Author Archive


May 3, 2012

Proofreading is one of the last phases of the writing process where you carefully seek out and correct grammatical and typographical errors in your final draft before presenting your work to an audience (professor, blog post, publisher, job, etc.).

Despite the fact that everyone has a different approach to the proofreading process, there are always ways to improve your proofreading skills:

  • Give yourself a little bit of distance from your text before you begin the process of proofreading. Take a break even if it is less than a half-hour so you can return to your text with fresh eyes and a clear mind.
  • Spend time carefully working with the text—errors occur with higher frequency when you’re rushing through your work and the proofreading process. Take the time to look closely at each sentence.
  • Rather than working with the text on the computer screen, print it out and read each line at a reduced speed with a pen in hand.
  • Read the text aloud. Hearing yourself say every word helps you identify errors you may skip if you read silently.
  • Step into the imaginative shoes of your audience to alter your perspective of the work. By reading the text as if you are an audience member, rather than the author, you can approach the text from a learner’s viewpoint to see if the information is being transmitted effectively.
  • Ask friends or family you are comfortable sharing your writing with to look over a hard copy draft so they can catch mistakes that you overlook.
  • Make sure you utilize your spell checker in the software you’re using. But remember that there are many things it won’t catch: homonyms (pair, pare, & pear); incorrectly divided compound words (court yard = courtyard); incorrect pronouns (his vs. hers); usage errors (its vs. it’s); missing words; misspelled names that are in the spell checker’s dictionary; incorrect verb tenses (mixing past tense with present tense); passive voice; & repetition where a phrase is repeated and not just two of the same words back-to-back.

Personalize your proofreading process by carefully observing what type of error patterns you typically make based upon your own insights coupled with your reviewer or instructor’s comments about your writing. Ask a Writing Lab tutor to help you tease out some of these patterns. Once you have identified your own personalized errors, learn how to fix these errors by talking with your instructor and/or tutors. Think ahead about how to avoid them while you’re in the process of creating the text.

Please see the following Proofreading Techniques from Stanford’s Office of Accessible Education . Also, study the Proofreader’s Marks table and begin to use the standard editing marks on your own work with each hardcopy you print.

Inclusion of Counter-Arguments

February 28, 2012

You’ve been assigned an essay in your English class that asks you to take several readings from the syllabus and use them to support your own personal writing philosophy.  Immediately you may think about how Stephen King’s nonfiction work is intriguing due to the transmission phenomena between the writer and the reader he labels Telepathy.  Then you think about Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical piece “How to write about Africa” and praise the idea of deconstructing stereotypes that commonly appear in bad writing.  No matter what you’ve been assigned for your class readings it’s natural to gravitate to what you liked or what you agree with.  Since your task is to articulate a philosophy of writing inspired by other’s ideas, these ideas are essential to opening up a dialogue where your voice counts too.  But what if an author from the readings has an argument or idea about writing that you disagree with?  What do you do with their work?  Do you ignore them?

Many times it’s easier to work with writers and ideas that you agree with, but what are some of the perks of placing a voice in your work that is in conflict with you or other’s philosophies?

Let us start with a common philosophical concept:  one way to know what your writing philosophy entails is to also know what it does not entail.  That’s to say knowing what it isn’t will help define clearly what it is.  Ignoring criticism or skeptical counter-arguments can be a significant mistake.  It’s not a paradox to say your writing can be strengthened by listening to dissenting concepts and by giving them a fair hearing through explicit description.  In essence, placing a ‘naysayer’ in your text is a reinforcing juxtaposition that builds credibility for your persuasive argument by acknowledging and anticipating doubts and objections.

However, I should note that depending on the constraints of an assignment, logistically you may find that there is not much room for naysayers.  Please keep in mind that counter-arguments are more at home in larger research papers.  What’s important here is that you get the practice of incorporating counter-arguments into your work so that you are presenting a dialogue of debate rather than a one-sided set of claims in a vacuum.  However, never plant a counter-argument in a text just to do so, find one’s worth entertaining that can be disarmed.

You can make oppositional ideas work for you rather than against you by giving the reader convincing ideas or evidence that suggests different conclusions.  You will find that this approach is respectful to the reader’s intelligence as you present open-minded inquiry.  Another bonus is this practice gives you more to talk about and your assignment will have more depth (you will find it easier to fulfill the assignments minimum page length).

Remember to keep it all straight forward and be fair.  You may be tempted to quickly mention oppositions to your argument and in some cases mock them.  Simply tell the reader exactly what they are in detail and don’t waste your time being biased in your judgment of them because you can let your answers to these objections do the work necessary to persuade your reader.  Also, remember that you may not be able to wholly refute naysayers that have convincing or truth based arguments;  earnestly reject what’s wrong and acknowledge what’s right: “yes, but” or “yes and no.”

To give you a more well rounded understanding of counter-arguments take a moment to read an adaptation from The Academic Essay: A Brief Anatomy, for the Writing Center at Harvard University.

a knack for quoting

February 18, 2012

An effective (coherent and correspondent) argument is reliant upon your ability as a writer to bring others’ credible ideas, claims, and arguments together to form an open dialogue within your essay.  Moreover, the success of your own argument and its conclusions become reliant upon the introduction and analysis of these texts and the ideas they entail.  You need to think broadly about want to pull from various texts as your quotations; for example, your citations can range from hard numerical evidence to demonstrated facts to abstract philosophy and scholarly opinion.

What’s important to acknowledge when making an argument is that sometimes summary is simply not enough—you have to show us exactly what others have said concerning the topic(s).  It’s a misnomer to assume that quoting others is some sort of inherent weakness in your writing and ability to convey your own ideas, because in reality you’re showing the readers your knowledge of the subject(s) and topic(s) of which you’ve chosen to speak of.  You’re also bringing credibility and accuracy to your work by artfully using quotations.

Since it’s  important to find the proper range of quotations you should use for a given assignment or research paper, you’ll need to consistently evaluate the nature of your assignment and argument to make sure you’re not quoting too little or too much.  In the case of quoting too little you may feel like you do not want to revisit an author’s text because you can simply form your own way of describing, reconstructing, the author’s ideas.  The problem with this is two-part: first, there is no dialogue happening in your work, and second, the lack of direct support that comes from citing evidence is nowhere to be found.  If, on the other hand, you quote too much, you put yourself at risk of creating an essay that has little analysis, thus leaving no room for the essential goal of making yourself part of, and an extension to, the dialogue.

Another common mistake is assuming that the quote speaks for itself.  Each time you cite a source you cannot assume the reader is familiar with its rhetorical situation or the scholar.  In essence you have to frame each citation with an endpoint in mind that revolves around supplementing, furthering, your own argument or investigation.  Framing is important as it allows you to effectively introduce a voice into your work in such a way that allows the reader to understand why you value the quote and why this supports your own ideas.  Framing your quote by effectively bringing it into the text requires smooth and elaborated transitions (please see citation template link below).  Don’t let the quote spontaneously appear.  Remember that the quote has to be followed by correspondent analysis; don’t let the citations just dangle and then move on to another point. And also remember that your citation doesn’t do the work for you, but rather gives you the ability to do your work (assignment) as an academic writer.

Once again it’s important to bring in a quote for the purpose of furthering your argument, and not just showing the reader that you have read others’ work.  It should be noted that many times you will find a quote that seems to be great for what you imagine your essay will argue, will be, but as your essay and concepts co-evolve it no longer carries the weight that you need it to for your own rhetorical situation.  One thing to keep in mind as you piece together your thesis during the process of research and writing, you will notice changes in your evaluations and perspectives relative to the utility of the passages you’ve selected.  That’s to say that you need to choose your quotes wisely and be open to changes as your argument develops.

This link gives helpful beginner templates for framing your quotes on how to introduce, summarize, explain, and set up your analysis.

A little bit of modification

April 15, 2011

Grammatical modifiers, sometimes referred to as qualifiers, come in two types: “bound” & “free.”  One way to understand free modifiers is to think of them as any construction or phrase added to a bases clause, which is set off by commas.  Bound modifiers, on the other hand, are not set off by commas but interwoven into a base clause that they modify.   Modifiers can be a word, a phrase or an entire clause.   All in all, modifiers provide more accurate definitional meaning for another element of a sentence—and being able to recognize various types allows writers, particularly in revision, to add more detail or meaning to a sentence.

Free Modifiers

When a fourth customer in one week complained about her service, after working another eight hour shift without breaks, without coffee or a cigarette, she decided to quit, nerves shot and burned out on retail.

*The base clause is “she decided to quit,” and the underlined phrases modify it by adding in extra information—enriching the sentence and explaining why she quit.

Bound Modifiers

One reason academic writing is highly valued at American Universities is it’s supposed to represent an educational standard that reflects or measures the growth of one’s critical thinking skills.

*The unusual split here in the base clause shows that the bound modifiers are not set off by commas and are interwoven, clustered around, what they modify.

Correcting dangling modifiers:

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word or base clause which has not been clearly stated in the sentence.


*Having quit the job earlier in the afternoon, Cecily brought up Hulu on the computer when she got home to try and relax.

“Having quit the job earlier in the afternoon” recounts an action from a part of a day but does not name the actor who performed the action.  In English sentences, the actor has to be the subject of the main clause.  Because it is clear that Cecily is the actor who quit her job, this sentence does not have a dangling modifier.


*Having quit the job earlier in the afternoon, to try and relax Hulu was brought up on the computer.

“Having quit the job earlier in the afternoon” is a participle expressing action, but the actor is not Hulu (i.e. the subject of the main clause).  Hulu doesn’t quit jobs or try to relax after a hard day.  The actor expressed in the participle was never stated so the participle phrase is said to be a dangling modifier.

Quick tips on fixing dangling modifiers:

Name the appropriate or logical actor that carries out the action as the subject of the main clause.

Name the actor in the clause thus altering the phrase that dangles, making it into a complete introductory clause.

Join the main clause and phrase into one coherent sentence.

Chicago Manual Style

March 26, 2011

For those of you majoring in history, literature and the arts you may be required to use a form of Chicago Manual Documentation Style known as the Notes-Bibliography System.

The paper should be footnoted according to the standard CMS guidelines, double-spaced, in 12 pt font, with page numbers and one inch margins all around.  Certain professors will require both a title page and a bibliography page.

The Notes-Bibliography system includes either an endnote or footnote every time you use a source.  This can come in the form of a direct quote, paraphrase or summary.  Footnotes appear at the end of the page on which the source is referenced, while endnotes are grouped at the end of each chapter or at the end of the paper.

*Quick note: The first time you cite a source include the author’s full name; source title; and facts of publication (much like the bibliography).  If you cite the same source again, the note only needs to include the surname of the author, a shortened form of the title, and page number(s).

Also, in the Notes-Bibliography system, the bibliography provides an alphabetical list of all sources you use for your research paper.

Use the following guidelines to cite your sources.

Use the first format for your bibliography (B) and the second for the footnotes (FN). Items in your bibliography should be divided between primary and secondary sources and listed by author in alphabetical order. Your bibliography should be single spaced, with one blank line between entries. For additional information on how to cite sources, check the Chicago Manual of Style Online, or click here.

Bossy, John.  Christianity in the West 1400-1700.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
) Bossy, Christianity West, 212.

Journal Article
Brown, Elizabeth A.R. “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and the Historians of Medieval Europe,” The American Historical Review 79 (1974): 1063-1088.
(FN) Brown, “The Tyranny,” 1080.

Article in a Book
DeLooz, Pierre. “Towards a sociological study of canonized sainthood in the Catholic Church,” in Saints and their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History, ed. Stephen Wilson, 189-216. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
(FN) DeLooz, “Towards a sociological study,” 200.

Primary Source in Collection
Gregory VII. “First Deposition and Banning of Henry IV by Gregory VII,” in The Middle Ages: Volume I, Sources of Medieval History ed. Brian Tierney, 124-125. New York: McGraw Hill, 1999.
Gregory VII, “First Deposition,” 124.

Primary Source from the Internet [For secondary sources from the internet, such as articles from JSTOR, use the Journal Article format above].
James I of Aragón. “The Barcelona Navigation Act of 1227.” TheInternetMedievalSourcebook. (accessed March 25, 2011).
James I, “Navigation Act.”

Sources you should NOT use for your Paper
Class Notes
General Encyclopedias
Popular Magazine Articles
Popular History Books
Secondary Sources from the Internet including, but not limited to Wikipedia and other online encyclopedias. [As a general rule, do not cite secondary sources from the internet.  Academic articles, book reviews, etc. are kept online in databases like JStor or H-Net].

virtues of the grading rubric?

February 28, 2011

It’s not a mystery as to why students tend to feel anxious about grades. When your writing is being ranked, evaluated, tension lurks around every corner. Though there is no complete or easy solution to this quagmire—you can use your professor’s evaluation standards and philosophies to your advantage. When presented with a grading rubric (a set of criteria typically listing performance standards tied to letter grades) instead of worrying so much about the grade think more about the language. Is it coherent? What’s the logic? What does it say about crafting an essay?

Reading carefully through the rubric can provide you with a mental picture of what’s being asked of you. Moreover, when you’re still learning what makes a strong thesis; how to structure the argument following the thesis; and particulars of analysis and sentence mechanics, absorbing details of this nature goes a long way in being able to think critically about academic essays.

Whether you like evaluation or the thought of it makes you cringe, looking at the rubric and speaking with your professor not only helps you understand what it takes to make a grade—but more importantly gives you a discernible outlook on how to become a well-established college writer. My advice, don’t shy away from it because of how it makes you feel. Find what’s right about it and learn. And find what doesn’t work for you and put it through the wringer.

doing your best to make essay assignments your own

February 8, 2011

Though many of the essays you write as an undergrad tend to be direct responses to questions prepared by your professor, sometimes your best bet is to approach each topic with a question of your own: How do I make this essay my own?

You’ve been, by and large, taught the standard model of an essay: Introduction, Thesis, Body (coherent logic tying together evidence and ideas relative to the claim(s) of the Thesis) and Conclusion.  But sometimes it’s hard to come up with a clear and insightful thesis—particularly when you have cursory knowledge of the topic; minimal interest; or simply struggle to understand it.  Thus when I say making the essay your own, what I mean is answering the question(s) within a, let’s call it a subcontext, of an argument or idea that you’re interested in, knowledgeable of, or have direct experience with.

For example, your assignment is to read a famous politician or philosopher’s speech and answer a question that’s designed to promote analysis (i.e. What are some of the rhetorical tenants of their persuasive arguments?  What does it illuminate about the social dynamics of the time period?  And what role does the church play with respect to being the foundation of their logic?). Questions, essays, of this nature tend to serve as practical practice for students for the purpose of sharpening their rhetorical skills.  Yet sometimes they appear to leave little room for the important process of going beyond surface-level analysis/summary and into the domain interpretation.

It’s rather common that when a student is asked to create a novel thesis out of what initially appears to be a container that can only fit large swaths of summary with only small segments of analysis, their thesis is in danger of not being a thesis at all.  All writers in these situations can find that their paper has a repetitive Introduction, vague Thesis that can’t quite provide the structure for the paper to follow and a Body that is supported by fractured integrations of bits of examples/citations.  Basically, the paper is fragmented.

Although you will find certain questions or topics that do not leave you struggling to form a strong thesis (marked by being easily identifiable, plausible and refined), no matter what you’re faced with as a student you have to sift through the assignments and bring the argument “closer to home.”  There are many ways to do this.  One way is find what you like.  For instance, if you find religion to be a fascinating topic you can start to think about what insights can be elicited from the disciplines of psychology or history.  This can lead to, say, coming to understand patterns (small examples of the historical trajectories) of religion’s role in politics.  Thus you can back track and begin to form an argument that attempts to explain some connections as to why the politician or philosopher used religion in a multifaceted way to disarm his oppositions and call for action.

But the tricky part is sometimes doing all the extra research not only is not part of the assignment, but also impossible do to time restraints.  Still, you don’t strictly have to think about this in terms of a large research paper because sometimes making an essay your own merely entails you taking a topic and lending your own memory, knowledge and experience.

Either way, the endpoint is to foster connections in order to better understand things.  Starting with a little research right now, or being willing to incorporate your own knowledge, can serve as the essential practice for what you’ll be asked to do more and more as you pursue your degree.  The sooner you pull away the seedlings of what you’re interested in, know, or are interested in knowing, the sooner you begin to teach yourself—germinating independent thought.