That Paper You Don’t Feel Like Writing…


Let’s face it—sometimes writing can be hard work. For example, you may not really care about Russia’s GDP in 1933 (or, then, perhaps you might). Likewise, the migration habits of squid are not at the top of most students’ lists of captivating studies. Nevertheless, to get a good grade (and to learn something, of course), it is necessary at times to do a good job and write a solid paper.

Here are some helpful tips to writing those “ugh” papers (and any other papers, for that matter).

Choose to have a good attitude:
If you look at it as a learning experience (which it is, not only in your subject matter, but also as an exercise in self-discipline, writing, and probably research), you can really motivate yourself to get something out of this.

Fact is, some of the most personally rewarding papers you write may not be the ones you’re naturally motivated to write. On the contrary, the ones that you have to stir yourself up to do will be the ones that make you feel really good when you end up with a good grade.

Basically, before you even start doing the actual work, you need to tell yourself that you can do this paper; you can do a good job on this paper; and you will both learn from it and feel great when you accomplish this task that is not naturally appealing. And during the times you feel like, “Why do I have to do this stupid assignment?” just remember the preceding points.

Make a plan:
When you’re intrinsically motivated to do a paper, it comes easy. Even then, however, you should be as organized as possible. But when the subject matter is something you don’t really care about, you have to protect yourself from the natural tendencies to escape from applying yourself to the task at hand.

With this in mind, insulate yourself from TV, friends, other work, or anything else that would give you an excuse to stop doing what you need to do to succeed at this writing. Keep in mind, however, that it is especially important to reward yourself with breaks periodically, or you can get burned out and really frustrated.

Make the most of unappealing writing assignments. The ones you enjoy will come along soon enough.

You Said That Already: Avoiding Repetition


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:

  1. Decide what you would like to cook or bake.
  2. Locate or create a recipe.
  3. Gather the necesary ingredients and utensils.
  4. Follow the directions according to the recipe.
  5. 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:

  1. Decide on your topic and your approach.
  2. Put together a plan or an outline.
  3. 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.
  4. Follow your plan or outline.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.

A Number of Confusing Expressions


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.

Let Word Do the Work for You!

Microsoft Word

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
  • Wordiness
  • 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:

  1. Go to Tools
  2. Select Options
  3. Click on the Spelling & Grammar tab
  4. Click on Settings
  5. Next to Writing Style, choose Grammar & Style
  6. 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:

  1. Click the Office button
  2. Click on Word Options
  3. Select Proofing
  4. Next to Writing Style, choose Grammar and Style
  5. 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.

Advice for ESL Writers

Advice for ESL Writers

English can be tough. Unlike many Eastern languages, English places great emphasis on seemingly minor aspects of written communication. Yet, by paying careful attention to the finer points of the language, a writer can create interesting subtleties and nuances that would not otherwise be possible.

One of the problems for non-native writers of English, of course, is that there are exceptions to every rule (for example, i before e except after c). The solution? Learn the rules, by rote, by practice, or by whatever works. There is no other way. In time, you’ll find yourself remembering them.

Also, Americans have a great penchant for colloquialisms and slang. We are a very diverse nation, and we borrow from every culture. Colloquial references to pop culture and sports are particularly problematic to those not familiar with them.

Prepositions and articles seem to be the main source of confusion, though. And unlike acquainting oneself with references to bygone TV shows, learning the proper way to use “a” and “the” is not that hard.

Without getting too technical, let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • RIGHT: We will go to the store.
  • WRONG: We will go to store.

Without the word “the,” the whole meaning of the sentence is changed. The word “store” actually becomes a verb.

  • RIGHT: It is on Broadway Street.
  • WRONG: It is on the Broadway Street.

The preposition “the” is not required here, since there will be only one Broadway Street in any town.

  • RIGHT: I need a doctor.
  • WRONG: I need doctor.

Yes, the article “a” is necessary here—it is important. Interestingly, Microsoft Word does not flag “I need doctor” as being incorrect—but it should.

There are ESL software, courses, and instruction available. In the meantime, until one becomes better acquainted with the intricacies of the English language, there is no shame in using a professional editing service.

Writer’s Block: Part 2

Writer’s Block: Uninteresting Subject Matter

Even if you enjoy the subject matter about which you’re writing, and it is something you find interesting, occasionally you may hit a roadblock and not know what to say. In such a case, there are several things that may help, especially if you’ve been working on the same project for some time:

Take a break:
Many times it’s best to just leave your work, forget about it, and go do something completely unrelated to it. After awhile, come back to it (hopefully refreshed). This gives your mind a chance to recover and, after a rest, refocus. And while you’re on a break, your subconscious may still be busy working, figuring things out for you behind the scenes.

Hit people up for ideas:
Make use of your friends, family, or acquaintances (or even cooperative strangers). Getting a different perspective is very often the catalyst that moves a writing project forward. After all, if you only get the same view day after day (your own), your perspective will necessarily be limited. It can be a wise thing to discuss what you’re writing about with some non-experts, as their views will be an interesting—and perhaps inspiring—change from the same-old, same-old opinions you get from yourself, textbooks, and experts in the field.

Do more research:
Oh, I can imagine the response to this suggestion: MORE?! Do you know how much I’ve looked into this already? That’s not the way to look at it, though. Rather, you need to think of it like this: There’s something I may be missing; if I look hard enough, I’ll find it, and then my essay will really shine.

Review what you’ve done already:
Sometimes it helps to just go back through and see what you’ve already written. It may be that something pops out at you, such as Oh, I forgot to cover this part of that subject…or maybe, Ah—I just need to expound a little more fully on this area…

Writer’s block never lasts forever. If it does, there’s probably something wrong with the length of the essay you’ve been asked to write.

Silencing the Critic in Your Head

Silencing the Critic in Your Head

Many of us have heard of stage fright, and most of us have experienced it, too. What about page fright, though? It’s that sickening feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you face a pristine piece of paper or a blank computer screen. And one big source of a writer’s nervousness and nausea is that troll of a critic that resides in all of our heads, even those of the most experienced writers. Mine might look and sound different from yours – they often take on the persona and voice of a particularly mean English teacher who once tortured us – but the critics all yammer on about the same kinds of things. They say, “What makes you think you can write? You can’t spell. You can’t tell a comma from a piece of cheddar cheese. No one’s going to want to read what you have to say.” So how do you get Ms. McGillicutty or Professor Burnbottom to shut up?

The best way to silence the critic is to put something, anything on the page. The nice thing about writing, as opposed to talking, is that it can be edited until you have it just right. So just set a kitchen timer for five or ten minutes, and until the little bell dings, just dump everything you can think of about your subject on the page. This is called free writing, one of the early steps in the writing process. Now you no longer have a blank page, and some of those butterflies in your stomach have probably taken off. You probably aren’t hearing much from that critic, either, because your mind has been on getting your ideas down as fast as you can.

Now read over what you’ve poured onto the page and start cutting and pasting, adding to, and rearranging your ideas until a pattern starts to form. You’re still in the early stage of writing, so don’t worry about spelling and grammar and punctuation at this point. Just concentrate on getting your ideas down and playing around with them. You can worry about the formal mechanics of writing in a much later stage. The most important thing you need to do as a writer is have something important you want to communicate and work on finding the best words and details to make those ideas come alive and be meaningful for your readers.

Writer’s Block: Uninteresting Subject Matter

Writer’s Block: Uninteresting Subject Matter

Well, there’s plenty I could write about this…but I seem to be stuck. Ha! Okay, sorry…

Seriously, this is a frequently recurring problem for all writers. For example, writing blogs about one area of subject matter at some point becomes difficult, even though it’s enjoyable. Why? Because there’s only so much anyone can say about a given topic.

With essay writing, experiencing writer’s block is often a question of two things:

  1. Do I care a whit about what I’m writing about?
  2. Are my writing skills sufficient to accurately express what I want to say?

In the latter case, writing workshops can help, or a professional editing service can lend a hand. But the former case is most often the problem when it comes to academic work. It’s usually something like this:

Submit an essay of at least x pages covering the [insert the non-interesting topic of choice here].

It’s not that you don’t like your class (hopefully), but rather that no subject is interesting in every facet. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and write about something that you do not have passion for or much interest in. The result? Writer’s block.

To get through a situation like that, it’s best to have fun with it if you can. Find a way to make it enjoyable. Once you manage that, the writing you do about even the dullest subject will be a pleasant experience. Often it’s just a matter of adopting an unusual take on what you’re covering.

Another thing you can do is call upon classmates or friends to help. Sometimes just involving someone else in the process (or having them help bear your burden) can be beneficial. Better yet, take some time to sit down with your instructor. Ask him or her why the material in your essay matters. If the instructor can convey anything interesting about the topic, it will help you to be able to write about it.

Finally, just take a mature approach. Not every subject is interesting, but there’s a reason you’ve been given the assignment. Now it’s up to you to do your best and make the most of it. Good luck.

It’s In the Details

It's in the Details

Successful Writing: It’s in the Details

Before a writer starts pecking at the keyboard or scratching with a pen on paper, she needs to have a clear idea of what she wants her readers to understand. If you are writing a paper for a professor or your boss, think about the fact that they most likely already know more than you do about your subject. They and other readers don’t want you to just regurgitate what they’ve already heard or read someplace else. They might not agree with what you say in your paper or report, but they’ll respect your ideas if you provide support for your ideas.

Readers want proof that you understand the material you are covering. Professors and bosses want proof that you understand the material they have covered with you and that you are able to use or apply this information and go beyond what you’ve heard or read. Therefore, before you begin, ask yourself, “What point am I trying to make.” Avoid making your piece an information dumping ground.

Whatever your assignment – a how-to paper, a description, an explanation, an evaluation, a comparison or contrast — you will need to uncover the main point you want to make and then support it with specific details to prove that you are correct. Concrete details are used to explain, expand on, and develop the general main idea of your paper. These details provide the answers to questions like who, what, when, how, why, how much, or how many. So avoid general words like a lot, nice, big, and small in the body of your paragraphs. Use statistics, quotes, facts, anecdotes or stories, definitions, examples, names, numbers, and the five senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing) to add life and originality to your argument.

Don’t use a general word like “flower;” call it a rose or an iris or a dahlia. Instead of saying “a long time ago,” use a number to give your idea weight. Was it a century ago, a millennium, a week? By the way, how much is “a lot”? If you tell me you studied a lot for a test, I might think you stayed up all night. Actually, you spent only an hour skimming your notes, and you said “a lot” because usually you just give your notes the once over in the hallway right before class starts.

Imagine your assignment is to discuss the three main benefits of eating locally grown food. After brainstorming and thinking, researching and reading, you decide they are: save the planet, better taste and nutrition, and helping your community. Let’s just use the first point as an example, plugging in some specifics to show that eating a diet made up of foods grown within 100 miles of your home will help to prevent wars over resources and reverse global climate change because local food doesn’t have to be shipped so far, thus saving oil. A study in Iowa found that a regional diet consumed 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet based on food shipped across the country. The ingredients for a typical British meal, sourced locally, traveled 66 times fewer “food miles.”

Working to find the specific details that support your arguments will give your main point legs to stand on, and you’ll earn a great grade or accolades from your boss, too.

APA Headings

APA Headings

Most academic papers are written using the rules of either APA style (although MLA is also pretty popular). In the papers you write, you will have to use headings in different places. These, like the rest of your writing, need to be correctly formatted. Here’s how to make sure your paper is APA-compliant when it comes to headings.

What may seem confusing is that the style of headings you use will vary, depending on how many levels of headings your paper has. Huh? Yes, it’s a little confusing at first. Actually seeing it in action may help.

In most of your papers, you will be unlikely to ever have more than three levels of headings. In fact, it will be unusual if you have more than two, unless you’re doing graduate-level work. So, let’s look at what you should do if you have one, two, or three levels of headings.

One level:
If you don’t have any secondary or tertiary headings, all you have to do is to center your heading above the text. There should not be a space between it and the text, and it should not be formatted any differently. May students like to use bold or larger fonts for headings, but this is (according to the APA manual) not correct.

Two levels:
If you’re using two levels of headings, the first level will be the same as if you were only using one. For the second level, your heading will be left-aligned, italicized, and title case (i.e., the first letter of each word will be capitalized unless it’s a preposition or article).

Three levels:
The first two levels will be the same as above. For the third level, the words will be lowercase (except that the first word will be capitalized), it will be italicized, and it will be indented five spaces.

Again, remember that for academic work, you should not bold, different colors, or different fonts for your headings. Gotta play by the rules.