Writing Tips for Hum 1

Some style tips

Other writing tips:

While the pitfalls described below are not necessarily bad grammar, awareness of these points can help clarify and strengthen your sentences. Attention to these details may also help solidify your own idea of precisely what your sentence should express.
  • Avoid the use of passive voice. 

  • "Passive voice" is a way of structuring a sentence so that the object of the action comes first, followed by a form of be, the verb, and, optionally, the word "by" and the actor, or thing that instigates the action:

     "Barstow was written by Harry Partch in 1941."

     Because the writer expresses the action only indirectly, the sentence is relatively weak. Also, the writer faces the temptation to remove the actor from the sentence altogether, often further sacrificing clarity:

     "Barstow was written in 1941."

     The reader now wonders who wrote the piece. A sentence in the active voice is usually much stronger and clearer:

     "Harry Partch wrote Barstow in 1941."

     Some professional writers deny that the passive voice should ever be used. While I would not go that far, I would make an effort to change any sentence from passive to active voice, even if it means restructuring your presentation of information in several surrounding sentences.

    One technique to help spot sentences cast in the passive voice is to use your word processor to search for common words used in such constructions: "by" and forms of be, including "been" and "be."

  • Avoid the use of "this" as a pronoun and other unclear references.

  •  "The Futurists saw themselves as artistic revolutionaries, challenging cultural complacency and conventional form in art. This especially influenced the Dadaists."

     It is unclear what the word "this" in the second sentence refers to: "Artistic revolution"? "Challenging cultural complacency"? "Challenging conventional form?" "Futurists"? Sometimes writers may use "this" as a noun as a convenient way to escape clarity. But "this" is a pronoun, and it demands an antecedent to function clearly. One solution is to follow "this" with a word or phrase stating what you are referring to:

     "The Futurists were especially known for advocating artistic revolution. This characteristic especially influenced the Dadaists."

     While it is possible to use "this" as a noun when the reference is absolutely unambiguous, 95% of the time this use sacrifices clarity. Again, it is sometimes helpful to use your word processor to search for the word "this." The unclear use of "this" as a noun is the most common example of a larger problem: unclear references. Be aware of precisely what you intend to refer to when using words like "which," "it," and so on.

  • Always look for a simpler, shorter way to say the same thing.

  • The first way you think of expressing an idea might not be the most concise. When reading your draft, try to find simpler ways of phrasing the same thing. Sometimes an author can completely cut out a clause, phrase, or even a sentence without compromising the meaning of the passage:

    OriginalMuch better
    Many composers turned to writing for small ensembles during World War I due to the fact that orchestras and other large arts institutions were closed by the poor economies and costs of war of countries in Europe at this time. During World War I, many composers wrote for small ensembles because war-time economies forced the closure of orchestras and other large arts institutions.

    Here are some common phrases and their more concise versions:

    The phrase:Can usually be replaced by:
    Due to the fact that Because
    At this point in timeNow or At this time
    As to whetherWhether
    He is a person thatHe is
    She is the possessor of She has
    The question as to whetherWhether
    Used for the purposes of Used for
    A consensus of opinionA consensus
    As can be seen[nothing]
    It can be seen that[nothing]
    On further examination[nothing]
    However, if one looks more carefully[nothing]

    The construction "There is...that..." can usually be eliminated: "There are numerous passages in Ives's Fourth Symphony that quote from American popular music," can easily be revised to, "Numerous passages in Ives's Fourth Symphony quote from American popular music."

  • Avoid weasel words.

    A term paper is by its nature interpretive or argumentative. The reader takes for granted that you are expressing your informed interpretation. Introducing a sentence as your opinion, then, is not only unnecessary, it weakens your statement, as if you are trying to "weasel" out of making a firm commitment to a point. Therefore, avoid phrases such as:

    • I think...
    • I believe...
    • In my opinion...
    • In my mind...

    Likewise, avoid any unnecessary qualifiers to a point you're making that weaken your commitment:

    • appears
    • seems
    • apparently

  • Concentrate on what's necessary.

    Avoid words and phrases such as "Needless to say...", "Obviously...", and "As shown before...". If something is needless to say, then don't. If a paragraph can still convey the same point without a particular sentence, then take it out. Avoid repeating the same point unnecessarily. Even in your conclusion, which will most often summarize points you have made, endeavor to express them in a fresh way.

    Likewise, avoid restating what is already in a quote. Don't tell us what your source just said. Interpret it for us or show us how it relates to your point.

    OriginalMuch better
    Riviere said, "The true purpose of painting is to represent objects as they really are; that is to say, differently from the way we see them" (76). Thus he was saying that the cubists should represent the essence rather than the appearance of the object. Riviere's statement that, "The true purpose of painting is to represent objects as they really are; that is to say, differently from the way we see them" (76) implies a duality of existence of objects suggested by the contemporary philosopher Henri Bergson.

  • Avoid "there are" constructions.

  • Avoid sentence structures where nothing but existence is stated: "there is," "are present," "are evident," "displays," "can be seen," etc.

    Such constructions often suggest that the sentence could be combined with one that comes after that shows what that thing does:

    OriginalMuch better
    There is a destruction of space in most cubist paintings. However, there is no evidence for Apollinaire's claim that this reflected modern movements in physics. Apollinaire had no evidence to support his claim that the cubists' destruction of space reflected modern movements in physics.
    A vibrant luminence is present in many of Albert Bierstadt's landscapes. His treatment of light also helps create a suggestion of the divine in nature. Albert Bierstadt's treatment of light in many of his landscapes creates a vibrant luminence and suggestion of the divine in nature.

    Word processors can be helpful again to search for the word "there."

  • Beward of vague words and phrases.

  • Part of your job as a writer is to clarify as much as possible. Therefore, you should avoid constructions (such as passive voice sometimes) which allow you to escape specifics. Here are some vague words which often substitute for a clearer expression:

    • thing
    • notion
    • mindset
    • feel (as a noun)

    Writers should also avoid vague and colloquial expressions of relationships or connections:

    • "is centered on"
    • "is big on"
    • "is into"

    Again, word processors can be helpful again to search for such words and phrases.

  • Be careful about verbing nouns.

  • Making nouns into verbs has been a distinctively American pastime for centuries. Benjamin Franklin himself bemoaned the fact that words such as "progress" and "notice" had made this transition in his time. Although readers and dictionaries now accept these words and others as nouns bequeathed by the natural evolution of language, as writers we should be careful about forcing nouns into this new duty. Sometimes doing so only creates an awkward expression or is a self-conscious adoption of MBA-speak. Most uses of the following examples could be easily replaced with simple conventional verbs:

    • author
    • dialog
    • evidence (especially as in "is evidenced by")
    • gift
    • impact
    • interface
    • leverage
    • partner
    • position
    • task
    • transition

    Although less common, adjectives too can be made into nouns. Avoid using "vocal" and "visual" as nouns. Constructions such as "the visual" are usually just excuses for vagueness.

    Also, never create new adjectives by adding the suffix "-wise"!

    Calvin, from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, put it this way: "I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when 'access' was a thing? Now, it's something you do. It got verbed. Verbing weirds language."

  • Avoid unrelated participial phrases.

  • Participial phrases (phrases which act as adjectives) are not the place to insert primary information not directly related to the main part of the sentence.

     "Born in 1882, Igor Stravinsky was possibly the most famous concert music composer of the twentieth century. Originally from Russia, Stravinsky was catapulted to fame by the notorious premiere of his The Rite of Spring in 1913."

     The phrases "Born in 1882" and "Originally from Russia" are unrelated to the main points of their respective sentences. Instead, the author has used these phrases to sneak in some extra information, but at the cost of clarity and logical connection. The following rearrangement would read much better:

     "Igor Stravinsky was born in Russia in 1882. He became possibly the most famous concert music composer in the twentieth century after the notorious premiere of his The Rite of Spring in 1913."

  • Avoid hyperboles.

    Sometimes overstatements have become colloquial expressions of emphasis, but such words and phrases should be avoided in a formal paper:

    AvoidWhen you mean
    exact oppositevery different
    incomprehensibledifficult to understand

    Also, never qualify the word "unique." "Unique" means one of a kind, so it is impossible for something to be "very unique" or "rather unique."

  • Use gender inclusive language.

    The default use of the pronouns "he," "him," or "his" when the referent is of unknown or indeterminate gender is usually avoided in professional writing. Likewise, don't use language that associates a particular profession or description with a particular sex (unless there is a legitimate reason for doing so). For example, "chairman" can be replaced with "chair" or "chairperson," "anchorman" with "anchor." A list of such replacement terms can be found in The St. Martin's Handbook pp. 514-515. To avoid exclusively using male pronouns to refer to persons of unknown or indeterminate gender, one can use the construction "he or she" or "she/he," but these are somewhat awkward to use very extensively. Other approaches include randomly alternating between genders in your paper, using plural pronouns ("they," "their") where appropriate, and sometimes recasting a sentence to avoid the reference (which often results in a tighter sentence anyway).