Rachel’s Quality Control Writing Tips (in no particular order)
Writing is probably one of the more difficult things you’ll have to do in school, whether you’re a “writing” person or not. Sure, maybe it’s easy to write a moderately okay paper that kinda-sorta get’s your point across. But what if that paper is your thesis? Your keystone project? Your final research paper or presentation? Maybe even your application essay? As difficult as writing may seem, it’s also one of the easiest ways to boost your grade or even give you a leg up in the application process. Most of these tips will focus on academic writing, like term and research papers and theses, but some tips are applicable to less expository writing as well, such as application essays. If you want more tips on personal, narrative driven writing (what you’ll use in an application essay), let me or my sister know! I’m happy to help!
First, I want to preface this: These tips cannot replace an editor or proofreader for something like a master’s thesis or a dissertation (please PLEASE use an editor for such important research papers). But, you’ll find they are useful tools for just about everything else. Below are my top five tips for self-driven quality control in your writing, as well as six editing quick-tips I use not only in my own writing, but it my everyday life as an editor.
1: Read it out loud
The brain is an amazing thing, and often, when we read in our heads, it autocorrects missed words or similar but incorrect words, an vs. a for example, as we read them. This is also partially because we aren’t necessarily paying as much attention when we’re reading in our own heads because it’s simply easier than reading aloud.
Reading aloud forces you to stumble over words that are being used incorrectly, phrases that don’t flow, and other common typos. You can read it aloud to yourself and mark where you stumble or you can read it to someone else. This is usually the option I prefer, and I’m about to tell you why.
2: Read it to someone else
A common problem seen by all writers is slowly becoming blind to what you have written. You’ve been dealing with this paper for so long that no matter what you write, it’s going to seem like it makes sense. However, the clarity of your paper is incredibly important. It makes it easier to read and allows you to deliver your information directly and without fuss. It might work for English Lit. majors (no offense to lit majors), but writing papers so confusingly that you have spent five hours writing 15 pages of nothing isn’t gong to get you anywhere in a technical field where your knowledge and ability to present and use that knowledge is more impressive and important than your ability to write a flouncy, verbose paper.
So, how do you make sure your information is being portrayed as clearly and concisely as possible? You find someone who doesn’t have the faintest clue what you’re talking about, or at least, has very minimal knowledge of the field, and you read your paper to them. And look at that; you just ticked off item one, too! When you’re done, ask them if they can tell you what it was about and if they understood it. If they can, excellent! If not, ask them what was unclear and where you could clarify or simplify. Also, encourage them to speak up while you’re reading to them. If something sounds weird or unclear in the moment, fix it and rework it until it is clear.
3: Check your structure
Your paper should be organized in a manner that best showcases the information you’re trying to convey. There are several ways to order your paper, your paragraphs, even sentences, but the two main are ascending importance or time and something I call bookending. Again, please note that these are the main structures for ACADEMIC writing. There are so many different options for narrative or creative writing. But for now, let’s just focus on these two.
Ascending order is exactly what it sounds like; you’re building to a larger conclusion. This works very well if you are defending your research and your individual arguments augment and build upon each other. You want to build the hype.
Bookending works on another writing fundamental: the beginning and end of a paper, section, paragraph, or sentence are the most important. This works well for straight, cut and dry exposition where you aren’t necessarily trying to prove a point but are simply presenting information. Your first and last paragraphs (or sections because, let’s face it, the idea that each paragraph fully comprises your argument is completely ludicrous) should pack a punch and engage your reader (first) and remind them why this is important (last).
Of course, no one said you have to pick just one. Each part of your paper is unique, so really give thought to what you are trying to do with your paper? Are you defending the efficacy of evidence-based practice? Then you’re going to use a mix of structures. You’re going to use ascending order for your main points, but within each section, you’re going to bookend, especially if you’re argument is based on a compare-and-contrast scenario. Give them the opposing argument to start and blow that argument out of the water with your supporting evidence at the end. Fill the middle with some data and evidence and voila! Cake! Or, you know, a compelling argument. Both are nice.
How you present your information is just as important as what your information is, so think carefully on how you’re going to do just that. Other options: are you describing a body system, the nervous system perhaps? Great! Mimic the nervous system in your paper. Start with data input, nerve endings, and end with where all that data ends up, the brain! (ascending) Are you defending the argument that certain preventive measures need to be taken in a specific patient population to enhance quality of life? Bookend that paper! Start with anecdotes of what has gone wrong and how things need to change in that population, give your supporting evidence (usually in ascending order. See, we’re already mixing things up!) and finish with a rousing success story to get your audience motivated. Get creative!
The good news is, structure is pretty easy to fix even when the paper is completely written by simply cutting and pasting. At that point, it just requires some tweaking of transitions.
4: Be mindful of your transitions
Speaking of, nothing will ruin the clarity and flow of your paper faster than a bad transition. And transitions don’t have to be just an introductory sentence; you can use small two-sentence paragraphs between your sections as transitions. Or you can use a specific set of data, or an anecdote. Seriously, just do the opposite of whatever five-sentence/paragraph structure your high school teacher taught you. However, always remember the purpose of your transitions. They should address what you discussed immediately before and how it relates to what you will discuss immediately following. It sounds simple, but you’d be amazed how often transitions are neglected despite their importance. Get creative with your transitions! Have fun!
5: Forget everything you know about conclusions
Oh, conclusions. High school English teachers everywhere ruin their students’ paper-writing skills before they have even had a chance to develop. They tell you your conclusion should review what you’ve spent your entire paper explaining. Why?! This is boring and incredibly unhelpful. Should your conclusion remind your reader what you were arguing and what your topic was? Absolutely! But don’t overdo it. Reiterate what your main argument was or the main topic you were explaining, yes, but then look to the future. Always leave your reader with somewhere to go next. You can either direct them to more information on what you’ve just discussed or point them forward to future developments or processes that could come about because of what you’ve just presented. A conclusion is never meant to be an end; it’s meant to be a guide to further information that builds off yours.
Now, you’ve passed quality control, but your paper still needs some polishing. Don’t underestimate the power of good editing and a good editor. Ensuring your paper is as clean and tight as it can be on a technical level is one of the easiest ways to make sure your paper is a step above the rest. Of course, for your major papers, such as theses or dissertations, please hire a professional editor, but for regular research papers, here are some quick tips for pulling it all together.
1: Write yourself a checklist
Okay, so technically, you should do this first, not only to help you write, but to help you make sure you’ve ticked all the boxes. Look at your rubric (and the above quality controls) and create a checklist of everything you need to accomplish with your paper and all the technical criteria you need to meet, such as style. Then, as you read it back, check with that list to make sure you’ve fulfilled all criteria.
2: Create a style cheat-sheet
Figure out what style guide your program uses and create a checklist of the most important conventions and fixes for the most common errors. For most nursing programs, this will be APA style. You can find several of the common rules online, but these things can get complicated. If you’d like, I can create cheat sheets for the most common style guides and provide them to you through Liz. You will be amazing how much you can elevate your paper (and your grade) simply by making sure you adhere neatly to style guide conventions.
3: Be clear, be simple, be concise
Although this was mentioned above, it cannot be overstated. You aren’t aiming to impress your professor with flouncy prose. You are aiming to educate and defend a position. So put down the thesaurus! When you’re editing your paper, be mindful of language that is too complicated. Is it easily understood at first glance? No? Rewrite it. It’s always better to say it once and say it well, then to say it ten different mediocre ways. Another way to check for this is to actually track how many times you’ve used a certain phrase or made a specific point. If you find yourself making the same point over and over again, highlight it or underline it, then go back and figure out what is necessary and what isn’t.
4: MAKE AN OUTLINE
This kind of goes hand-in-hand with number one up there, and, again, do this before you start writing. I can’t tell you how many people think they don’t need to make an outline. Yes, yes you do. This makes the writing process less stressful and gives you a lovely road map for writing and editing your paper. When you’re reading your paper back, if you find it starts to wander away from your strict outline, that’s a sign you need some revision.
5: Take a break
One of the first things I learned when taking my editing courses was that sometimes you just have to step away. You start to become blind to what you’ve written when you’ve worked on the same paper for so long. Take a break between writing and editing your paper so you can look at it with fresh eyes. I actually suggest taking a break between different stages of editing, too. Write, then take a break. Do your quality controls, then take a break. Apply your editing quick-tips, then take a break before your final proof. You’ll be able to catch any mistakes much more easily after some time away. Of course, this only works if you don’t procrastinate, which Liz and I both do. So, yeah.
6: Be mindful of misplaced modifiers
One of the most common mistakes I see is misplaced modifiers. A major linguistic theory finds that like things tend to stay close together in a sentence. Take for example: “Art representing the four seasons by acclaimed artists” is preferred over “Art by acclaimed artists representing the four seasons.” This is because misplaced modifiers cause ambiguity. In the second example “representing the four seasons” could technically be modifying “art” and “artists.” Read your papers carefully and reword to avoid any and all cases of ambiguity. Then voila! You’re done! (Well, really, you can do these in any order, but at least you’re done reading my long ramblings!)
Thank you Rachel for guest writing the above article! Rachel has a BA in English linguistics from Eastern Michigan University and a professional certificate in editing from the University of Chicago Graham School. She’s edited content in academia, marketing, journalism, and creative literature, and she is currently an assistant editor for a graphic novel publisher in the greater Philadelphia area. She also freelances on the side and is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association. If you would like to work with her for some more personalized editing help with your academic papers, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.