When your instructor comments on the writing style of your paper, here are some
things to consider as possible sources of problems:
Appropriate for the Audience: Every time you write a paper, you should
have a clear idea of who the probable audience is. Different audiences require you
to use different styles. Some require a formal style; some an informal style.
Some audiences require more explanation of basic concepts than others. A hostile
audience will require more evidence and logic than an audience which is already
on your side. An informal audience would call more for anecdotal evidence and personal color.
Be sure you match the type of style you use to the intended audience of the
paper. If you're not sure what that style is, check with your instructor. Reading
some of the literature in a given field will also give you an idea of the style
which is typical for that type of material.
Clear and Concise: You should be able to state your point and illustrate
it with one or two examples or elaborations. You should also be careful to say what
you want in the fewest words necessary to convey the full meaning. Don't digress too
often or ramble. Think of what you would like a professor to do in a lecture:
be clear and concise, and then base your own discussion on that model.
Adequate Vocabulary: Every field has its technical terms. Learn to use the
ones appropriate to the paper you are writing and use them correctly. Try to use
variety in the words you choose, but be sure that those words mean what you think
they mean. Using "big words" incorrectly is worse in most instructors' opinion than
sticking to simpler words and using them correctly.
Mature Sentence Structure: Sentences can be short. Or they can go on at
great length with several prepositional phrases and modifiers plus dependent clauses
which interrupt the flow of thought until the reader can't remember what the original
purpose of the sentence was. Neither type of sentence alone makes for mature sentence
structure in writing. You should strive for variety in sentence length and structure.
A few sentences in a row with the same structure (I came; I saw; I conquered)
can build a rhythm which will heighten the effectiveness of a series of ideas,
but too much parallel structure becomes boring. Sentences which are very short
will sound simplistic unless they are mixed in with more complex sentences.
Overly complex sentences, on the other hand, only make it hard for the reader
to follow your thinking.
Voice: This is a technical term in writing which refers to the overall style a
writer uses. It includes the concepts of formal versus informal writing, the
active versus the passive voice, and past, present and future tense. Each
discipline has its own characteristic "voice" in writing. The best way to
develop an ear for the voice of your discipline is to read the writing of
professionals, such as in the journals or books prominent in the field. Voice
manifests itself in the word choice, the sentence structure, the use of pronouns,
the type of vocabulary and several other less well-defined variables. It is sort
of like speaking with an accent; once you develop an ear for the voice of a
discipline, you start to write like a sociologist or a chemist or someone from
any other field.
Mechanics: There is no easy way to overcome problems of grammar,
punctuation and spelling. It takes simple hard work, patience and attention to
detail. On the other hand, with all the spelling and grammar checkers,
handbooks, and dictionaries available today, there is no reason for making
simple mechanical errors. In most cases it comes down to taking the time to do
it. The best suggestions for overcoming problems with mechanics are:
- Start writing early enough to give yourself time for proofreading
- Get a good dictionary and use it
- Stick to words you know and sentence structures you can punctuate
Remember that the way you present information has as much to do with the impression
it makes as the information itself. Don't let your message be overcome by the medium.
Adopted, with permission, from the Undergraduate Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin.