Writing from an Objective Point of View


Research papers, as opposed to essays, letters, editorials, and other opinion pieces, should be based completely on academic investigation performed by the writer. All such documents should be written from the perspective of an uninvolved third party. The writer should not insert his or her opinion or tailor the document so that it is guided by a point of view.

For example, a research paper on Abraham Lincoln’s presidency should contain verified information, and not the writer’s opinions. That does not mean that the writer is not allowed to draw conclusions or make statements which evaluate Lincoln’s presidential years. But those conclusions and statements must be objectively drawn from the research and they should be stated unemotionally. It would be appropriate to write “Lincoln missed several opportunities to come to terms with the secessionist states, and thus, prevent the Civil War” (followed by a source citation). It would even be correct to write “Many historians have indicated that Lincoln should have pursued opportunities to avoid the Civil War” or “There is evidence that Lincoln could have done more to avoid the Civil War.” However, it would be unacceptable to write “Lincoln should have prevented the Civil War” (whether or not the writer cites a source).

It is also inappropriate, in most instances, to insert first person pronouns in rigorously researched academic papers. Of course, if the writer feels compelled to state that he or she was involved in the experiment or survey or other method that was involved in the research, then it would be reasonable to write “I did….” or “We conducted.” Other than that, the text should be directed at the reader from a distance, as in the following: “The basic research involved distributing questionnaires to 250 first year medical students…..”
Similarly, the writer should not refer to readers as “you.” Rather than writing “This is important information that may benefit you,” it would be more correct to write “This is important information that may benefit all people (or all Americans or all women, etc.).”

Research papers should be devoid of emotion. That does not mean that the writer is forbidden to use strong language. However, while it is not permissible to write “Terrorists are disgusting people who should be wiped out,” it would be suitable to write “It is the responsibility of governments to apprehend, try, and punish terrorists who resort to merciless violence.”

All academic papers that are based on research, as opposed to those which are intended to be point of view pieces, must be written so that readers are presented with facts and with conclusions that have been drawn from those facts. The value of research papers depends on the depth and quality of the research and the conclusions that are drawn from it. The opinions of the writer should be held in abeyance.

Apostrophes and Quotation Marks: When to Use Them


When it comes to punctuation, the two most common kinds of errors involve the use of apostrophes and quotation marks. The rules governing the use of apostrophes and quotation marks are, for the most part, clear and unyielding.

Let us review apostrophes first. They are used for two purposes: to show possession and for contractions.

To show possession of something or someone by a singular noun, an apostrophe followed by an “s” is used, as in the following examples:

  • The doctor’s office was crowded.
  • My younger son’s friends are coming for dinner tonight.
  • Where is Marty’s coat?
  • That is the girl’s necklace.
  • This is Charles’s coat. (Notice that, even though “Charles” ends in an “s,” it is still necessary to add an apostrophe and another “s.”)

The only time that you would add just an apostrophe to the end of a noun ending in “s” would be if adding an apostrophe and an “s” would change the pronunciation of the word, as in the following:

  • We have discussed Sophocles’ body of work.

It should not be “Sophocles’s work.” That would change the pronunciation of “Sophocles.”

When you are indicating possession by plural nouns, just an apostrophe is added, as in the following examples:

  • All of the girls’ mothers came to the reception.
  • That building contains several doctors’ offices.

Irregular plural nouns require the addition of an apostrophe and an “s,” as in the following:

  • That is the children’s room.
  • He decided to join the men’s club.

Contractions are formed by combining two words. Apostrophes are added in place of letters which have been dropped, as in the following examples:

  • should not……shouldn’t
  • could not……..couldn’t
  • she will…………she’ll
  • it is……………….it’s (This should not be confused with the possessive form of “it,” which is “its” (no apostrophe).
  • you are…………you’re
  • cannot (always written as one word)…….can’t

Quotation marks are correctly used only to indicate the actual words that someone has said or written or sung, around the titles of certain created works, and to set off unique phrases.

To indicate speech:
The following are examples of quotation marks being used to indicate the actual words of a speaker or those in a written work or a song:

  • “My brother has been gone all day,” Ken said.
  • “Do you know where he could possibly be?” asked Ralph.
  • “Well,” Ken replied, “he could be anywhere.”
  • I am always thrilled when I hear the phrase “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The titles of newspaper, magazine articles, or periodical articles, the titles of short stories, plays, films, musical pieces, poems, essays, and television and radio programs should be enclosed in quotation marks.

Unique phrases or irony:
Quotation marks may be used to indicate that a word or phrase is unique and should, therefore, be set apart from the rest of a sentence, as in the following:

  • Tom decided that he did not want to be part of “the moral majority.”

Here is an example of quotation marks being used to indicate irony:

  • Well, I am going to show my boss just how “irresponsible” I can be.

More often than not, errors involving the use of apostrophes and quotation marks have to do with their overuse. They should not be used to emphasize important phrases. The following is an example of that:

  • Everyone is invited to the “Big Sale.”

As stated above, the rules involving the use of apostrophes and quotation marks are clear. Learning how to use them involves simply studying the rules.

Proofreading and Editing Your Website


When people surf the Net, whether they are digging for information, looking for an answer to a question, searching for a company with which to do business, or for any other reason, they expect the information that they come across to be properly presented and accurate. Incorrect spelling, imprecise wording, and errors in punctuation can give the impression that the information that is being presented may not be authentic. Whether or not that is the case, once a visitor to a site has spotted errors in the writing, he or she is unlikely to read on.

It is very important for those who write the content of websites to use the highest level of English usage. Properly written sentences, reasonable transitions between paragraphs, and interesting vocabulary are necessary in order to produce a site that is readable and which inspires confidence in the reader.

Here are a few tips to follow when writing website content:

  1. Keep paragraphs short: While there is no rule in terms of the correct length of a paragraph, there are some guidelines. A paragraph should be two sentences or more, all of which are about the same topic. It should not, if at all possible, exceed twelve full sentences or 200 words or take up more than half of a page.
  2. Try not to fall victim to common spelling errors: It is easy to make spelling mistakes. English is a difficult language because so many words have irregular spellings. Consider enough. The only way to know how to spell that word, and many others like it, is to memorize it. How about words that have silent letters, such as comb? Then there are words which seem to run in the opposite direction from spelling rules, such as done. Typically, a group of letters which is composed of a vowel-consonant-e combination, such as that word, should have a long sound. This word, however, is pronounced dun. It has a short vowel sound. On the other hand, bone is pronounced with a long vowel sound. And, how about homophones, words that sound the same, but are spelled differently? English abounds with them. Here are a few examples: there and their, one and won, our and hour, find and fined…In any case, what can you do in terms of spelling correctly? There are three solutions: use a spell check program, rely on a dictionary, or submit your papers to an editing service.
  3. Use correct punctuation and usage: This is difficult. Even professional writers find punctuation, especially the placement of commas and quotation marks, a difficult skill to master. There are a few simple rules that you can follow. These should help you to avoid a number of common errors: a) Use capital letters only for the beginnings of sentences, titles, and the beginnings of quotes. b) End all sentences with periods. c) Use semicolons (;) only rarely. They are generally used in place of periods, between two complete sentences that are very close to each other in terms of their topics. When you use a semi colon, do not begin the second sentence with a capital letter; it is a related phrase. The previous sentence is an example of the proper use of a semi colon. d) Write full sentences. A full sentence has a subject and a predicate. e) Do not overuse apostrophes. Apostrophes are not used to pluralize words. The plural of doctor is doctors. No apostrophe should be there. Apostrophes are used only for possession and for contractions. Here are examples: That is the doctor’s car…and…I can’t help you.
  4. Remain true to your topic: Attempt to stay on your topic. You can, and should, write about varying aspects of your topic, but do not go too far afield, especially within a sentence. When you change topics, even slightly, attempt to use words and phrases which allow for smooth transitions between them.
  5. Be consistent: Use the same spelling for words throughout your document. Check your written work to ensure that you do not spell, for example, the name of a cited author as Connor in one place, and Connors, in another.
  6. Do not rely on spell check: You should use your software to check your spelling and usage, but you absolutely must also re-read your work to find the errors that only your perusal can discover.
  7. Copy quotations carefully: Unless you are copying and pasting text, there is always the possibility that you will transcribe a direct quote incorrectly. This is an error that must be avoided.
  8. Make sure your sentences agree: Words in your sentences must agree in terms of gender, number, and tense. This is also true of sentences within a paragraph or a longer section of text. For instance, if you are citing a female, then you must use pronouns that refer to females, such as she and her. If you are referring to several cities, do not use the pronoun it. When discussing events that occurred in the past or people who are no longer alive, do not use verbs in the present tense, such as builds or speaks.
  9. Do not assume the reader knows what you are talking about: Do not refer to ideas or books or events or people unless you have mentioned them in previous sentences. A writer may forget that the reader does not know the information in a piece of writing as well as he or she does. New ideas need to be introduced and, sometimes, explained.
  10. If you are citing statistics or facts which are not universally known, you must insert the appropriate sources: Readers want to be assured that assertions are based upon facts, and not on whimsy or guesswork.

You may feel that you need professional help to proofread or to edit your website content. There are many reliable proofreading and editing companies out there. Some of them specialize in website content.

Remember: regardless of the content of the website, it must be well written.

Learning How to Write by Reading


One of the best ways by which to learn how to write properly is to read—almost anything, novels, non-fiction books, newspaper and magazine articles, and the content of some Web sites (Notice, I said “some.”). By virtue of a process of slow, deliberate, careful reading, you will be able to observe how to construct well-written sentences, use punctuation correctly, and vary your vocabulary.

This is a time-honored technique. It is said that Abraham Lincoln, who attended country schools only intermittently as a youngster, developed his prodigious oratorical and speech writing skills by devoting his undivided attention to reading.

This process of careful reading is very easily done. All that is required is a well-written reading selection and your ability to concentrate. If you want to make notes, then you should do so on a notepad or right on the text (as long as it is yours, and not the property of the public library). You might want to mark significant pages with paper clips so that you may refer to them at a later point.

In order for this to be an effective learning technique, you must be prepared to devote all of your attention to the task, so the television must be off, the kids must be out of sight, and you must be focused. Just about the only reading materials that might be unsuitable for this task are those found on the Internet because, by and large, they are not subject to rigorous proofreading, review, or editing, so quite a lot out there in cyberspace, while interesting, is poorly written. Much of it defies the rules of Standard English usage.

That said, the process is very simple: just read and observe; when you come across a sentence or phrase that contains something of interest, note or underline it and mark it with a paper clip, if you want. Notice the author’s use of periods, commas, apostrophes, quotation marks, colons, semi colons, and exclamation and question marks. Observe the composition of complete sentences. Notice that a well-constructed sentence may be long, as long as it communicates one complete thought. Take note of the fact that a well written piece relies on a variety of words. Rather than repeatedly using the word “take,” a skilled writer will substitute “obtain,” “attain,” “gather,” and “acquire,” along with other synonyms.

If you have a specific question that you would like answered or a problem to be solved, at some point in your reading, you will probably come across a sentence which will provide you with the information for which you have been searching. If, for example, you are unsure about how to properly place quotation marks in a section of dialogue, when you come to one of those sections (with which novels abound), read it carefully, underline or note it in the margin of the book, and clip it. Look at the following example from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

“Give me those scissors,” Atticus said. “They’re no things to play with. Does this, by any chance, have anything to do with the Radleys?”
“No sir,” said Jem, reddening.

Just by reading, observing, and noting, you can learn a great many of the fundamentals of writing. While you are conducting this exercise, you need not deprive yourself of the pleasure of reading. So, read, enjoy, and learn at the same time.

Symbols and special characters quickly, easily, and accurately

rendered three-dimensional symbol of e-mail
rendered three-dimensional symbol of e-mail

If you’ve edited or written docs with lots of special characters—let’s say a paper in biochemistry with lots of microgram symbols, µg, and temperatures in °C—or a paper with foreign-language words with lots of accented characters, even just number ranges with en-dashes, 1969–1978, or em-dashes in sentences, as above, you know how it can drag on your time and concentration to have to drop down a symbol menu, hunt for what you need, and select it with the mouse. When you have to do this repeatedly, either by continually menu-searching and mouse-clicking or by copying and pasting, it can get to be a real pain. Not to mention the very real possibility that your “ƒ” will show up as a “¢” or even just a mysterious box or empty underlined space in someone else’s program. I have also edited papers originally typed in Asian versions of Word where symbols were in a different font, usually “Batang” or “Gulim,” that created unsightly and inconsistent spaces between lines of text to accommodate the different typeface of one symbol. Sometimes these are even just quotation marks. (Tip: to reveal the source of a mysterious space between lines, try holding down the shift key while using the arrow key to highlight the lines of text. Watch the font name in the menu bar. When the name goes blank or changes to something else, you have just found your culprit. Use the arrow key to go letter by letter to pinpoint it, then change the font to match the font of your text.)

Keyboard shortcuts to commands and special characters are always a time saver. Every text and word-processing program, even HTML (with inclusion of a couple of tags), PDF comment and text replacement boxes, and fillable Web forms, has ASCII symbol capability, and universal, error-free, consistent, generic symbols compatible with every font are no further away than the number keypad on your keyboard.

To access the symbols, make sure your Num Lock key is turned on. Open Word, WordPerfect, OpenOffice Writer, even Excel, Notepad, or a new e-mail message. Type v-o-i-l- Alt-0224—voilà! (This works only with the keypad, not with the numbers in the top row of keys, by the way.) Now try Alt-0163—instant £ !

Two sets of symbols have been developed in conjunction with the Alt key; one uses three numbers, the other uses four (always beginning with zero). A brief search on the Web for ASCII symbols (try the search string < ascii symbol alt number > for a useful list of sites) will reveal more than several sites offering charts of the available symbols. Print out your favorite charts, one for each of the two sets, and keep it handy. You never know when you might need a Ĝ or ± or ™, and you won’t want to waste time and energy trying to find it in a drop-down symbol menu that might not even be the same as another user’s.

A Novel Approach to Editing


In general, editing a work of fiction involves allowing more flexibility and variation in wording than the standard type of editing that is used for non-fiction documents. As works of fiction, short stories and novels often contain idiosyncratic language and usages which would, in an essay, newspaper article, research paper, letter, or other type of non-fiction writing appear to be incorrect.

For starters, since short stories and novels almost always include dialogue, both exterior and interior, and since conversational language does not always adhere to the rules of written usage, the editor must ignore what appear to be errors. Here is an example of dialogue which includes non-Standard English from Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty:

“Lord, it ain’t been dry yet,” Pea said. “It’s rained aplenty.”

Notice that, despite the fact that the dialogue contains variations from Standard English in terms of the use of “ain’t” and “aplenty,” the punctuation and the tag (Pea said) are correctly written. Punctuation and proper designation of tags are essential in all works of fiction. (However, all bets are off when it comes to poetry. Language in poetry can range from Standard English to the bizarre. It can be edited only for style and appeal, not for adherence to Standard English.) Proper spelling should also be used, even in dialogue. However, there are times when an author wants a character to mispronounce words or to use inappropriate words or speak in a dialect. In those cases, those altered words should be written in italics and/or spelled out phonetically so that the reader understands that they are variations from the usual spelling. In the following example of the use of dialect from Hard Times by Charles Dickens, the author does not use italics, but he does use phonetic spelling:

“I ha’ thowt on ‘t, above a bit, sir. I simply canna coom in. I mun go th’ way as lays afore me. I mun tak’ my leave o’ aw heer.”

In most cases, portions of narration conform to the rules of English usage. Therefore, those portions of works of fiction should be edited in the same way as essays, research papers, letters, etc. In some cases, however, the author wants the narrator’s use of language to vary from the standard. Look at this example, which is the first sentence of Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

Of course, if Mark Twain had wanted the narrator to speak in standard English, the sentence would have been written as follows:

You will not know of me unless you had read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that does not matter.

Authors of works of fiction often use, along with full sentences, short phrases for emphasis. In the following example from The Color of Water by James McBride, the first sentence is full and complete, but it is followed by two declarative phrases, which are not full sentences:

Helen didn’t come home that night. Nor the next day. Nor the next.

Notice the use of the contraction didn’t. In serious non-fiction pieces, the use of contractions is frowned upon. In fiction, contractions are acceptable at all times.

If that portion of narration had been part of a non-fiction document, it would be written as follows:

Helen did not come home night, nor for the next two nights.

In general, when editing works of fiction, the rule is that portions of narration should conform to all of the rules of English usage unless the author wants the narrator’s voice to vary from the standard. Short phrases which are not complete sentences should not be altered. Contractions should be allowed. Portions of dialogue should be left as they are written, regardless of how far removed from proper English usage they appear to be. However, all rules of punctuation should always be adhered to throughout the manuscript. Correct punctuation is necessary in order for the reader to be able to understand what the narrator or character is saying.

Remember, the goal of writing is to communicate. If the reader is unable to understand what is written, then the piece of writing, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, is not fulfilling its goal.

The Little Things That Matter in Writing


As an editor, I am used to correcting the typical writing errors that appear in most papers, such as those having to do with spelling, vocabulary usage, punctuation, tense, and grammar. However, in addition to those common errors, some writers make little ones which should be corrected before their documents are submitted for publication or review. Here are a few of them:

  1. Inconsistencies in terms of font and size: Some writers vary their use of font and text size in their papers, sometimes in the same paragraph. This often occurs when the writer has copied and pasted text from another source into his or her document. This error detracts from the appearance of the paper, and may cause difficulties in comprehension for the reader. It is very easy to correct this mistake. Once the paper has been completed, the writer need only choose “Select All” from the toolbar at the top of Microsoft Word, and then designate one style of font and one size. Of course, if there are titles, subtitles, headings, charts, graphs, etc., then choosing “Select All” would be a mistake. In that case, sections of text should be chosen and highlighted separately, and then standardized.
  2. Misaligned margins: Some documents suffer from inconsistent left-side margins or/and varying types of alignment. Some parts of a paper may be further or closer to the left-side margin than others, and some sections of text may be aligned-left, while others are aligned-right, or centered, or justified in terms of block text. The only instances in which there should be variations in terms of alignment should be when inserting long quotes or graphs or charts or tables or other additions to the regular text.
  3. Paragraph styles: Within a paper, all paragraphs should either be indented or block justified. Block justified paragraphs should be separated from each other by one space. In general, indented paragraphs shuld not be separated by spaces.
  4. Headings, subheadings, and titles: All headings, subheadings, titles, etc. should be consistent in terms of font, size, and the use of italics and boldface. That is not to say that all headings must be the same. Major headings or titles may be written differently from minor headings or titles, but all major headings should look alike and all minor headings should be consistently written.
  5. Numbering: If letters or numbers are used to designate sections in a paper, they should be consistent and in order. If the writer begins by using capital letters to designate sections, then he or she should continue with that, and not skip letters. The same is true in terms of lower case letters. This also applies to numbers. They should all be either Arabic or Roman. All letters or numbers should also be consistent in terms of the use of boldface and italics. Of course, there may be differences in terms of lettering or numbering when designating different types of information. For example, major headings might be set off with the use of capital letters in boldface, and individual facts listed below them may be designated by the use of lower case letters or Roman or Arabic numerals that are not in boldface. There also may be differences in size from one type of heading to another. It is important, however, that all sections of similar importance be designated with the same type of letter or number in the same size.
  6. Use of capitalization: Besides the normal use of capital letters at the beginnings of sentences and for proper nouns, they can be used to set off titles. If they are used for that purpose, then all similar paragraphs must be written in that way.

These fine points are important to the appearance of a paper, and consistency in terms of their use should be incorporated into all documents.

Cleanliness Is Next to a Good Grade


The stereotypical bachelor student’s room looks something like this:

  • Smudge-ridden computer screen
  • Crumb-filled, crusty keyboard
  • A desk buried under papers, food, clothes, and heaven knows what else
  • A floor that’s…well, it’s under there somewhere, just can’t see it right now

Does this describe you? Of course not. But believe it or not, such people do exist in the world—and there’s a little of that slovenliness in many of us.

Unless you’re a so-called neat-freak, there are probably some areas of your work area that could be in better shape. But it’s not just the obvious, physical area I’m bringing up, although that’s important. It’s also other areas, including the following:

Your mind:
If your room is cluttered, you’ll have a hard time finding stuff. Same with your mind. When it’s time to work, you need to shut out distractions as much as possible. So, resolve that you’re going to forget about all the other pressures (and pleasures) of life, just long enough to do a great job on the essay you’re doing.

Your computer:
Do teachers even accept handwritten papers anymore? Beats me. In any case, since you’re almost certainly going to be working at your computer to write your essay, you need to make sure it’s not a mess.

First, tidy up the desk (or floor, bed, or lap) that your computer happens to be on. Banana peels and old soda cans in your line of vision are not conducive to concentration.

Second, take a few minutes to un-clutter your computer’s desktop and My Documents, if these areas are not already reasonably organized. It is very nice to be able to find things when you need them.

Once you do these things, make it a habit to keep things in good shape. It will put you in a better state of mind while you work, and this by itself may result in a higher grade.

There are very few reasons to begin a sentence with “there are”


The next time you think your essay, article, or letter is finished, use the Search function to look for “there.” I’ve come to suspect that, for some writers, typing There is or There are to start a sentence or clause must be an unconscious habit. I think people do not realize how often they do it–or how cluttered, unfocused, overly wordy, and weak it makes their sentences. Break the habit of beginning sentences with there is or there are. Notice how, in the examples that follow, “there is” or “there are” makes the sentences less smooth and causes the reader to stumble a little.

Rewriting is often a straightforward matter, as in these examples:

  • weak, overly wordy: There is research that shows that obesity has a genetic component.
  • concise: Research shows that obesity has a genetic component.
  • weak: There are many things that can go wrong when instructions are not followed.
  • concise: Many things can go wrong when instructions are not followed.
  • weak: There was an incident last year of a student caught cheating.
  • direct: Last year, a student was caught cheating.
  • overly wordy: There is a lot that needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • better: A lot needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • better: Much needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • best: The house needs many repairs.

In other cases, the fix is not quite so straightforward and might require completely rethinking and rewriting, finding specific verbs to replace the deadly “is,” “are,” “have,” or “has”:

  • weak: We interviewed the employees, and there were few complaints.
  • direct: We interviewed the employees and heard few complaints.
  • especially overly wordy: There have been several issues concerning the problem of how to get more business.
  • direct: Getting more business is a problem. We have identified the following issues: (list would follow).
  • overly wordy: If there is one thing the principal can’t stand, it is students who are late for school. (this sentence has an additional problem: it could be interpreted to mean the principal has a personal dislike of students who are late.)
  • concise: The principal really does not tolerate tardiness.
  • weak: There are few reasons to begin a sentence with “there are.”
  • concise: Beginning a sentence with “there are” clutters and weakens it.

Engaging the Reader


If you’re a copywriter, you understand the importance of engaging the reader. If you’re a student—maybe not so much. Nevertheless, the key to successful writing lies in seeing things from your audience’s perspective and then writing accordingly. Let’s see how that applies to essay writing and, subsequently, good grades.

One thing you can do is to use stories. For example, if you’re writing about tigers, you can actually tell about what you know has happened to some of them (make sure it’s true, of course). You might say something like:

It’s another day for the new cubs. Mom’s not back yet, and they’re starting to feel the pain of hunger. If she doesn’t make it back, they’re not yet old enough to hunt; instead of becoming the future predators, these little ones could instead become today’s prey…

Engaging? Yes. True? Yes. Likely to get you a good grade? Well, probably (unless, of course, your report is supposed to be about something other than tigers). Now, let’s take a look at a not-so-effective essay about the same subject:

The tiger is in the grass. It is about 6 feet long. It has stripes and a tail. The tail is long. It eats other animals because it is a predator. The little tigers cannot hunt until they reach a certain age. Before they can hunt, they may become the prey of other predators…

  • Paper 1: A.
  • Paper 2: Probably not an A.

Why is Paper 1 more engaging? Because it goes beyond just fact citing. It brings the subject to life in such a way that the reader will be interested. And you must do that if you’re going to get good grades on essays. It’s not just about putting facts on paper. That’s obviously important, but you’ve also got to have these facts well organized, properly formatted, and interesting to the reader.

That’s not to say that all this is easy; it takes time and practice to develop one’s writing skills. But the extra time and effort invested in making a paper interesting—as well as factual—will definitely pay off.