Writing tips #2: Conventions make readers happy. . .

. . . and a happy reader (examiner) is likely to have a friendly response to what you write.  So as your final effort for 2016, the one where you are determined to ‘get better’ and eliminate the nasty gremlins in your writing style, give your writing an honest look at these three matters:

  1. The convention of punctuating a work’s title in your essays and responses to questions.
  2. The convention of only talking about one thing at a time, a convention known as the paragraph.
  3. The convention of helping your reader know where you are going, when you are changing direction or taking a breath.  This convention is called the transition.

And so to the first:  You know about this (underline or italics for longer works, ”   ” for shorter works or poems) but you don’t use this consistently.  It’s fine as you mention Auden’s poem, ‘Dover’ with the correct punctuation in your introduction, but students seem to believe that having indicated ‘I know how to punctuate a poem, you can see I know that convention’ once, it’s over.  And where does that leave your reader when you decide that sometimes you refer to the place, Dover, in your essay and sometimes you mean the poem?  Need I say more?  Yes, every time you cite the title of the work, you need to use the punctuation convention. ( And yes, after your first reference you can use ellipsis as in ‘Ode…’ for ‘Ode to the West Wind’–and not OWW!)

2. If you’re talking about Horatio’s loyalty in one place and then contrasting it to the perfidy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in another in your Hamlet essay, and you have several observations or examples for each, do your reader the favor of separating these into paragraphs.  It would seem that many of your essays are composed like one very long text message.  NO!  When you change the topic or adjust the direction of your argument, give us a new paragraph.  It is a friendly gesture that acknowledges you are talking to someone else who is not inside your head.

3. And as you move from paragraph to paragraph, how about a bit of signaling, the convention known as the transition?  Just as you would in giving someone directions on the street or telling a personal story to someone, so too the reader is happy to have a signal like ‘In contrast to’ or ‘Nevertheless’ or ‘In the final analysis.’

There is a good deal more to say about 2 and 3, but you could really help yourself by going back to some pieces of your writing and honestly asking yourself whether you are in good shape on these.  If you need some immediate help, go to one of the many web help sites such as:

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/

or one of the other writing tutorials.  Give yourself an end of the year gift by solving 3 basic problems.

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