As a public service to college students everywhere (but especially my NT and OT intro students at Mercer University), here are some brief words about writing better papers. Chris Heard has already laid the groundwork (impressively!) with his open letter to his students on the subject. Everything Chris says about how you need to take your words seriously if you want me to take your words seriously applies, as does his observation that fairness demands that he (and I, and teachers everywhere) grade your written work based on what you have written, not on what you might have written, had you written it well.
And of course, keep in mind that this post is dealing with take-home work: research papers, take-home tests, and the like. I’m willing to show some leeway (even a great bit if I’m in the right mood) in timed, in-class writing exercises (e.g., exams).
Let me suggest that FOCUS is an apt acronym for the things that make for superior writing: form, organization, content, uniqueness, and sources.
Form has to do with spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other stylistic matters. If your paper is a human body, form is the skin. It is the medium by which your paper interacts with the outside world—namely, anyone who reads it. If I can’t make heads or tails of what you’re trying to say because I’m baffled by how you’re saying it, there’s a problem. And since I’m reasonably fluent in English, I must conclude the problem is not with me!
You may think one’s skin is merely superficial, and in a sense it is. Beauty is only skin deep, after all. But your skin is there for more than cosmetic reasons. The skin is the largest organ in the human body. It is the body’s first line of defense against infection and injury. If the skin is badly damaged, the entire body is in danger.
Several items on Chris’s numbered list pertain to matters of form. You may also want to check out How to Punctuate a Sentence at lifehack.org. Common faults that I have observed include:
- Over-use of the passive voice (“X is ___ed [by Y]”).
- Lack of subject-verb agreement (“Bill and Mary say,” not “says“).
- Misuse of commas.
- Poor word choice, either through trying to sound educated or simply not understanding the meaning of the word you’re trying to use.
- Homophone confusion (“to” or “too”; “their,” “there,” or “they’re”).
- Apostrophe confusion (“its” or “it’s”).
- Eggcorns—words or expressions that result from mishearing or misunderstanding, like “eggcorns” for “acorns” (“anotherwords” for “in other words”; “should of” for “should have”).
Since you’re almost certainly using a computer to write your paper, please use the spelling and grammar check function of your word processing program. Do not use it slavishly, however. Spell check can’t find misused homophones, and some grammar check functions are terribly unreliable.
After you’ve written your paper and run the spell check, get someone with a strong command of English grammar to proofread your paper for you. I edit things for a living, and it always amazes me how many things slip past me on the first go-around. That’s why I have an assistant editor who reads behind me, and a cold reader who reads behind both of us. Get your paper done early enough that you can have someone read behind you. You’ll be glad you did!
By organization, I’m referring to your paper’s skeletal system. It is what gives your paper structure and movement. If your paper is well organized, readers are able to follow your line of reasoning: “Toe bone connected to the foot bone, foot bone connected to the leg bone, leg bone connected to the knee bone.” Poor organization results in a paper that looks more like a mangled body on the side of the highway, waiting for the paramedics to arrive.
The key to good organization is fairly straightforward: Have something to say and know what it is. Students who don’t know what they’re talking about tend to ramble, perhaps hoping that if they put enough words on the page, their teachers will assume they have a point. On the other hand, students who have something to say can usually find a way to say it. In a paper of any length, what you intend to say can be divided into a small number of sub-points, and there are some useful tools available to help you lead your readers from point A to point B. These include:
- Headings. The five headings I’m using in this post for the letters in the FOCUS acronym broadcast my major sub-points in one glance. You can do the same sort of thing in your papers, and it will orient your readers to where you are going.
- Transitional sentences. The first paragraph in the heading “Organization” discusses the term generally. The first sentence in that paragraph provides a basic definition, thus signaling that we’re not talking about form any more. The first sentence in the second paragraph moves on to a specific piece of advice about organizing your papers. If I were aiming for even greater clarity, I might include words or phrases like “first,” “second,” “most important,” “on the one hand,” “on the other hand,” etc. to make absolutely sure you’re following me.
- Very long papers may even call for transitional paragraphs between the various parts.
The most polished form and the best organization can’t make up for shoddy content. (Pretty good transitional sentence, huh?) Content has to do with your command of the data, the raw information. If your paper is a human body, the content is the organs and muscles that do all the work. It is the soft tissue that makes up the bulk of the body’s mass. An exemplary paper shows me that you are reasonably familiar with the subject matter on which you are writing.
The tools to keep in mind at the content level depend somewhat on the level of the class for which you’re writing. I wouldn’t expect freshmen to have the same command of the data as graduate students, but factual errors (especially when they are easily corrected through basic research), vague generalities, misuse of specialized terminology, and over-reliance on direct quotation are never acceptable.
If you want a robust, muscular paper, keep the following points in mind:
- Strive to understand the reasoning behind scholars’ conclusions. It’s one thing to say “X believes Y”; it’s far better to say “X believes Y for the following reasons….” If you can’t explain why someone takes a position, you have not yet earned the right to disagree with them.
- Name names. Especially in shorter papers, “Scholars say…” can be a useful way of summarizing widely held opinions. It can get you in trouble, however, if what you tell me “scholars say” is in fact a point of controversy on which there is no consensus. In your research, strive to discern whether your sources are treating certain information as generally accepted or whether they are weighing in on a matter of controversy. When in doubt, name names: “Culpepper says…,” “According to Brueggemann…,” etc.
- Double-check the usage and spelling of technical terms with which you are not familiar. I know what “ex eventu prophecy” is; if you use the term incorrectly, I’ll know you didn’t do your homework.
- Use direct quotation sparingly. If you can’t put it in your own words, how do I know you understand it? Quote directly when an author has said something in such an arresting, memorable way that it literally bears repeating. Otherwise, paraphrase.
Only at this point can we talk about you as an individual and what you’re going to do to make your paper stand out from the rest. Although to be honest, a paper that goes the second mile in terms of form, organization, and content will already be head and shoulders above most of what is usually stacked on my desk.
In keeping with the body metaphor, your paper’s uniqueness factor corresponds to things like fingerprints and retinal patterns: things that are uniquely you. It consists of things like:
- Personal opinion. Where do you come down on some of the controversial issues surrounding this topic, and why?
- Contextual issues. How does your life experience, culture, ethnicity, gender, etc. inform how you interact with this topic?
- Interdisciplinary connections. What have you learned in your other courses that sheds light on this topic, which might not be obvious to others?
- Personal questions. In light of the first three factors, what questions to you want to put to the text (or topic) that may be different from the questions others have asked?
These elements are the least important parts of your paper, but they are not unimportant. Positively, leaving your personal fingerprint on your paper can tell me you’ve really wrestled with the material. In my Intro classes, students may write a brief “characterization” paper about a biblical character of their choosing. I tell them that a good “B” paper will read something like an article from a Bible dictionary: it has all the important facts covered in a well organized, well written manner. A good “A” paper, however, is one where students interact with the data in some way.
Negatively, if all your paper has going for it is your own convictions, life experience, or quirky personality, I’d just as soon not read it. If the elements of form, organization, and content are sound, uniqueness is an asset. If these more important elements are missing, “uniqueness” is a pretentious distraction.
Research papers rise or fall on choosing the right sources and handling them well. The books, articles, web pages, interviews, and other sources from which you draw your data are the raw materials you use to build up your paper. As such, they are not so much a part of the “body” but the food, water, and oxygen it needs to thrive.
I want to say two things about sources. First, use good ones! Just as you don’t want to go out with the person who lives in a smoke-filled room eating nothing but Oreos, I don’t want to read a paper built from dubious sources. That doesn’t mean I expect college freshmen to know who are the “big names” in my field, however. I’m always happy to point students toward the best sources, and I suspect most other teachers are as well. As general rules:
- Scholarly sources are to be favored over “devotional” ones. I teach content-heavy academic courses, not touchy-feely spiritual formation stuff. Please don’t build your paper on published sermons and lay-oriented inspirational reading.
- Recent sources are to be favored over older ones. This pertains to secondary literature: commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and the like. If you’re in a history class, you owe it to yourself to pick up the primary sources (in the original languages if at all possible) whenever you can. Matthew Henry may have been a good commentator in the 1700’s (if you’re into misogynistic Puritans), but I prefer not to see him in your bibliography. Instead, let me know you have tried to become acquainted with what contemporary scholars are saying about your topic.
- Print sources are to be favored over electronic ones. Print sources are more likely to have weathered the storms of time and criticism. In them you will find whatever scholarly consensus may exist with respect to your topic—which is where you need to begin, especially in an introductory level course. The problem with the Internet is that anybody can publish anything they please, and there is little a novice can do to sort the wheat from the chaff. I have attempted to cull out the better online sources on my resources page, some of which may be helpful to my students.
The second thing I want to say about sources is to cite them properly. At minimum, this means you must credit by name any authority you cite. “Mercer Dictionary of the Bible” did not write the words you are thinking about quoting, and there is only a slim chance that Watson E. Mills, the editor of that volume, did. If you’re reading the MDOB article on “Resurrection in the New Testament” (for example), you need to credit Richard F. Wilson, the author of that article, for any insights you gain from it. By and large, scholars are an arrogant, narcissistic lot. If they wrote it, their name will be on it somewhere. (If you can’t find the name of the author for an online resource, that could be a red flag that you don’t want to use it in the first place!)
There are several style guides out there to tell you what information you need in a bibliographic reference. If your teacher has a preference, follow it. In general, you’ll want to include the author’s name, title, publisher, and year of publication. When you’re citing a print source in the body of your paper, you’ll also need the page number. Again, teachers’ preferences may vary; I’m inclined toward simple in-line citation of author’s last name and page number in parentheses thusly: (Wilson, 755).
“Focus” is not just an acronym; it’s a word of advice all by itself. If you want to write better, focus. Pay attention. Turn off the TV and concentrate on improving your writing skills. Achieving a degree of focus on the task of writing is the first step to doing it better. And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.