Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: Revision
This handout is an introduction to the basics of academic writing conventions for students who are new to American colleges and universities.
Contributors:Michael Maune, Hwanhee Park, Tony Cimasko, Joshua M. Paiz
Last Edited: 2012-10-24 12:12:53
When writing for the academic audience in North America, one of the most important thing to keep in mind is clarity. Having a clearly stated argument that is maintained throughout the paper is the basis of much good academic writing. In order to achieve clarity, writers must many things, including but by no means limited to: vocabulary; unnecessary usage of pronouns and “it” subjects; paragraphs that do not have clear topic sentences; and lack of transition between paragraphs. Other common concerns for revision, such as improving the flow between paragraphs and revising excessively long sentences are also discussed. This resource focuses on elements of revision for the argumentative research paper, which is one of the more common genres in the North American academic content. This resource provides an overview of the revision process in the form of a check list.
Revising Front Matter and the Thesis
- The title of the essay should state the position of the paper. If the title only summarizes the issue, change it to one that summarizes the essay’s argument about the issue.
- State your argument and support in specific, concrete terms instead of abstract, general ones. For example, assume that one is writing a paper arguing that the teenage driving age should be raised because it will then reduce the risk of car accidents. From there the writer claims that s/he argues for this stance because s/he believes that human lives are more valuable than anything. However, the value of human lives is too general a premise to work as an underlying support for an argument on a specific change in a policy. In such cases, it is better to take out the general premise and focus more on explaining the specific benefits the change will bring.
- Check for language that might be too strong or too weak, such as “I think,” “it seems that,” “I cannot but…,” “The data proves…” and others: the goal of writing an argumentative paper is to persuade the audience that your argument is valid and worth considering. Weak phrases give the impression that the writer is not confident about the validity of the argument, which cannot help the writer to get his/her point across to the readers. Statements that are too strong suggest that the writer knows, or can argue more than they can really support. For example, stating that your argument “proves” that the teen driving laws should be changed. Since argument exists in a place between opinion and fact, your argument can make a suggestion, or it might indicate something, but it might not prove it inconclusively. It’s important not to overstate your side of the argument, as this can actually end up weakening the validity of what you’re trying to say. For more on this, see Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: Reasonability on the Purdue OWL.
Addressing the audience
- Check if the topic or a support need additional explanation for the specific target audience, in this case the North American academic audience. Some topics may be unfamiliar to the North American academic audience, or it’s possible that you may not be working from the same shared pool of knowledge as your audience. This means that they might benefit from a more detailed explanation on the contexts and relevance of what your topic and its supporting evidence. Similarly, certain sources will require more explanation in order to make their connection to the argument more clear. If, for example, you use a survey done in New Zealand as evidence to support a change to the American policy regarding teenage driving. The readers will want to know how a study done in one country can be applied to revise a policy in another.
Building Better Sentence & Paragraph Structure
- Check to make sure that you have clearly written topic sentence. Topic sentences typically appear towards the beginning of a paragraph. Topic sentences help you to organize your writing because they provide the controlling idea for the paragraph.
When you are revising your document, you’ll want to make sure the other sentences, the supporting sentences, in your paragraphs are related to the topic sentence in some way. If they are not, you may want to consider moving them to a different paragraph, or changing your topic sentence.
- Check to make sure that you have clearly written transition sentences where needed. Transition sentences should describe the relation between paragraphs. If one paragraph describes the effect of the issue and the next states the cause, the transition sentence for should clarify that effect-cause connection. Similarly, if a series of three paragraphs describe three supports for a single argument, having transition and/or topic sentences for all three of them that start with conjunctive pronouns (such as, “firstly,” “in addition,” and “finally”) helps the readers see that relation between paragraphs.
By stating the relation between paragraphs, you are guiding the reader—showing them why the paragraphs should appear in the way they do in your paper. This can help make the overall “flow” between paragraphs smoother. If you cannot explain why a certain paragraph should come before/after the other, you will want to consider putting that certain paragraph somewhere else, where you can better explain its connection to the paragraphs surrounding it.
- Check for sentences that have too many shifts in ideas (they are likely to be long sentences). Sentences that are often called “overcomplicated” have one thing in common—they usually have too many ideas crammed in. See, or example, the sentence below:
This sentence contains four different ideas—1. Disclaimer “Although…are immature”; 2. Statistics “teenagers took…deaths”; 3. Interpretation of statistics “they have disproportionally higher risks…”; 4. Argument “justifies…drivers.”
In revising such complicated sentences, first start off by separating the most important element of the sentence—which, in this case, is “4. Argument”—and make it a separate sentence. Then find what seems the least relevant to the argument—in this case, the “disclaimer” because it’s going against the argument—and either delete it or put it in a separate sentence. Then see what remain, and either separate them further or leave them together, as you see fit. In the case of the example, the remaining two parts should stay together because they are statistics and interpretation of it. Finally, build in conjunctions as necessary. One possible revision reads:
Sentence- and vocabulary-level issues
- Do not use big words when small, clear words work. Big words do not necessarily make you look smarter, or like you have a greater command of North American Academic English. On the contrary, they often contain nuances that may not be appropriate for your purpose. Simple words that are easy to understand can help deliver your point clearly, without having to worry about whether the usage is “correct” or not.
- Do not use the same word twice when you can use it only once. Be repetitive like this can have a negative impact on how your readers receive your message. It can make your reading your paper become more of a chore, because of the lack of variety.
- Check for subject-verb agreement, especially in sentences that have long clauses as subjects.
- Check to make sure that the pronouns that you are using have a clear referent. That is, don’t us a pronoun for something before using the proper noun. This helps to reduce the ambiguity of your writing. For example:
The second sentence is much clearer as to who the “doer” of the action is.
- Check the required citation format and adhere to it. Using the correct documentation style is a crucial element in building credibility of any writing—it tells the readers that the writer knows the protocols of the community that they are writing in, and it can facilitates further research if necessary. The most common documentation styles used in the North American academic context are MLA style for humanities, and APA for social sciences. The OWL has easy-to-navigate resources on both; the links are provided below.