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Improving Your Writing

Writing is an integral component of the process of becoming educated. (Thiroux 1)

Several things need to be done "up front" to insure writing a good paper. The most essential beginning priority must be to give the project enough time. "Student writers often put off their writing assignments until just before they are due, thereby eliminating the chance to do any true revision and often eliminating careful proofreading and editing" (Thiroux 1). Rewriting--revision, editing--is what produces a quality paper.

Choose topics you can handle

"When you try to write about something that does not interest you, you are setting yourself up to fail." Sometimes, you can develop interest by researching the topic. But if that doesn't work, you better change the topic before you get into real trouble.

If you are totally clueless as to a topic, go to Yahoo online, or one of the other directory type search engines, and explore any topics listed there that interest you.

Once you find something interesting, do a search and find out what it has to offer--ie., how much can you find. Let's look at a few possible topics:

Aviation & Aeronautics 439
Artificial Life 148
Complex Systems 23
Nanotechnology 34
Information Technology 66

You can see from the above results that some topics would need to be further narrowed if you chose them. However, there seems to be enough information on each of them.

You may get hit with something besides simple research papers. In the fifteen weeks of a one-semester course in composition, for instance, you will be called upon to write anywhere from ten to fifteen themes of two kinds (Ehrlich, 1976):

1. Impromptu

2. Prepared


You prepare for an impromptu essay by developing the habits of an educated person (Ehrlich, 1976):


Read the newspaper every day

Regularly read a selection of magazines worth reading

Listen to good music

Listen to good conversation

Go to the theater

Go to art museums

Read good books


A prepared theme is written only after a careful choice of topic, consideration of just what should be said about it, preparation of a plan for treating the topic adequately, research in the topic when necessary, and a careful outline (Ehrlich, 1976).

Choosing a topic:

(Ehrlich, 1976)

Care in choosing a topic will prevent a great deal of trouble.

The average college theme is apt to run about five hundred words.

It is far better to develop a limited topic completely than to try to do justice to a grand scheme in a few words.

Make sure you do not underestimate the scope of a problem you are going to discuss.

Choose theme topics that involve no more research than you can complete in the time at your disposal.

Before embarking on any paper that requires research, check your resources to find out whether you can find what you will need.

Choose topics that you can…

treat adequately in the time you have for preparation,

treat adequately in the assigned theme length, and

research without excessive difficulty.


These are the usual steps in the writing process (based on Thiroux 8):

  1. Finding a topic
  2. Refining the subject
  3. Better definition of the topic
  4. Research; find information
  5. Refine the topic further based on research findings
  6. Do more research now that the topic is refined
  7. Organize the ideas you have found--create an outline draft
  8. Draft of paper by filling in the outline
  9. Think about it; reconsider; collaborate with others
  10. Revise
  11. Think about it; reconsider; collaborate with others
  12. Keep revising and re-thinking until clarity strikes
  13. Or, you run out of time
  14. Editing
  15. Proofreading


Before you actually begin creating an outline and then filling it in to create the first draft of your paper, you will need to do a couple of things:

Soaking in the literature
Keeping a journal

Soaking in the literature

You must become absorbed in the literature of your topic until you are relatively familiar with the major studies and facts in the area, the primary authors who write about the area, the principle theories related to the area. You must, in other words, "soak in the literature" until you become sort of an expert on that topic. This is a MAJOR reason to narrow your topic as much as possible. Another reason is that you cannot possibly read all the research on a large topic; you cannot avoid sounding like an amateur when you write your paper. On the other hand, if you choose a fairly narrow topic, you can read almost everything that's been written on it; you can be a REAL expert on the topic and write with authority!

(You DO know what an "expert" is, don't you? An "ex" is a has-been; and a "spurt" is a drip under pressure... Just a little humor).

As you soak in the literature a pattern of information will emerge or form in your mind. This is when you sit down and write your first outline of the paper.

Keeping a journal

"Writing is thinking on paper, so keeping a journal is a way of capturing your thoughts. How many times have you had a great idea only to find a few moments later that you have lost it" (Thiroux 14).

As you do research on a topic, you will begin to think about it. Carry a notebook with you at all times so that when inspiration strikes you can write it down. For me, ideas often crop up while I am shaving, or when I first wake up in the morning. Sometimes I even wake up in the middle of the night with an idea. You will want your notebook right there so that you can write down your thoughts.

Another form of journal keeping is when you work with others over the Internet. A chat line or a listserv can help trigger ideas for everyone.


Another activity you will find useful, particularly in a group, is brainstorming.

"Brainstorming is an idea generation technique that started in business. Managers found that meetings called to solve a problem would get stuck on discussion of the first solution proposed. The people attending the meeting would usually not hear any other ideas or solve the problem... Here are the rules for brainstorming in a group.

  • A topic is chosen for the brainstorming session.
  • One person records the ideas on a chalkboard, an overhead projection panel, or a computer display that all group members can see.
  • Any group member can submit ideas.
  • The ideas can be listed as words or phrases (don't take time at this stage to write out sentences or explanations).
  • There is no limit to the number of ideas.
  • All ideas are recorded, even if they sound dumb at the time.
  • No censoring or discussion is allowed during the idea generation phase" (Thiroux 17).

The point is to get out as many ideas as possible without the negative influence of discussion or criticism. For more on brainstorming, see ParaMind and Co-Motion. Or, try a search on the Web.

Framing Your Topic

Once you have your topic, try asking the standard journalist questions about it...

Thiroux (21) suggests using the subjects you study to investigate the topic on which you are working. For instance, if your topic is AIDS...

Subject Question to Ask
Psychology What percentage of AIDS victims commit suicide?
Economics Who pays for AIDS?
History How long as AIDS been around? What about its history is interesting?
Nursing What is different about caring for an AIDS patient?
Chemistry What progress is being made toward a cure for AIDS?

Critical Thinking about your topic

"We usually think so rapidly that we do not take time to evaluate our ideas... Have you made any assumptions about your topic that need validation? If so, how do you plan to substantiate them?" (Thiroux, 23).

Don't be caught by deadlines

(Ehrlich, 1976):

Whenever an idea for a theme comes to mind, write it down so that you will have a record of it. The best place to write it is in your Daytimer.

Make careful notes on your research.

Research ideas even for papers that have not yet been assigned. If you can keep a supply of theme topics on hand, they will never go to waste.

Clarity of writing

(Ehrlich, 1976):

Whatever you write must be understood.

Your writing must match its purpose and audience, just like a poem or novel.

Remember that you are writing for your professor.

Your writing must display good sense, accuracy, convincing argument, evidence, direction, precision, and respect for the intelligence of the reader.

Above all, your writing must be clear.

Clarity of thought

(Ehrlich, 1976):

How is clarity achieved? First of all, by being clear in your own mind as to what it is you are trying to convey.

Your thesis, your main idea, the attitude you are trying to produce in your audience—whatever your purpose in writing—should be before you always as you write.

Write your purpose on a large sheet of paper and tack it on the wall in front of you until you are finished with the assignment.

Outlining is one of the best methods for achieving the goal you have set. It will guide your paper inexorably toward your goal.

Once the outline satisfies you in regard to clarity of direction, write the topic sentence for each step in the development of the paper.

Develop the topic sentence of each individual section.

Every sentence your write must meet the test of clarity. Read each of your sentences with these questions in mind:

Can it be made any clearer?

How far is its grammatical subject from its predicate? The closer the better.

Will your reader have to work hard to understand what its pronouns stand for?

Does each sentence take the reader further along the lines you are developing? Don’t let a sentence take your reader away from the highway of your main idea.

Does the length of the sentence clarify or obscure meaning? Short sentences are almost always better.

Do you have any sentences that are so fogbound that the reader will have to grope his way through them?

Does each sentence you have written belong just where you have placed it within its paragraph. Perhaps it belongs in an adjacent paragraph, perhaps nowhere in the paper.

Can some of your sentences be improved by reducing them to clauses and attaching them to adjacent sentences?


Use precisely the right word… In your first draft of a paper, don’t spend time worrying over individual words. But after the first draft is complete, take another look at what you have written.

Use words that clarify. Do NOT use words that pad, approximate, or obscure.



Read the paper aloud to yourself so that you can hear each word and judge its value. Oral reading forces you to focus on each word of a paper and puts a spotlight on obscurity.

Outline the paper as you read it. Forget that you were the writer. Imagine yourself the teacher reading the paper for the first time. When you have finished, the outline should be well constructed. If it is, your readers will accept the paper.

Have a classmate read the paper. Choose someone who honestly wants to help. Can he or she grasp your ideas easily? Do they have to ask questions about your theme? If they have to ask any questions, you need to go back to work on the paper.

Emphasize your main ideas. You will not want to paint an untrue picture by telling your reader only what supports your thesis. But you certainly will want to give the most and best space to material that supports your point.

Concentrate your attack. Build support carefully for a prominent idea before going on to something else. Dealing with one point at a time will help your reader keep his attention on the important point you are making.

Get to the point fast. Every beginning point where the reader starts out fresh with you is the place where you must capitalize on his or her willingness to work with you. Don’t disappoint the reader; say something worth reading.

Get to the point fast. If the opening position in every unit of your paper is attractive to your reader, he or shee will be able to follow your reasoning. Don’t let your reader’s interest die waiting for your first significant statement.

Use a variety of sentences and paragraphs.

Sentences and paragraphs should reflect the importance of what you have to say. Long sentences sometimes point up an idea you want to impress on the reader, but short sentences usually do it better.

How about a question to make a point? Or a fragment? Variety is available and should be used.

Here are the questions you must seek to answer as you edit your paper:

Are all your paragraphs of the same length? They should not be if your ideas are not of equal importance—and they are surely not.

Are they all cut from the same pattern—main ideas followed by evidence, or explanations leading up to a main idea and then the details? All your ideas do not lend themselves equally well to any single form of paragraph construction.

Which paragraphs should be shortened, which lengthened, which eliminated?

Do your paragraphs move logically from idea to idea?

Does each paragraph belong exactly where it is placed? Good paragraphing reflects the emphasis you want to give main ideas, the subordination minor ideas must have.

Some stylistic devices for achieving emphasis

(Ehrlich, 1976):

The short paragraph. The short paragraph standing between long paragraphs has the same property.


Colorful language



Citing authorities

Numbering schemes… Numbering things catches the reader’s attention



Ehrlich, Eugene H. How to Study Better and Get Higher Marks. NY: Ty Crowell Co., 1976. ISBN 0690011814.

Thiroux, Emily. The Critical Edge: Thinking and Researching in a Virtual Society. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.

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Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

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