Putting together a good piece of writing is, in some ways, like cooking or baking. Here’s what I mean. In order to prepare a dish, you have to do the following:
- Decide what you would like to cook or bake.
- Locate or create a recipe.
- Gather the necesary ingredients and utensils.
- Follow the directions according to the recipe.
- Taste the finished product before serving, if possible, or else take your chances when you present it.
Similarly, when you are faced with the task of writing an article, essay, research report, or any other type of prose writing, you should do the following:
- Decide on your topic and your approach.
- Put together a plan or an outline.
- Gather research materials, if needed, and make sure that you have pens, pencils, paper, or your computer or whatever you will need in order to write your paper.
- Follow your plan or outline.
- Proofread and, if necessary, edit your document, or else take your chances when you submit it.
The key to preparing food and to writing is to know which ingredients and how much of each to use. In cooking and baking, using too much or too little of even a minor ingredient, such as salt, can spoil the entire enterprise. The same is true in writing: the wrong word, or even the right word in the wrong place, can ruin a sentence, a paragraph, or, at times, an entire document.
Sometimes, a word or a phrase may be the correct one to use, and it may be in the right place, but it may be overused or it may not be needed because the idea that you are attempting to convey is already evident. Here are some examples of sentences in which words or phrases are overused; each one is followed by a sentence in which the problem has been corrected, along with an explanation of the correction:
- One of the problems in terms of global warming is that we do not know whether it is even possible to curtail the consequences of global warming.
- One of the problems in terms of global warming is that we do not know whether it is even possible to curtail its consequences. (Use pronouns to avoid the repetition of words.)
- Too many old people in their late eighties live alone, and cannot take care of themselves.
- Too many people in their late eighties live alone, and cannot take care of themselves. (Avoid the use of unnecessary explanatory words or phrases.)
- I tried to think in my mind about how I would solve the puzzle.
- I tried to think about how I would solve the puzzle. (Avoid the use of clichés.)
- Hundreds of happy people were happily celebrating the happy occasion.
- Hundreds of happy people were ecstatically celebrating the joyful occasion. (Use synonyms whenever possible; use the Microsoft Word Thesaurus.)
- I wanted to invite all of my friends to my apartment, but I didn’t know whether I could find room for all of them in my apartment.
- I wanted to invite all of my friends to my apartment, but I didn’t know whether I could find room for all of them. (Avoid explaining what is already understood.)
The above examples of repetition apply to conversation, as well as to writing. It is always a good idea to use as few words as possible to communicate ideas. Additional words or phrases are unnecessary and may sound repetitious.
less or fewer?
When you’re in the supermarket, do you count your purchases to see whether you can use the register for “Less than 14 items”? I hope not. I hope your supermarket has a register for “Fewer than 14 items.” Use fewer to compare numbers of items that can be counted individually (when talking about units of time or money, however, there are some exceptions). Use less for things considered in groups or as a mass, to express degree, extent, or amount. Less also modifies adjectives and adverbs.
- We did the job in less time. (“time” is not items that can be counted individually)
- We did the job in fewer hours. (“hours” can be counted)
- The company hired fewer employees last year.
- At that store you have fewer choices and less room to move around, there are fewer salespeople, and they are less attentive. (here, “choices” and “salespeople” can be counted; “room” cannot be counted as individual items; “attentive” is an adjective modified by “less” used as an adverb).
- There were fewer than 52 cards in the deck.
- The store made less money this month than it did in April.
- but: She had less than 10 dollars. (exception for units of money)
number or amount?
These two are comparable to “less” and “fewer.” Use number in reference to items that can be counted; amount when speaking of groups as a whole or one item that cannot be counted.
- A number of employees complained about the new policy. (i.e., several employees)
- There is a huge amount of sugar in cola.
- A small number of people win the lottery every year.
a number is, or a number are?
Related to “a number” is the question of whether it should be followed by a singular or plural verb. In the example of the employees, above, “a number [of employees]” seems to imply a singular verb, since “a” means “one.” Would it be correct to say “a number of employees is going to the retirement luncheon”? “A number of,” “a diversity of,” “a variety of,” and similar constructions are idiomatic expressions that mean “several” or “many” or “a few.”
The rule is very simple: An expression such as “a number (total, variety, diversity) of” that means “several,” “many,” or “a few” is followed by a plural verb. If you can substitute “several” in your sentence, use a plural verb. “The number (total, variety, diversity) of” is followed by a singular verb. “The number” is referring to a single entity.
- A number of experiments have supported our results. (“several experiments” or “a few experiments”)
- The number of experiments in this area has greatly increased in the last few years. (whatever that number is, it is larger now. The sentence is referring to a single body of experiments).
- A diversity of students now enjoy the benefits of this program. (“several or many different ethnicities of students”)
- The diversity of students at this school is surprising. (the single issue of diversity)
- A variety of viewpoints were heard during the meeting. (“many different viewpoints”)
- The variety of viewpoints heard during the meeting was not expected. (the fact of a body of viewpoints)
- A total of 120 tests were conducted
- The total is 120.
Notice that “a number of” is not comparable to collective nouns such as “group” or “team.” It would be incorrect to say “a group of foreign visitors are coming in for a tour.” “A group” is a single entity. The word “several” cannot be substituted for “a group of” because “several visitors” would mean separate, independent visitors, not members of a single group.
- A group of foreign visitors is coming in for a tour.
- The group of foreign visitors is having lunch at The Outback restaurant.
Okay, let’s see…I need to check for:
- Correct spelling and grammar
- Run-on sentences
- Having commas and periods on the inside of quotation marks
Users of Microsoft Word all know about spell check, and many of us are also acquainted with grammar check. But this software can check for so many common errors—if you have it set up to do so.
Some other useful features include searching your document for:
- Serial commas (you can choose to have them or not, depending on the style manual your paper uses)
- Clichés, colloquialisms, and jargon
- Having the same amount of spaces at the start of each sentence (you can opt for either 1 or 2 spaces)
- Passive sentences
- Split infinitives
- Unclear phrasing
There are many more features available, which you can check or uncheck, depending on your preferences. Once you know your professor’s specifications, you can tell Word how to help you. Here’s how, on Word 2003. With Word open:
- Go to Tools
- Select Options
- Click on the Spelling & Grammar tab
- Click on Settings
- Next to Writing Style, choose Grammar & Style
- Check the items you want and uncheck those you do not want Word to look for
Here’s how to access this is Word 2007. With Word open:
- Click the Office button
- Click on Word Options
- Select Proofing
- Next to Writing Style, choose Grammar and Style
- Check the items you want and uncheck those you do not want Word to look for
Will all this help? Yes. One very helpful feature is checking for passive voice. Some professors (maybe yours) can be a real stickler about that.
Is it perfect? Yeah, right. This is technology we’re talking about—very useful, but undeniably brainless. With this in mind, be sure to check your document yourself, as any software can miss things.