Be Your Own Writing Tutor

by Maya Jenkins

Finished with an essay draft and stuck on revising? Hoping to avoid the most common pitfalls of academic writing? Want to learn how to think like a Writing Center tutor? Look no further than this blog post! Below, you’ll find a list of the top ten paper problems that we here at the Writing Center encounter when working with students—and how to solve them!

Problem #1: Your thesis is in your conclusion.

A wise Expos preceptor once told me that writing is just thinking with a keyboard. That’s why the act of drafting an essay can help you figure out what your argument actually is! At the end of that thinking/drafting process, you may find that the clearest, most succinct statement of your argument—your thesis—is at the end of your paper! Not to worry! With a little editing (Ctrl C Ctrl V anyone?) you can place your thesis in your introduction where it belongs.

Problem #2: Your thesis is not arguable.

Take a position! Especially in your thesis. Oftentimes, students draft a descriptive thesis (the Granny Smith apple is green) or a normative thesis (Everyone should love Granny Smith apples). But a strong, scholarly thesis is one that a reasonable person might be hesitant to accept, or even try to argue with. Here’s an example:  Despite its origins in Australia, the United States has sought to adopt the Granny Smith as its own—including it as one of just four apples honored by the Postal Service and making it the staple ingredient in apple pie—thus demonstrating its national cultural importance.

Problem #3: Your thesis is not answering a specific analytical question.

Strong papers are often the result of a strong analytical question. When students do not write with a specific question in mind, their theses often reflect this by being descriptive, normative, or vague. Whenever you’re engaging with class material, it helps to take note of ideas that are interesting, confusing, troubling, or outrageous! That is the kind of material that can spark a strong academic question (typically a HOW or WHY question). For the Granny Smith fans out there: HOW did the Granny Smith make its way to the center of the American cultural imagination? WHY does this apple matter in American culture?

Keep in mind: most of the challenges that students face while writing are related to the strength of their thesis.

Problem #4: Your introduction’s “hook” is grandiose or random.

In high school, many of us were taught to grab the reader’s attention with the first sentence of an essay. But in college, “Since the dawn of time, apples have dictated human destiny …” and other grandiose openers are not appropriate. Neither are openings that have nothing to do with the topic you’re discussing. In college, you can think of your readers as people with at least moderate interest in the subject at hand. You can draw their attention by thinking about what first drew your interest to the matter (was it a contradiction? a question? something else?), and go from there.

Problem #5: You’re missing the stakes of your argument… or your stakes are totally over the top.

In college, we need a reasonable set of stakes for adopting the arguments that we put forth, but we still need stakes! Sadly, our papers probably won’t bring world peace or solve climate change (and we should not suggest that they will). But we do need to do the work of demonstrating why our intervention into a particular academic debate has consequences for how people continue to engage with the topic going forwards. So, for example: By demonstrating that cultural producers have engaged in a concerted effort to redefine the Granny Smith as an all-American commodity, we can illuminate the processes that bind objects, imagery, and nation, and disentangle the threads between media, commodities, and national identity in America.

Problem #6: Your paper introduces similar pieces of evidence and analyzes them in the same way.

In college, we use evidence in order to develop an argument. That means that an effective paper will not identify three examples of a given phenomenon in order to argue that the phenomenon exists. My paper would not be very strong if all of my evidence pointed to the same claim—that the Granny Smith apple has no real ties to the United States because it was created in Australia, not America; Granny Smith was a British woman, not an American woman;  horticulturalists believe that the Granny Smith is a hybrid of the Malus domestica and the Malus sylvestris, neither of which are native to the U.S., therefore its adoption as American was artificial. Strong papers develop an argument that progresses logically, with each new piece of evidence and its analysis building on what came before it.

Problem #7: You feel like your argument doesn’t flow… and you’re not sure what that means!

When you sense that the “flow” in your paper is off, you probably have concerns about the strength of your thesis and/or the structure of your argument. To improve that “flow,”  first, head back to your thesis statement and ask yourself these questions: Is my thesis actually arguable? Am I answering a strong analytical question? Can it be discussed for 8-10 pages (or 2-3, or 5-7) without being repetitive? Once you’ve done that, you can figure out whether your argument is progressing logically from one step to the next, or if you are hopping around a bit. Try creating a reverse outline of your paper, pulling out your thesis and the central argument of each body paragraph. Now read those sentences in order. Does that make sense? Is there something that the reader must understand in order to grasp a given paragraph that you are not telling them? These kinds of questions can help you to make sure your paper goes with the flow.

Problem #8: Your paper takes the reader on a “museum tour of topic sentences” or you do not have any topic sentences at all!

First, you have come to the right place for writing help. Second, the Writing Center can help with all of your writing needs. Third,… yep you guessed it. This is the museum tour of topic sentences (Over here, we have a painting! And over here we have another painting!), and not fun to read! At all! Your topic sentences, a.k.a the first sentence of each of your argumentative paragraphs, should be fully developed sentences that build logically from the sentences that precede them. You can think of each strong topic sentence as a mini-thesis that clearly states the argument that the rest of that paragraph is making. In academic arguments, it is important to broadcast to our readers exactly what our writing is going to accomplish before we accomplish it.

Problem #9: You are struggling to find a strong academic writing style.

Students often feel intense pressure to appear intelligent and knowledgeable about a subject. In papers, that pressure can get translated into big words and long sentences. But, as it turns out, a successful paper is one that your readers can understand! Clarity is much more important than the use of fancy or flowery language, especially when you’re advancing a sophisticated and scholarly argument. Clear and concise is always, always better than a brain dump of academic lingo.

Problem #10: You have absolutely no idea what to say in your conclusion.

While the conclusion is by no means the most important part of an essay, students often arrive at the end of a paper with a loss for words. Don’t worry! You’re done with the hard part. Now you can freestyle. Once you have summarized your argument and its stakes, you can begin to engage with new analytical questions that only a person who read your paper could think to ask. Does national origin impact which fruits our country idolizes? Does Granny Smith apple pie taste more American than Golden Delicious apple pie? I sure wouldn’t have ever asked that had I not written a fantastic paper about the Granny Smith! Talking about new directions for scholarly work and the potential impact of such work is a great way to close a fantastic paper.

As you revise your work, keep these common issues in mind! With practice, the awareness of these issues will become second nature to you. Good luck!

One hundred percent? Or 100%? Tips for writing numbers.

by Raymond DeLuca, English Grammar and Language Tutor

Students bring all sorts of different essays to the Writing Center, and each discipline has its own conventions when it comes to writing numbers. People are always surprised to learn that, yes, there are good and not so good ways to write numbers in English. So, this information will save you a headache. After all, it is not the best use of your time when writing an essay (especially when it’s due in a few hours) to get stuck thinking, well, is it “3” or “three”?

Just as there are different citation styles for citing sources in different academic fields, there are also different conventions for writing numbers. Each of the most common citation styles—MLA, APA, and Chicago– offers slightly different rules for writing numbers. You should always make sure you know what style and citation guidelines you should be following for a specific assignment. If you are writing a non-technical paper and can choose your style, I recommend following the MLA guidelines, which make a lot of sense and are commonly used in cases where you’re not using a lot of numbers.

Rule #1: When should you write out numbers and when should you use the number?

For papers in the humanities and in some social sciences, you will often use either the MLA or Chicago citation styles. In those styles, when you are writing a non-technical paper, you should write out numbers less than one hundred, using a dash for two-digit numbers: eight, fifteen, forty-five, sixty-two, eighty-seven, etc., etc.  And, for numbers over one hundred: 1,435; 2,870; 5,740; 11,480. Someone here is bound to ask: “Well, does that mean one trillion should be written as 1,000,000,000,000?” No, of course not. If the number (even if it’s above one hundred) can be easily expressed in words, then keep it in words: four hundred, eight thousand, three billion, nine quintillion, etc.

If you’re using APA style, you should generally only write out numbers 1-9 and use numerals for everything else. But there is an exception: If you are using a number at the beginning of the sentence, you should write it out.

Rule #2 What about percentages?

Just like with regular numbers, different style guides express different preferences for percentages.  I like the MLA style, which advises that for a percentage less than one hundred, you should write it in words: two percent, seventy-six percent, ninety-nine percent, but, for a percentage greater than one hundred, write it in numerals: 110 percent, 500 percent, 999 percent. Besides that, as you can see, in non-technical writing, it is better to use the word “percent” rather than the percent sign, “%.” It’s ugly.

In this case, Chicago and APA style both call for using use numbers in percentages.

Rule #3: What about years?

MLA, Chicago, and APA style all say that years are better written in numerals, not words: 1967, not “nineteen sixty-seven.” (Sometimes students write out the years to pad their paper’s word count; it’s not a good look! Everyone can see what you’re doing.) It’s also considered poor style to start a sentence with a year, i.e., “2020 has been a bad year.” You could rephrase that, writing instead: “Many people thought 2020 would be a better year.”

Rule #4: What about decades?

If you’re talking about a series of events that occurred in a certain decade, say, from 1980 – 1989, you can refer to that period in three different ways: the eighties, the ‘80s, or the 1980s. But stay clear of the “nineteen eighties.”

Rule #5: If you ever find yourself writing about a score or a court decision or a ratio, you should stick with numerals (even if said numbers are less than one hundred). For example, “The Red Sox were up 4-2 before losing 6-4,” or “The contentious 5-4 Supreme Court ruling says…”

These are obviously not the only situations you will encounter when you need to write a number, but these rules will help clear up some of the most common issues I’ve seen in student writing. Numbers can be as easy as one, two, three. If you find yourself writing a science or an econometrics paper, you may have to use way more numbers than you would otherwise, and you will need to make sure you are following the guidelines in your field. Generally, though, these five suggestions are good to keep in mind.