Writing to Learn, Learning to Write
WRITING IS HARD. It’s laborious, frustrating, detail-oriented, and can only be learned by doing more and more of it. However, the good news is that because writing is not a innate, natural gift granted to a select few, we can all learn to write and to write better.
Your ability to communicate effectively in written form comprises a large portion of your success in the class. You are expected to put together engaged and well-written assignments. All written assignments should be professional and well-organized, make a clear and compelling argument, contain a thesis statement, use textual evidence and exposition, and include both in-text parenthetical citations and a works cited list (following APA format).
Comic credit: Jay A. (2012, February 20). “#2712: Comic Rewrite Contest.” Cyanide & Happiness. http://www.explosm.net/comics/2712/
You are encouraged to make use of the Temple University Writing Center: 201 Tuttleman, (215) 204-0702. Open Mon-Thurs. FREE services! Make an appointment or just drop in.
The internet is full of helpful writing advice:
- 50 writing errors that make you look like an amateur
- On uses of “alot”
- 10 words you need to stop misspelling
- The Oatmeal full collection of grammar comics
- Grammar Girl!
I also recommend this video by Zach McDowell at UMass Ameherst
Some things to get you started
Make sure you are clear whether you are citing an article, book, book chapter, website, song, film, etc. Not everything we read is an “article.”
For every assignment you write, create an original title. This title should be descriptive of your argument, and should not be the name of the text you’re writing on or the title of the assignment
When mentioning a text for the first time, use the author’s full name and the full title (but not subtitle) of the work. This will help orient your reader and avoid confusion. Even when referring to course readings, you are writing for a public audience who has not necessarily read the texts you reference or been part of our class discussions. Help them understand what you’re talking about. Examples:
- Vague/confusing: The article says that…. (which article? by whom?)
- Clear: In “The Technology and the Society,” Raymond Williams argues that…
Avoid universalizing claims such as “people throughout history have done X”, “people think X”, “young people always X”, “society thinks X,” and “we all know that…”. Not only are these statements false, they are impossible to defend, and make your argument weaker.
- Stick with historically and culturally specific, detailed statements and arguments that you are able to support with textual evidence.
Related to #2, DO NOT claim things about “society.” “Society” is not an actor. “Society” does not do things, think things, or believe things. Pick another subject that is more specific and contextual. If you’re referring to a group of people, say which group. If you’re referring to a social/political institution or discourse, name it. In other words, WHO are you referring to?
- Incorrect: “American society thinks video games are bad”
- Better: “Dominant U.S. media discourses often portray video games as potentially harmful to certain types of users”
Avoid colloquial language and clichés when you write—they are distracting and read as unprofessional. The exception to this is when you are directly quoting someone.
An argument is crucial. An argument, otherwise known as a thesis statement, is what a paper should defend. Arguments should be thoughtful, nuanced, textually grounded, and defendable (this is what differentiates them from opinions). This means that an argument should be a claim that a reader is capable of disagreeing with—for instance, “Text X is a good book”, “Author Y is the worst author ever”, “youtube is irrelevant,” and “the internet is important” are not arguments because they are not claiming something that one would disagree with or be able to prove/disprove in this class. An argument means that you have a stake in what you are claiming and you genuinely care about convincing your reader of your point, which you demonstrate by using specific textual evidence (not your opinions).
- An opinion: “Social media is bad.”
- An argument: “Digital distribution has changed the way U.S. independent musicians produce and market their work in the past ten years. This can be demonstrated in the following three case studies.”
Define all your terms, even terms that you might use in everyday language. Part of what scholarly work does is try to de-naturalize and historicize terms and concepts that have become taken for granted. Following this tradition, you should define what you mean by each new term (i.e.: social construction, hegemony, power, nation, etc.). This also enables you to head off some potential mis-readings, as you are telling your reader exactly which definition YOU are using and thus which definition your argument pertains to.
Follow all formatting guidelines listed on your syllabus and prompts about citations, word counts, required elements, etc. These are easy points and a shame to lose for carelessness.
Revise, revise, revise. Great papers are made (not born), and are never first drafts. Your first draft is merely the raw material for your multiple, subsequent revisions. It is in the revisions that the labor (and success) of writing happens. PROOFREADING IS NOT REVISING. Proofreading involves spellchecking (double-check your computer’s version of this), grammar checking, and quotation checking. In contrast, revision involves reorganizing the paper, shifting sections around to make sure your argument flows, making sure your argument is defended, and rethinking how you might use your sources. Revision creates a different paper; proofreading merely cleans up the old draft. Both are necessary.
Peer-reviewed scholarly sources v. others: Check out this video on what constitutes a peer-reviewed scholarly source. As it explains, websites are not considered scholarly sources. While you may cite and analyze websites, films, and other media in this course—indeed, these can be extremely useful and exciting texts—these forms of media are distinct from scholarly sources.
Common Writing Mistakes
- Make sure your verb tenses are consistent. If you are describing a historical event, all your verbs should be in past tense. If you are describing someone’s argument or text, use present tense, regardless of when the text was written. (e.g.: “In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud introduces the death drive, and argues for its centrality in sexual life.”)
- Pair singular nouns with singular verbs, and plural nouns with plural verbs. Media=plural noun.
Dangling modifiers and misplaced participles
- Make sure your modifying phrase agrees with your subject.
- Incorrect (dangling modifier): I opened the door in my pajamas. (the door was wearing your pajamas?)
- Correct: I was wearing my pajamas when I opened the door.
- Incorrect (misplaced participle): Being weather-damaged and badly infested with termites, I was able to buy the house at a low price. (You were weather-damaged and infested? That sounds terrible!)
- Correct: Because the house was weather-damaged and badly infested with termites, I was able to buy it at a low price.
The “build off of” problem
- You don’t “build off of” things—you “build on” them
- Different realms of life come with different language conventions and styles. Professional writing should look and sound different than the writing you may do on IM, Facebook, or Twitter.
- Incorrect: I really liked the reading this week.
- Correct: I though Wendy Chun’s article was really provocative and made me think about….
Past tense confusion
- The past tense is formed with “to have”, not “of”.
- Incorrect: I should of proofread my paper.
- Correct: I should have proofread my paper.
Last note: While writing can seem difficult, it is important to keep in mind that the ability to communicate effectively in written form is one of the most important skills you will ever learn, and will be useful in any type of career, any field, and most everyday situations (in other words, it is not just authors and academics who need to learn to write well). Good luck!