Writing Tips from Professor Alves

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.
  1. Avoid the use of passive voice. 

  2. "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:

     "Pierrot Lunaire was written by Arnold Schoenberg in 1912."

     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:

     "Pierrot Lunaire was written in 1912."

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

     "Arnold Schoenberg wrote Pierrot Lunaire in 1912."

     Some professional writers deny that the passive voice should ever be used. While we would not go that far, we 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.

  3. Avoid the use of "this" as a noun.

  4.  "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, most of the time this use sacrifices clarity. 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.

  5. Avoid unrelated participial phrases.

  6. 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."

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

  8. 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:

     "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."

     Much better:

     "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 time Now or At this time
    As to whether Whether
    Oftentimes Often
    He is a person that He is
    She is the possessor of  She has
    The question as to whether Whether
    Used for the purposes of  Used for
    A consensus of opinion A consensus
    As can be seen [nothing]

  9. Use gerunds correctly.

  10. Gerunds -- nouns formed by adding -ing on the ends of verbs -- should be avoided when there are alternatives with the same meaning. Do not write "the developing of cubism" when you mean "the development of cubism," for example.
  11. Avoid "there are" constructions.

  12. Sentences that begin with "there are" or "there is" can often be made more concise.  A sentence like, "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."

  13. Use quotation marks correctly.

  14. In the United States, all quotations are surrounded by double quotes (") and interior quotations by single quotes ('). Single quotes are never otherwise used. When a period, comma, or semicolon ends a quotation, that punctuation goes inside the quotation, i.e. before the quote mark. Question marks, exclamation marks, or colons do not, unless they are part of the quote.

  15. Concentrate on what's necessary.

  16. 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.