Ten Steps to Better Academic Writing (Part 1: Steps 1 through 5)

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Good writing skills are something that all of your instructors/classes are looking for, yet not something always easy to pick up. In this and the next post, I’ll share ten steps, or tips, that will help you take your writing to the next level.

1. Give yourself extra time.
Review all questions and instructions as soon as you receive them (as soon as the Unit opens) to determine the length of the answers/essay(s) you need to write. Plan time for outlining, researching, and writing a first draft so that your writing assignment is finished with plenty of time for final revisions well before deadline.

2. Plan what you want to say before you start writing.
This is called Outlining, but it doesn’t have to be a formal outline. You can make a list of important ideas or facts you want to include in any format that works for you. Be sure to write down the info for citing your resources in the final draft later. If you include the source information in your outline/list, that makes it easier to remember where the info came from and where you’ll need to include in-text citations. Plan your work, and work your plan.

3. Write more than one topic sentence until you find one you really like.
Sometimes, we get too locked in on one topic sentence that we may miss out on a more interesting or original way to introduce the points we want to make.

4. It’s okay to write a crappy first draft.
It’s not just okay, but it’s perfectly normal and helpful, if what you write the first time through isn’t perfect. This is why #1 (time) is so important. If you allow enough time, writing is so much less stressful because you know you will have time to go back and correct any mistakes you made or add any points you may have overlooked.

In other words, DON’T PLAGIARIZE. Everything you submit (discussion posts, complete sections, essays, research papers, etc.) needs to be written in your own words, even when you have to look up information for an answer. Whenever you want to include something that someone else said or wrote, you must put the words that are not your own in quotation marks and include an in-text citation and full reference citation at the end. If you include someone else’s words in your writing and do not put it in quotation marks, that is plagiarism, because you are not showing with the quotation marks that the words aren’t yours.

If you take someone else’s writings, thoughts, or ideas, and rewrite them into your own words, you do not need to use quotation marks, but you do still need to use an in-text citation to indicate where you found that idea, as well as the full reference citation at the end.

“Plagiarism in college writing” (Pearson Education, Inc.)
Be sure to click through ALL the pages, and try some of the exercises.


“Plagiarism FAQs” (plagiarism.org)


Writing Tips: Watch Your Punctuation!

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One of the things that gets most of us in trouble when it comes to writing is what seems like the simplest: PUNCTUATION. Periods, commas, semicolons, etc., sometimes it’s hard to remember which one we’re supposed to us and where it goes. Here’s a list of free online resources to help (in addition, you can click the “Grammar Help” tag at the top of this post to view posts I’ve written here).

OWL—Purdue Online Writing Lab
There are tons of resources at the OWL site—and not just about punctuation. It’s worth your while to spend some time exploring their website.

Paradigm Online Writing Assistant—Basic Punctuation
Like the OWL site, Paradigm has a lot of resources for writing. This page covers most of the punctuation issues—with links at the top to take you to whatever section you need.

Guide to Grammar and Writing
Want to try your punctuation skills? Click this link and go to a quizzes page—scroll down to #80 and see how well you know your punctuation marks.

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips
Here is the Punctuation tag on Grammar Girl’s site. Not only does she have fun with grammar, she explains everything in a way that’s really easy to understand and remember.

This list of “Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing” goes beyond punctuation, but all of these tips are advice I’ve given to my writing students.

Grammar Help: Compound Words

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Compound words can be confusing. Some mean one thing when they’re closed (“everyday”) and something else when they’re open (“every day”). Some need a hyphen sometimes but not others. How are you supposed to know the difference?

Here are a few tips, tools, and guidelines to help.

1. Set MS Word to check for compound-word usage.

      Step 1: Click on the FILE tab and then click OPTIONS:
      Step 1

      Step 2: Click PROOFING and then SETTINGS…:
      Step 2

      Step 3: Make sure that WRITING STYLE is set to “Grammar & Style.” Then Scroll down under STYLE and make sure “Hyphenated and compound words” is checked, then click OK all the way out of Options:
      Step 3

      Step 4: As you’re writing (you can right click wherever you see a colored squiggly line) or when you run spell check, Word will alert you to compounds it thinks should be hyphenated or closed. If you aren’t sure, check www.merriam-webster.com before making the change.
      Step 4
      Step 5

2. Err on the side of closed compounds—if it isn’t right, spell check should pick it up.

  • Please be aware that the grammar checker is not always correct. Do not depend solely on the machine to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. Here’s a great grammar guide that can help you make heads or tails of what Word suggests.
  • Keep in mind that some words are correct both open and closed, but they mean different things:
      everyday is different from every day (it’s an everyday occurrence that happens every day)
      anymore is different from any more (I don’t want any more homework. I don’t do homework anymore.)
      Make sure you’re choosing the one with the correct meaning.

3. A compound adjective that comes before the noun it describes gets a hyphen. (The word well appears in many of these types of compound modifiers.)

  • I’m jealous of my neighbor’s well-kept yard. My neighbor’s yard is well kept.
  • He has a very well-organized garage. He keeps his garage very well organized.
  • It’s an age-old story.
  • Able-bodied people should park further away from the building.

Modifiers using an adverb (a word ending in -ly) don’t get a hyphen:

  • Our yard is filled with quickly growing weeds.
  • The sharply dressed man is our division chief.

4. Some terms are always hyphenated. Some that used to be aren’t anymore.

  • The black-and-white photo; the photo was processed in black-and-white.
  • My great-grandmother died six months before she would have turned 100 years old. My 91-year-old grandmother is still as spry as if she were sixty years old. (Rule of thumb—if it has an s on the end of it—years, months—it doesn’t get hyphenated. If no s, it needs to be hyphenated.)
  • My stepmother and father married three years ago. I have two stepbrothers and one stepnephew now.
  • E-mail or email is correct.
  • etc. (there are far too many instances to list all of them)
  • If in doubt, look it up on dictionary.com.

Grammar Help: Commas

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Standard Accepted Guidelines for Comma Usage
Based on the Chicago Manual of Style, APA Style Manual, Bedford Handbook, Harbrace College Handbook, and Words into Type.

This is not a comprehensive list—just the most common usages you might run across. As a writer, you can choose whether or not to apply these rules to your writing. Just make sure whichever you choose to do, do it consistently. Don’t use a serial comma sometimes and not others. Either always use it or never use it. That way, when an editor sees your work, they will know you have made a deliberate choice instead of thinking you don’t know grammar well.

1. The Serial Comma. In a list of three or more items, a comma should precede the and:
          Please go to the store and get apples, bananas, and pears for the fruit salad.
          We came, we saw, and we conquered.
She got up, got dressed, brushed her teeth, put on makeup, dropped the overdue books off at the library, went to the grocery store, got gas, and arrived home before her kids got out of the bed.

Exception 1: Do not use commas when all items in a series are joined by a conjunction:
          We are going to Bermuda or Jamaica or Barbados. 

Exception 2: No comma is used with an ampersand (&):
          He stepped into the offices of Folse, Bordelon & Guidry.

2. Independent Clauses. When two independent clauses (two complete thoughts that could stand alone as sentences) are joined by a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet, if, because*), a comma precedes the conjunction.
          The reporter turned in her story, but she missed the deadline.
          We didn’t get to go to the park, because* it was raining by the time Dad got home.
          Do you want to go swimming, or do you want to go horseback riding?

Exception 1: If the clauses are very short and very closely related, no comma is needed:
          She knelt down and she prayed.

Exception 2: If one or both of the clauses contain internal commas, use a semicolon before the conjunction:
          If you want to continue working here, Jim, we would like to keep you; but we can no longer put up with your greasy hair, ratty jeans, and Moses sandals that show off your nasty toe-jam.

*Because is a recent addition to this list and currently has the status of a style choice rather than a rule. The rule used to state that no comma came before because in a sentence, whether or not what followed it was an independent clause. However, by definition, because is a conjunction and most copy editors are beginning to treat it as such. Be careful, though, that you do not confuse it with because of, which is a preposition.

3. Introductory Phrases. Use a comma after an introductory phrase at the beginning of a sentence. These are typically adverbial (beginning with adverbs such as before, after, never, always, not, very, or –ly words) or participial (beginning with the participial form of a verb) phrases:
          At the stroke of midnight, the coach turned back into a pumpkin.
Hoping to stop the horses, he jumped on the near one’s back and pulled the reins as hard as he could.

Exception 1: A single word or very short (2–3 words) phrase does not require a comma unless a pause is intended (when read aloud) or to avoid misreading.
         Before eating, the family always says grace. 
(not Before eating the family . . .)
          Before eating we always say grace.

Exception 2: A comma is not used after an adverbial or participial phrase that immediately precedes the verb it modifies (in other words, the phrase becomes the subject of the sentence):
          Out of the cave came the most horrific shriek.
Growing in the median are some pretty wildflowers.<

4. Oh, Ah, Yes, No, Well, and Direct Address.  A comma follows the exclamatory oh or ah at the beginning of a sentence (before and after if it comes in the middle). A comma follows yes, no, well, or other such words at the beginning of a sentence. A comma precedes and/or follows a name/title used in direct address.
           It is, oh, such a wonderful thing!
Well, I thought so.
What is it, Lassie? Timmy fell down the well?
I wonder, sir, if you would please refrain from stepping on my foot again.

Exception 1: No comma needed if it is a short phrase:
          Ah yes! Oh no! Oh well.

Exception 2: No comma is needed with the poetic O:
          O Lord, how wonderful are thy ways.

5. Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Phrases. This element includes Parenthetical Elements, Interjections, Dependent Clauses, Relative Clauses, Appositives, Not…But. If a phrase is Restrictive (i.e., necessary to the meaning of the sentence) it should not be enclosed in commas. If a phrase/clause is Nonrestrictive (i.e., supplemental information, can be left out without changing the meaning of the sentence), it is enclosed in commas.
          Brandilyn Collins, the best selling author, will be here for a book signing tomorrow. (nonrestrictive)
          Richard Armitage the British actor is young and good looking. Richard Armitage the former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State is older and not so good looking. (restrictive)
          Starbucks, which has really expensive coffee, is a national chain. (nonrestrictive)
          The book that I had to read for class is due back to the library today.(restrictive)
           (Which is typically nonrestrictive, That is usually restrictive)
          My sister, Michelle, is two years older than me. (nonrestrictive—I only have one sister)
          My mother’s sister Rinn lives in Florida. (restrictive—her sister Becky lives in North Carolina)
          It is, indeed, the most wonderful time of the year. (interjection)
          This, I think, is where we turn. (interjection)

6. Coordinate and Cumulative Adjectives. Remember these from the quiz? Coordinate adjectives are those whose order can be changed (or that can be joined by and) without changing the meaning of the phrase and they need a comma. If changing the order of the adjectives changes the meaning of the phrase, they are cumulative (or compounding) adjectives and do not need a comma.
          He was a mad, bad, dangerous-to-know man.
He was mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
We marveled at the enormous blue diamond necklace.

Repeated Adjectives also get a comma:
          You’re a bad, bad boy.

Association, A. P. (2010). Publication manual of the american psychological association. (6th ed. ed.). Washington, DC: Amer Psychological Assn.

Glenn, C., & Gray, L. (2010). The hodges harbrace handbook. (17th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth Pub Co.

Hacker, D., & Sommers, N. (2010). The bedford handbook. (8 ed.). Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martins.

Press, U. O. C. (2006). The chicago manual of style. (15 ed.). Chicago, London: University Of Chicago Press.

Skillin, M. E., & Gay, R. M. (1974). Words into type. (3 ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

Grammar Help: Apostrophes

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There is a little punctuation mark that has a giant dilemma: the apostrophe. Little Apostrophe likes to hang around in contractions and possessives, but many times gets thrown into places where he doesn’t like to be—especially plurals. Little Apostrophe doesn’t understand why people insist on forcing him into places he doesn’t want to go. Let’s find out how to protect Little Apostrophe . . .

1. Contractions and abbreviations: Apostrophes are used when two words are joined together and/or when letters are omitted (contractions such as can’t, won’t, didn’t, ’tis and abbreviations such as ’em, ’07, or ’99). When the apostrophe comes at the beginning of the word (as in ’tis), the opening of the curve goes toward the letters that have been omitted. This differentiates it from a single quote mark. 

don’t—contraction of do not. The apostrophe replaces the letter (o). (Bedford 36c, CMS 7.31)

rock ’n’ roll—abbreviation of and. The apostrophes replace the (a) and the (d). (Bedford 36c, CMS 7.31)

’tis—the apostrophe would be pointing toward the omitted letter (i) to form the contraction for it is. (Bedford 36c, CMS 7.31)

’07—the apostrophe would be pointing toward the omitted numbers (20) to indicate the shortened form of the year 2007. (Bedford 36c, CMS 9.34)

2. Possessives: This is another area where I saw a lot of people struggle gramatically in the Genesis contest. According to the CMS “general rule” (7.17)– “The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s, and the possessive of plural nouns (except for a few irregular plurals that do not end in s) by adding an apostrophe only.” Before adding an apostrophe or an —’s to the word, please examine the word to make sure it’s singular or plural first. (CMS 7.17–7.18.)

This is Jones’s dog / This is the Joneses’ dog (the first indicates there is only one Jones, the second that there are two or more Joneses who own the dog—the confusing thing is that both are pronounced the same when spoken).

This is the childrens’ first play date / This is the children’s first play date (the first is just completely wrong, because children is already plural, therefore, adding an –s before the apostrophe is incorrect)

It’s so easy, it’s child’s play.

(See CMS 7.19–7.22 for exceptions)

3. Plurals: Apostrophes are never, never, never, never, never, never used to create plurals*. Plurals are formed by adding an –s or –es (or –ies for words that end with y) to the end of the word (for the most part—there are those that completely change form when made plural, like women and children)—even when they are proper names or single capital letters. Don’t apologize for adding an –s to a word by feeling you have to put in an apostrophe. Be bold! Just add the –s! For example:

Keeping up with the Joneses

We’re taking the kids to the beach.

The Jacksons live here.

The three Rs: reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic. (what educator ever came up with that?)

the 1990s, the 1800s, I Love the ’80s.

even abbreviations: vols. (for volumes), eds. (for editions)

no ifs, ands, or buts

The Dos and Don’ts of Networking

yesses and nos

*Exception: Okay, so there are two very rare instances when you would use an apostrophe to create a plural: with lowercase letters (dot your i’s and cross your t’s) and with abbreviations that have internal periods or use both captial and lowercase letters (M.A.’s, Ph.D’s—though the trend is toward omitting the periods, so in this case these would become MAs and PhD’s–with the apostrophe with the second due to the lowercase h). See CMS 7.14–7.16 for further examples and explanations.

Works Cited:
Hacker, D., & Sommers, N. (1998). The Bedford Handbook. (5 ed.). Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martins.

Press, U. O. C. (2006). The chicago manual of style. (15 ed.). Chicago, London: University Of Chicago Press.