No punctuation and it fits right in.

If you use these tricks, you can seamlessly place quotes into your paper to strengthen it.


Note: This does not include proper citation of quotations. Remember to check your citation style for how to properly attribute your quotation to its respective source!


Sugarman is a sophomore who has recently developed a love for writing. A business major, Sugarman hopes to make the writing center more welcoming to all students no matter their field of study.


Don’t be scared, just make an outline

by Bubba Sugarman

If you’re like me, a blank piece of paper and a writing prompt can be quite frightening. So much potential, so many things to say. But how, and in what order? It’s times like these when I remind myself to start with a simple outline. Creating an outline is an excellent way to start getting your ideas on paper. 

Start your outline by choosing a topic. (Don’t worry if it’s not perfect yet; nothing is set in stone.) You want your topic to encompass ideas you find interesting and wish to discuss. As you continue to do your research and write your paper, your topic may change a little bit, and that’s okay.

Once you have your topic, begin to think about some ideas that support it. Think about the questions you have and how you will answer them. Start to group these questions into main ideas that you can explore. These main ideas will become the body paragraphs of your paper, so write them in order on your outline. Once you find your main ideas, organize them in a way that makes sense. I like the think of my writing as a conversation, predicting the reader’s questions and answering them before they ask. In this way, I arrange my main ideas to ask and answer questions in an order that flows logically.

Now it’s time for some research. Find information about your topic and remember that as you continue to do research, you may find unexpected ideas to include in your paper. The more you know about your topic, the stronger your paper will be, so don’t be afraid to chase leads and learn all you can. From the information you gather, find evidence that supports your main ideas. The more supporting evidence you find, the more concrete your ideas will become. Remember to make a note of where you found the supporting information; it will help you find it again when you write your paper. In your outline, write supporting ideas under their respective main ideas.

Now, with your developed outline, your paper will write itself. Just start writing. Use the outline you have made as a roadmap and work your way through your paper by letting your outline guide you. Answer the questions that your main ideas inspire, and use the supporting evidence you have gathered from your research to support your ideas.  Always remember that an outline is a great way to beat that scary blank sheet of paper.


Bubba Sugarman is a business major who also happens to be a writing tutor. You can find him playing cello in the Principia Orchestra, fighting fires with the Principia Fire Brigade, or playing rugby with the Thunder Chickens. Bubba spends the little free time he has skeet shooting, flying planes, djing, woodworking, riding horses, and of course studying.

Make it match!

by Mackenzie Batten

Last year, I was given the task to explain parallel structure to my Teaching the Writing Process class. I found that it is a really crucial concept because it can seem simple to understand, but can actually get fairly complicated. My class and I found some basic ideas about parallel structure helpful, so I thought I would share them with the blog!

Parallel structure must be followed when writing lists by using the same pattern of words or phrases. This shows the reader that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. You could write:

Tony loves eating, playing and sleeping.

Tony loves to eat, to play, and to sleep.


Tony loves to eat, play, and sleep.

…And they would all be correct. The only time you run into trouble is if you mix and match them: 

Tony loves eating, to play and sleep.

One way I like to test to see if a list is parallel is by making each item on the list into its own sentence. Let’s use the following sentence as an example:

My mom taught me how to clean, how to read, and she instructed me on fish-feeding.

Now, to break the sentence up:

My mom taught me how to clean.

My mom taught me how to read.


My mom taught me she instructed me on fish-feeding.

While the first two sentences make grammatical sense, the last does not, so you would know that you need to rewrite that part of the sentence.

Here’s how that sentence could look:

My mom taught me how to clean, how to read, and how to feed my fish.


My mom taught me how to clean, read, and feed my fish.

If there is one thing to take out of this lesson, it is that CONSISTENCY IS KEY!


Mackenzie is a sophomore at Principia College. She is majoring in political science and economics and minoring in business administration. She hopes to go to law school after graduating from Principia.


Asking the right research questions

by Samantha Bronkar

If you receive a research paper assignment and are

–  not sure where to start and/or

–  unfamiliar with the topic,

you can start by asking questions!

Here are a few I find helpful to this process:

Why ask a question instead of going right for the thesis?

  • A research question provides clarity for your searches.
  • Unlike a research topic, a research question lets you to explore what you are interested in even if you don’t know what you are looking for.
  • Asking a question takes the pressure off because you don’t need to know the answers right away.
  • It comes from your interest.


How do I develop a research question?

  • Consider the scope of your paper: Is it a two-page reflection? or a ten-page analysis?
  • Consider research: Do I need to look at outside sources to answer this question? If so, how many?
  • Consider breadth: Are these questions too broad or too narrow?


How do I know if questions are too broad?

  • The question addresses too many sub-topics at once.
  • You cannot answer the question fully, even after several research attempts.
  • e., What happened during the Middle Ages?


How do I know if questions are too narrow?

  • The question only addresses one date, location, person, idea.
  • You can answer the question with a simple search.
  • e., When did the Harlem Renaissance occur?


Here is an example:

If your assignment is to write a four to six-page paper on some aspect of William Wordsworth’s poetry, you could ask:

  1. How did William Wordsworth’s relationship with his sister, Dorothy, influence his writing?
  2. How did the [social or political] context of Wordsworth’s time influence his writing?
  3. How did the location of Wordsworth’s home influence his writing?


Key concepts to remember:

Consider these ideas the next time you ask a question:

  • Scope
  • Research
  • Breadth


Samantha Bronkar is a senior on the softball team and will be participating in the England Abroad in fall 2017.   

Annotated bibliographies: assets to the writing process

by Bailey Bischoff

Writing annotated bibliographies can seem like busywork. After all, if you found the article or data from a reputable source, why do you need to talk about its validity? However, annotated bibliographies can be used for much more than just proving a source is valid and relevant. Annotated bibliographies are one of the best ways to getting a jumpstart on writing a paper.

What is an annotated bibliography, and why is it so useful? Let’s break it down. Each annotation should include a summary of the source, an evaluation of the validity of the source, and the relevance to your eventual paper.

1) Summary: The summary should detail the content of the source, as well as the purpose and intended audience. Through describing the source and intended audience, you will start to get a better idea of how the source will fit into your paper. The more you know about your sources, the more you will be able to easily incorporate them into your paper!

2) Validity: Evaluating the validity of the source is essentially an argument that your paper will be supported with the right kind of information and can help you identify whether or not you have a good variety and number of sources needed to write a thoroughly researched paper. This section includes gauging the author’s bias and authority, which means you might have to do some background research on the author. Also, take into consideration when the source was written and whether that affects relevancy to your topic.  Understanding the scope of your research (and identifying any holes) can save you from doing last-minute research after writing your paper, only to find that it your paper wasn’t as well-researched as you had intended.

3) Relevance: Establishing the relevance of the source is really just summarizing the value of the source to your specific project or purpose. Writing on the relevance of the source forces you to think about how the information it provides fits into your paper. Touching on the relevance in an annotation can get you thinking about the organization of your paper, an important pre-writing step which will help your paper flow together better.

Summarizing and evaluating the relevance and usefulness of each source gets you to think about how each source will fit into your paper. After writing an annotated bibliography, you should be ready to write an outline and identify where more research is needed. Instead of being an unnecessary, meaningless task, writing an annotated bibliography is a great way to start writing a well-rounded, thoroughly researched paper!


Bailey Bischoff is a political science major in her senior year of college.

Keep calm and write an annotated bibliography

by Sydni Hammar

A wise professor once told me, “Any time you’re trying to figure out how long something will take to do, take the amount of time you think it will take, and multiply that number by six.”

I have found this to be true time after time. If you care about getting work done correctly the first time around, expect to invest ample time from the start.

I put this idea into practice recently when I was given the assignment to thoroughly annotate 20 sources as part of some initial research for my capstone. Here are specific tools I use for doing thorough annotations, which take time, but are incredibly worth it:

  • Print each article out and ACTUALLY annotate the text by hand. (ex. Ask questions in the margins, paraphrase the thesis of the article, highlight key sections/sentences). If you don’t know the meaning of a word, look it up and write it in the margin!
  • After you go through the annotation process, take a break! But don’t just scroll through Facebook or Instagram—really give your mind space to absorb the information you just read. So, go for a walk, do some yoga—or whatever else works for you!
  • When you come back to write your annotation, go through the article again. This time, pay attention to your marginal comments, weave in quotes you underlined, and make sure you articulate the thesis and main points of the article.

This process may seem like a lot of work, but it is work that will ultimately save you so much time. A thorough annotated bibliography is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself as you write a research paper.


Sydni Hammar is a senior majoring in English, and works as an editor for Mistake House, a student-run literary magazine at Principia College.






The other side of tutoring

by Ariana Dale

When I was a student I never took the time to go to a tutor, or any academic workshop offered on campus. Now that I am no longer a student and am working in an office that hosts workshops and works with writing tutors, I am beginning to realize how much I actually missed out on.

Like many college students, I found tons of reasons why not to go to the workshops or writing tutors. These excuses ranged anywhere from “My paper isn’t due for another two weeks” to “I have way too much going on” or “I don’t need the help and work better on my own.” These all boiled down to my lack of awareness and inefficient use of time, or simply a lack of willingness to ask for help when I really could have used it.

I think this idea of thinking we don’t need help is one of the biggest pitfalls in the writing community. Everyone can use a little help with their writing. (Professors too!) Revision is a process that requires multiple read-throughs, and having an extra pair of eyes makes each additional read-through that much more beneficial. I always did OK when I turned in papers: I never got an “A++, you’re great! 100%,” but I never completely tanked (a.k.a. F–) on an assignment either, so I didn’t think getting help with my work would matter much in the end. I was blind to the fact that everyone asks for help, especially good writers. I found that many of the students getting the A’s in class were the students who were asking their peers or writing tutors to look over their paper with them.

This year it dawned on me:

If you want a better grade, be willing to ask for help.

Now that I’m on the other side of tutoring, where people are asking for me for help, I see just how valuable this collaborative resource is. Not only are tutors helpful in finding and addressing different issues or patterns within your work, they’re also great to bounce ideas off of so that you can further develop your ideas and master the concepts in your paper. An added perk to this is that you’ll get better and better at writing and editing your papers the more you ask for help. If a tutor helps you better understand commas this week, maybe next week you can dive deeper into more complex sentence structure and word choice to make your paper stronger and clearer.

So, when in doubt, ask a tutor!

Ariana is the Post-Graduate Teaching Intern (PGTI) for the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). She graduated in the spring of 2016 with a B.S. in biology and a creative writing minor.

Jump start your research

by Anna-Zoe Herr

Do any of these descriptions fit you?

  • I am not sure where to start in my research for a specific topic.
  • I only have a vague idea about the area I would like to explore deeper.
  • I don’t have a thesis or any background knowledge on my chosen subject.

Then the frustration has an end right here and now! Here are three starting points:

  • Key Terms
    Sometimes we underestimate how key terms and search words can help us in starting the research process. We can use them to understand what we are really researching, to establish the parameters of our interest, and to find the right material for a stellar paper. Sit down for five minutes and make a list of terms—synonyms and ideas that float through your mind about the general area of your interest.
  • Book Reviews
    Once you have your key terms, use a database appropriate to the discipline of your topic and refine your search. Your key terms can help you locate articles on your topic, and find sources that give you some more general information to help you move forward: reviews and book reviews. Just check the boxes telling the database to search for these in addition to articles. This has been some of the most helpful advice as I search for material for my capstone. Book reviews typically give you background on the topic or general area, names and further key terms, a list of resources besides the one reviewed, and a summary or in-depth information of the area you are interested in. All of that in a small number of pages. In other words, book reviews are essential to expanding your understanding of a topic, finding resources, and knowing where you want to go next in your research!
  • Definitions and Encyclopedias
    There are many encyclopedias and dictionaries found through our Principia Library website* that you can access for in-depth articles on specific words. These articles often explain the heritage of the word but also give a lot of history, context, and further resources to consider. Having a solid understanding of the key terms will help you branch out into new areas you might not have considered before and will plant you on a solid foundation in order to deliver a bullet-proof argument. Examples of excellent dictionaries are the Encyclopaedia Britannica or Gale Virtual Reference Library. These resources are amazing because, since you’re a student, you can access them for free! Don’t underestimate the power of definitions.

*To find the lexica or dictionaries on the library website, scroll down on the homepage to the first box, then click Dictionaries & Encyclopedias.

Anna-Zoë is a first semester senior working on her final studio art portfolio and global perspectives capstone. She just returned from the Prague Abroad is excited for the last two semesters at Principia.