Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: The Basics
Successful writing in college and university courses isn’t only a matter of choosing a worthwhile topic and observing grammar and mechanics rules. It requires writers to follow a host of other written discourse conventions. On first glance, these conventions may seem arbitrary, but in fact they are useful tools. They compel a writer to be specific and clear, and they help demonstrate to audiences that a writer thinks in ways that are preferred by the academic community. In other words, following conventions shows that you belong to that community.
This handout summarizes a variety of writing conventions that may be unfamiliar to students who are starting their college or university studies in North America. Many of the standards of American and Canadian schools are the same in other countries—but not all of them, even in countries where English is used regularly in education. Depending on the instructor, failing to observe a particular standard may mean a lower grade, or failing a course, or even suspension.
Look carefully at the contents of this handout below. If something is unfamiliar to you, or you would like to refresh your memory, read the summary on this page, and then click on one of the OWL links on the left side of this page for a more in-depth discussion of that subject. This handout covers:
- Rhetorical strategies (also known as logic or persuasion)
- Writing from research
- Bibliographies and in-text citations
- Using “I,” “we,” and “you”
- Tips for using Microsoft Word and other word processing programs
The word “rhetorical” has many different shades of meaning, but they all point toward a similar definition—successfully connecting with and persuading audiences. For college and university students, those audiences are usually professors and other course instructors. Some strategies are unique to a subject area, but there are many basic strategies that work in all academic contexts:
Start big and get small
After introducing your subject, make sure that in the first paragraph you summarize everything that you plan to discuss in the rest of your paper. At the beginning of each subsequent paragraph, make sure the first sentence covers everything you plan to discuss in the rest of the paragraph. This will be the topic sentence or the focus of that paragraph.
Enrich your vocabulary
A more sophisticated vocabulary can boost the effectiveness of your writing. Use a thesaurus to find synonyms and related words for concepts you already know. After finding a new word, make sure it is a good choice by asking someone or looking up examples of how the word is used in different contexts and whether the word works in the context that you are writing about. If you are not in a position to do this, type the word into a search engine like Google, and see how others have been using it.
Keep your language neutral
During your studies, it is likely that you will have the opportunity to write about topics that inspire or infuriate you. Regardless of your passion for a topic, academic audiences prefer clear, precise, and neutral descriptions to emotional or moralistic language. For example:
This is a statement that an overwhelming majority of people would agree with, but saying that education is the single most important factor tells readers more about your response to education than about education’s real role in having a successful career. When academic readers see this, it leads them to believe that you cannot help imposing your attitudes on a subject. A more neutral and persuasive way of writing would be:
Education is one important factor in career success. Don’t be extreme. Academic readers are often suspicious of superlative claims. These are statements that begin with “the most” or “the least” or end with “–est,” and are applied to all situations. You can make it less extreme by narrowing the situations in which the statement is true. For example, instead of writing:
It would be more restrained (and accurate) to write
You can also quantify the information, rather than using a superlative:
Find opportunities to be critical
Often (though not always) instructors are eager for evidence that their students are thinking and writing critically. In this case, being critical does not necessarily mean criticizing, but instead means to question, to interrogate. In other words, don’t accept things at face value. Writing critically means to look carefully at a subject, and to ask tough questions about different aspects of it. Bring in different perspectives and talk about how they view the subject. Being critical also means not believing something because of a person’s high status; even if a writer you found in your research is very prominent, that does not mean that they are right. Interrogate them just as thoroughly as you would an unknown writer.
Writing from Research
Many (though certainly not all) first-year writing assignments are expressive in nature, writing based on your own memories, impressions, and emotions—what’s “in your head,” essentially. As you advance to higher-level classes, though, you will need to base more of your writing on researched information, knowledge from “outside your head,” so to speak.
Writing from research has considerable rhetorical advantages. Academic readers feel more confident about research-based writing: since the information comes from someplace else, there is a strong chance that it was verified before it was published, and if a reader is in doubt, they can find the original source(s) and confirm it themselves. Likewise, readers are more likely to trust and be persuaded by an opinion that is grounded in solid researched information, instead of just what the writer feels. Conversely, writing in higher-level classes that comes from what’s “in your head” will not be seen as dependable and is likely to earn a lower grade from an instructor.
When writing an academic paper from research, keep the following essential points in mind:
- Instructors value academic sources, preferably that are located through the school’s library website, more than any other. Some non-academic information (such as newspapers) might be necessary depending on your topic. In addition to the school’s library website you might want to consider using Google Scholar (it works just like Google, but it generates only academic responses).
- The Internet has a wealth of sources, but it is also notorious for having a lot of bad information. Evaluate the quality of sources before using them.
- Don’t rely on the Internet for everything. Get at least a few print sources.
- In most cases, what you already know about a topic is right, but you still need to prove that knowledge by finding sources that backup your knowledge. A portion of research isn’t about finding new information, but about finding a source to support what you already know.
- Make sure to provide in-text citations and a full bibliography for all the sources you use, regardless of whether you paraphrase them or quote them verbatim.
Bibliographies and In-text Citations
Whenever you write something based on research, you will need to include a bibliography and in-text citations. A bibliography is a comprehensive list of all the sources you have used in writing the paper, alphabetized by each author’s last name and organized according to a standardized format. In-text citations are short references within the body of your writing that tell the reader where a particular piece of information comes from:
In this example, the information is from page 21 of a book written by Juul. After looking at an in-text citation, a reader can go to the bibliography and find the full citation:
When you are creating in-text citations or a bibliography, keep the following essential points in mind:
- In-text citations and bibliographies are not used only for direct quotations, but must be used for all information taken from another source, even if it has been paraphrased, condensed, or rearranged.
- The information necessary for a complete bibliography entry is not always immediately obvious. If that is the case, look carefully; the information is often in small print somewhere in the text. If it is Internet source, the entry will also need a URL and the date that you downloaded the page. For more information on citing internet sources, visit our MLA and APA citation resources.
- Different courses use different in-text citation and bibliography standards. Make sure to follow the correct format completely. The most common formats are MLA and APA, but there are others. If you are not sure which one is appropriate for a particular class, ask the instructor or look at the books and articles you are reading for the class.
Put simply, plagiarism is the copying of another person’s work and/or ideas without giving that person credit. Plagiarism is considered a serious offense in all North American colleges and universities. Some instructors will not penalize a student for their first offense, but will instead use the occurrence as an opportunity to teach the student about plagiarism. Most instructors, however, will punish any suspected plagiarism, with a loss of points on a project, a failing grade for the course, or even suspension from the college/university.
- Plagiarism can be intentional, but it can also be accidental. Before submitting your work, read it carefully to make sure you have cited every source you have used by providing in-text citations. Also, make sure that you have thoroughly paraphrased material that you have not quoted directly.
- Follow this basic rule: if it isn’t your idea, make sure you have a citation.
- Remember that instructors can detect plagiarism easily. Besides following their instinct based on their familiarity with your writing style, instructor can also use plagiarism software that could help them find the source(s) from which the information was taken.
Tips for Using Microsoft Word and Other Word Processing Programs
Standards for formatting your documents may vary, so check with your instructors. These standards, however, are the most common:
- Times New Roman font, 12 point
- double spaced
- make sure the paper size is set to letter size (8 ½ x 11 inches)—NOT A4
- have 1 inch margins on all sides
If you are using an East Asian (Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan) version of Microsoft Word, however, there are additional things you will need to do:
Instead of double spaced, set your line spacing to Exactly 28 pt. East Asian versions of Word create more space between lines of text than North American versions, and just setting Word to double space will leave too little text on the page.
Click Format, then Paragraph, then Asian Typography, and make sure there is NO CHECK next to the sentence, “Allow Latin text to wrap in the middle of a word.” Without doing this, East Asian versions of Word will inappropriately cut English words at the end of a line:
Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: Directness
Strategies for Directness
Academic writing in North America has often been described as “direct.” This can mean two things: 1) dealing immediately with the topic at hand without extra information; 2) using clear and precise language to describe even the most uncomfortable and taboo subjects. Direct writing will be seen by professors and other readers as lean and efficient. Follow these strategies to make your writing more direct:
- Create an outline of your text before writing, and compare your early drafts with the outline. If a word or a sentence does not contribute to any of the points in your outline, remove it.
- If you are not used to writing an outline before you start writing, use reverse outlining. There is where you write an outline for your paper after you have already written a draft. Reverse outlining will help you stay focused on your topic.
- When you review your early drafts, look for ways to make your sentences shorter, but without removing any important meanings from them. If you can do this, then make them shorter.
- Look for euphemisms (mild or vague expressions for something that is uncomfortable to talk about). If you find any euphemisms, change them to clearer language.
Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: Objectivity
Using “I,” “We,” and “You”
The differences between spoken and written academic English become very clear in the ways that first- and second-person pronouns are used. Underlying these differences are two basic characteristics of all academic writing: 1) the readers of academic writing tend to be more interested in the insights that a writer has to offer than in the person who is offering the insights, and 2) these readers value precision.
Although you may have been told that “I” is never used in academic writing, that is not true. It is okay to use it, but only if the “I” is a vital part of the thing that is being discussed. For example, a student conducted a chemistry experiment and is reporting on the procedure. If the student is writing a paper for a chemistry class, the people reading it are probably not interested in who did it; they are interested only in the chemical phenomenon. She would remove the “I” by writing in the passive voice:
However, if her readers were more interested in the writer and her experiences than in the chemical phenomenon, then it would be okay to use “I”:
The first-person plural pronoun “we” (and “us” and “our”) is used even less frequently. The problem lies in the fact that it often is not clear who the pronoun, “we” represents. Take the following example, written by one student working by himself:
If this had been written by a group of people working together, then “we” could refer to all the writers together. But this is only one writer, working alone. So who is “we”? Maybe the writer was referring to himself and his readers together—but he cannot know who is reading the paper, and it might be that one of the readers disagrees with him. Since there is no clearly defined group here, it would be best to change it so that it is more accurate:
“You” is almost entirely non-existent in academic writing, again because it is not clear who will be reading a text, so the writer cannot accurately account for each and every reader.
It is common to use “you” this way while speaking, but it since it is so imprecise, academic readers generally do not like it. A common strategy is to replace “you” with “one”:
If a writing situation calls for direct instructions on how to do something, rather than describing or arguing for something (as is the case in this handout), it is okay to use “you.”
Abstract and General Nouns and Noun Phrases
Academic writers often express abstract ideas in their writing. Abstract ideas are concepts that do not refer to specific, concrete, observable things that can be experienced through human senses of touch, taste, sight, smell, and hearing. Academic writers express abstract ideas because abstract ideas can apply to many people and many situations (Schleppegrell 130-131).
An example of an abstract idea is the concept of acceleration. Acceleration is a concept from physics that refers to a change in an object’s speed (Arny & Schneider 544). An academic writer does not need to be referring to specific speed measurements or even a specific object to discuss the concept of acceleration. The concept of acceleration is abstract, so it could refer to any object and any change in speed.
Academic writers value knowledge and ideas that are generalizable—that is, knowledge that can apply to many people and many situations. In order to express these abstract ideas, academic writers use abstract nouns and abstract noun phrases. An abstract noun is a noun that refers to an abstract idea, like justice, freedom, beauty, etc.
Academic writers do not always use abstract nouns. Sometimes they use concrete nouns that express ideas about things that can be experienced through human senses. At times, it is appropriate to use concrete nouns to express ideas in academic writings—particularly when you are describing specific data from observations.
The choice of abstract nouns is determined by the topic of the writing. Each academic discipline has its own specialized vocabulary, which is sometimes called jargon (words that are used within a given discipline). Each discipline uses jargon to express their ideas accurately. Sometimes this jargon takes the form of abstract nouns. For example, examine the following sentence from a statistics text book:
A numerical summary of a distribution should report its center and its spread or variability. (Moore, McCabe, and Craig 47)
In this example, the word “variability” is an abstract noun because it refers to a concept that cannot be experienced through human senses. The concept of variability is, essentially, the degree to which numbers in a numerical data set differ. Whenever an academic writer in statistics wants to express an idea about the amount of difference in a numerical data set, they will use the word “variability” because it accurately refers to that idea, and other people in statistics will understand and accept the idea. Furthermore, the abstract noun allows the writer to express an abstract idea without having to refer to a specific, concrete data set.
Some abstract nouns have similar features. For example, some suffixes in English are used to create abstract nouns. Below is a short list of abstract nouns with common suffixes. You can use this list to recognize and create other abstract nouns that are appropriate to your topic.
Other words with same suffix
capability, complexity, majority, humanity, possibility
elimination, reservation, continuation
excitement, arrangement, replacement, measurement
sadness, darkness, emptiness, kindness
arrogance, importance, silence, absence
Kinds of Verbs
Sentences in academic writing often express ideas about different kinds of processes and states of being. These process and states of being usually are expressed through verbs. We can identify three main kinds of processes expressed in academic writing:
Kind of Process
“Doing” or “Happening”
Events that take place in the real world.
Relationships between things, people, and abstract ideas.
Assertions that something exists.
Biological processes also remove some CO2 from the atmosphere. (Arny & Schneider 254)
Cultural diffusion is the transmission of cultural elements from one society or cultural group to another. (Andersen & Taylor 59)
In fact, there are still problems in understanding what drives the motions and causes a new rift to develop. (Arny & Schneider 160)
Kinds of Verbs adapted from Christie and Derewianka (9)
As we mentioned earlier, abstract ideas of academic writing are often expressed through abstract nouns. Academic writers choose verbs that express what their ideas are “doing” or what is “happening” to their ideas. Other times, they choose verbs to express how different ideas relate to one another (Schleppegrell 137-138). And, sometimes they choose verbs to express the idea that something exists.
In the examples of “doing,” “relating,” and “existing” verbs, you can see how academic writers use different kinds of verbs to express processes and states of being between abstract ideas. In the “doing” example, “biological processes” is the abstract idea that “remove[s]… CO2.” The verb “remove” tells us about an action that is happening in the real world. The “biological processes” are the things that are “doing” the action of “remov[al].” Because the noun “biological processes” is abstract, the act of “remov[ing]” may not be referring to something specific and observable. As a result, both the nouns and verbs combine to express how an abstract idea can do something to affect the real world.
In the example of a “relating” verb, there are two abstract noun phrases: “cultural diffusion” and “transmission of cultural elements.” The two abstract ideas represented by these noun phrases are related through the verb “is.” Is is a very common “relating” verb in academic writing. In this example, “is” is used to show that two ideas are equivalent to one another—that “cultural diffusion” and “transmission of cultural elements” are the same idea expressed in different words. Academic writers often use “relating” verbs when they are defining ideas or describing the attributes of an idea. Another common “relating” verb is “have,” which might be used to express certain attributes of an object or idea.
Lastly, the example of an “existing” verb shows simply that the ideas expressed by the noun “problems” actually exist. This sentence is taken from part of an astronomy textbook discussing plate tectonics It suggests that a certain theory of plate tectonics has “problems.” The writer chose to assert that the problems exist in order to introduce a contrast to the prevailing theory. Academic writers use “existing” verbs less often, but they are useful for creating contrasts and introducing topics.
Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: Reasonability
Academic writers express their ideas with medium certainty. That is, they don't express their ideas in language that is too strong or too weak. All claims in academic writing are debatable and academic writers are only able to express ideas with medium certainty (Schleppegrell 61). Academic writers generally do not claim that their ideas are absolutely true.
When academic writers use words to convey a medium level of certainty, this is calledhedging. We use the word hedging to describe this practice because it compares writing to a hedge. A hedge is a kind of bush that is used as a barrier. In the same way, hedges in academic writing are used as barriers to protect academic writers from making statements beyond the level of their certainty. In other words, hedges help keep academic writers from saying things that are difficult to accept or are untrue. In the example below, the word “are” expresses high certainty, meaning that the statement must be true. But if someone in the audience can provide one example of a raven that is not black, then the writer has been proven wrong and their argument will not be accepted as a valid argument. However, the words in the hedge diagram protect the writer from expressing inappropriate levels of certainty. The words “are usually” express medium certainty. If an audience member does find a raven that is not black, the writer’s argument may still be accepted because “usually” means that “most, but not all” ravens are black. This also applies to the word “may,” which expresses low certainty.
In general, medium certainty is preferred in academic writing. Examine the sentence below to see how the engineering writers might express medium certainty of their idea:
This method must always produce superior results.
The use of “must” and “always” suggests that the writer knows with high certainty that their claims are true. It also suggests that the audience does not have a choice in accepting the writer’s ideas, because the writer indicates with their word choice that their idea could not possibly be wrong. Therefore, the writer is assuming a higher status than the audience.
This method could produce superior results.
The use of “could” indicates that the writer has very low certainty of their ideas. This may suggest the writer is of lower status than the audience, because the writer does not seem to be confident enough to make a claim for the audience to evaluate. The audience may not accept the writer’s ideas. However, it is better to express ideas with lower certainty than with higher certainty because lower certainty respects the audience’s choice to accept or reject your ideas. A writer expressing high certainty may appear to be creating an unequal relationship with the audience, which would make the audience less likely to accept their argument.
This method will likely produce superior results.
The use of “will” and “likely” creates an equal relationship with the audience. As a result, the writer’s idea could be accepted or rejected by the audience. But the writer has used the word "likely” to indicate that the idea is debatable. This means that the writer will try to convince the audience through reason and evidence (Schleppegrell 61). Below are some common words used to express different levels of certainty:
(prefered in academic writing)
Adapted from Halliday & Matthiessen (148, 615-623)
Academic writers show their knowledge and express ideas primarily through declarative sentences. Declarative sentences are sentences that express a statement or an assertion (Schleppegrell 58-59). For example, the sentence below is a declarative sentence:
Neutrinos, however, are unfazed by a mere mile of solid ground: on the average they could travel through a light-year of lead. (Arny & Schneider 321)
The sentence makes a statement about the nature of “neutrinos,” which are a kind of particle. The choice of a declarative sentence by Arny & Schneider allows them to convey ideas about neutrinos to the reader directly. Other kinds of sentences in English include imperative sentences and interrogative sentences. An imperative sentence makes a command or direct request of the audience. An interrogative sentence asks a question or requests information from the audience. Imperative and interrogative sentences are not common in academic writing, but they are common in speech.
However, sometimes academic writers do use interrogative sentences. But in these cases, the writer is not asking a direct question of the audience. Instead, interrogative questions are generally used in academic writing to provide a rationale for information or to show a line of reasoning (Schleppegrell 60). The example below shows how Arny & Schneider continue their reasoning regarding neutrinos by using an interrogative sentence:
The writers restate the previous sentence’s idea regarding the “unstoppability” of neutrinos. Then they use an interrogative sentence: “How are neutrinos detected?” They pose this question to provide a rationale for their next sentence, which explains how scientists detect neutrinos. In general, academic writers use interrogative sentences sparingly, and only for specific purposes like reasoning and providing rationale for information.
Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: Conciseness
Academic writers express complex and abstract ideas. When those same ideas are expressed in everyday, spoken English, the explanations may be quite lengthy. But academic writers value efficiency and conciseness in writing. They want their audience to understand their ideas quickly because these ideas often involve complex lines of reasoning and evidence. In order to convey ideas concisely and show the relationships between ideas (i.e. reasoning), academic writers express logical connections between ideas in three main ways: conjunctions, nouns, and verbs (Schleppegrell 56-58).
Logical connections can be expressed through conjunctions, which are short expressions that convey a particular kind of logical relation. The table below shows kinds of logical relations and the conjunctions that convey those relations.
and, also, moreover, furthermore, additionally, in addition
for example, for instance, to illustrate
since, because, therefore, so, then, as a result, on account of this, for that purpose
then, next, previously, finally, when
but, however, on the other hand, instead, yet, alternatively
likewise similarly, in the same manner
Not only does culture vary from place to place, it also varies over time. (A&T 40)
Symbols are things or behaviors to which people give meaning… The U.S. flag, for example is literally a decorated piece of cloth. (A&T 38)
Because culture is learned, members of a given society seldom question the culture of which they are a part… (A&T 38)
The Moon doesn’t disappear completely when there is a lunar eclipse. (C&D 14)
Ultrasounds can pick up abnormalities in the fetus, but further testing needs to be done to confirm Down Syndrome. (C&D 14)
Human biology sets limits and provides certain capacities for human life and the development of culture. Similarly, the envioronment in which humans live estabslishes the possibilities and limitations for human society. (A&T 40)
Adapted from Christie & Derewianka (14) and Halliday & Matthiessen (541) with examples from Christie & Derewianka (14) and Anderson & Taylor (38, 40)
There are certainly many more logical relations than are listed in the table above. Similarly, there are many conjunctions and conjunctive phrases in English. As you can see, conjunctions are used often in academic writing to express logical relations. But logical relationships are also expressed through nouns and verbs (Schleppegrell 57). The next example shows how nouns and verbs can convey these relationships:
1) The formation of sedimentary rocks is closely associated with water.
2) One type forms when water carries soil, pebbles, and other particles to the ocean floor where those sediments become rock.
5) The second method involves chemicals dissolved in water.
6) By evaporation and precipitation of substances like calcium carbonate, sedimentary rocks can form.
(Morrison, Moore, Armour, Hammond, Haysom, Nicoll, & Smyth 352)
In the example above, the verb phrases and noun phrases in bold signal different kinds of logical relationships. The verb phrase “is closely associated with” expresses the idea that water is part of a process that causes sedimentary rocks to form. The logical relationship between “water” and “the formation of sedimentary rocks” is that of cause. In the next sentence, the word “forms” establishes how “water” causes “one type” to “form.” The relationship is, again, one of cause. The remaining sentences also express a relationship ofcause through the use of the verb “involves” and the nouns “evaporation” and “precipitation.” By using nouns and verbs to convey logical relationships, academic writers are able to shorten their writing, making it more concise. It allows them to condense many meanings into single words, which allows them to build more complex arguments and establish complicated lines of reasoning (Schleppegrell 57).
Academic writers condense their complex ideas into a smaller space by transforming longer phrases and sentences into shorter words and phrases. When they do this, they often change the function of the word or phrase (Schleppegrell 71-72). For example, they may turn a verb into a noun, as the example below shows:
1) Because the telephone was invented, there were many new opportunities for better communication.
2) The invention of the telephone created many opportunities for enhanced communication.
In the first sentence, the verb phrase “was invented” is transformed in the second sentence into the noun “invention.” The strategy of turning verbs and adjectives into nouns is common in academic writing. It allows academic writers to create more abstract ideas (expressed in transformed nouns), and then show the relationships between these ideas. The logical relationship expressed in this sentence is cause. In the first sentence, cause is signaled by the conjunction “because.” But in the second sentence, cause is expressed through the verb “created” because it connects “opportunities for enhanced communication” to “the invention of the telephone” (Schleppegrell 72-73) As a result of condensing the language, the second sentence is shorter than the first one, which demonstrates the value of conciseness.
Academic writers organize their writing in several ways. We will discuss two of the more prominent patterns of organization. The first pattern is linear organization, which means that each idea is directly connected to the idea immediately before it (Martin & Rose 158). Often this will be expressed at the sentence level. Information in a previous sentence will become the start of a new sentence (Schleppegrell 70). For example:
Many astronomers now believe that the radio sources inside quasars are objects known as black holes. The existence of black holes is more or less taken for granted by many astronomers, although no one has ever seen one (Morrison et al. 444).
The topic of “black holes” is introduced at the end of the first sentence. But in the second sentence, “black holes” is near the beginning of the sentence. This organizational strategy is sometimes called given/new. In a given/new sentence, the first part of the sentence contains information that is given, or that was already expressed previously in the text. The new part of a sentence adds new information about the given information. This allows academic writers to build logical lines of reasoning through language (Schleppegrell 70). The example below shows the given/new organization graphically.
Using linear organization is appropriate when you are explaining a sequence of events or steps in a process. For example, if you are explaining the procedures you used in an experiment, linear organization would help convey the information in a concise manner.
Another important way academic writers organize their writing is through orbital organization. In orbital organization, a writer identifies a central idea and provides supporting ideas. All of these supporting ideas connect to the central idea (Martin & Rose 24). Academic writers use orbital organization when they want to discuss multiple causes of some event (159). They also use it when they want to explain the factors that contribute to some process (157). Below is a diagram that illustrates how one of the previous examples regarding sedimentary rock shows an orbital organization. The central point of the “formation of sedimentary rock” is represented by the biggest circle. This formation process is caused by a number of factors, including “soil, pebbles, and other particles” being carried by water to the ocean floor (Schleppegrell 69-70). The factors are represented by the smaller circles. The arrows show that all of those factors support the central idea of the “formation of sedimentary rock.”
The formation of sedimentary rocks is closely associated with water. One type forms when water carries soil, pebbles, and other particles to the ocean floor where those sediments become rock.
Orbital organization is often used to organize an entire essay or article. Academic writers often decide on a central idea for their paper and organize supporting ideas around the central idea. The central idea is often called a thesis. The supporting ideas are frequently expressed in the first sentence of each paragraph. These sentences are usually called topic sentences (Christie & Derewianka 71). By using the orbital organization, you can make your ideas clear because the academic audience is familiar with the format. Because it is an established pattern of organization, it also helps focus your writing on your central and supporting points, therefore keeping it concise and efficient.
Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: Revision
When writing for the academic audience in North America, one of the most important things 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 pay attention to 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. When writing argumentative papers, writers make claims and support these claims with relevant evidence that would help their readers believe their claims. 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 main 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 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 a topic sentence for each paragraph you write. Topic sentences typically appear towards the beginning of a paragraph. Topic sentences help you organize your writing because they provide the controlling idea for the paragraph.
When you are revising your document, you need to make sure that 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 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” —they usually have too many ideas crammed in. See, for example, the sentence below:
“Although inexperience does not simply mean that all drivers who are younger than eighteen years old are immature, the fact that teenagers took 10 percent of the U.S. population in 2005, but 12 percent of motor vehicle deaths demonstrates that they have disproportionally higher risks than that of other age populations, which justifies the action toward teenage drivers.”
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. Being repetitive like this can have a negative impact on how your readers receive your message. It can make 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 facilitate 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.
Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: Writing from Sources Glossary
This glossary includes several words and phrases that are useful when researching and citing sources. Many of these words are part of the metalanguage, or the specific vocabulary that we use to talk about how we research and cite sources, in a North American academic context.
An acronym that is short for the American Psychological Association. The American Psychological Association is one of the foremost academic associations in the social sciences in western academia, and they publish their own style manual for publications, which is updated almost every year.
The word “circa” means “approximately,” and it is used mainly with dates. For example, a writer might explain that the social media website Facebook was created circa 2004. Circa is used when exact dates or times of year are not as important as the approximate year of the event.
Information that has become mainstream in general or so widely known by the public domain that there is no need to be cited, e.g. the mass–energy equivalence formula is E = mc². As this is widely known, there is no need to cite the Einstein’s articles in which he presented such information, because now it is common knowledge.
A publication, person, or other resource that provides accurate, clear, and reliable information about a particular topic, idea, or opinion. The credibility of a source affects the credibility of the writer citing information from that source. If a writer or student cites information from sources that are not credible, then their paper will not be very credible overall. Generally, the most credible and reliable sources are those published in academic peer-reviewed journals. The most not credible and unreliable sources are sources written by people with no background or education in the topic or sources that can be easily edited by almost anyone (such as Wikipedia or social media). Different fields of study and disciplines have different requirements for what constitutes a credible source, so writers should always consult the OWL, an instructor, or a knowledgeable advisor about the rules for credible sources in her or his area of study.
A citation in a works cited or references page at the end of a document. If a writer uses eight different sources in a paper, they should be cited within the paper (in the places where the information from those sources is used). Each of the eight sources should also be given an entry in the works cited or references page at the end of the document. The format and information included in the entry is dependent on the style manual the writer is using.
Foot Notes and End Notes
Extra information, usually giving citations or extra information, which the writer does not put within the main text of the document. Foot notes and end notes are usually marked within the text of the document by small numbers. These small numbers correspond to the citation or explanation at the bottom of the page (for a footnote) or at the end of the document (for an end note).
The space at the top of an electronic document. Most style manuals require the writer to put information in the header, such as last name and page number.
The space between the margin and the text in a document. Indentation is usually created in electronic documents by using the space bar or the “tab” key on the keyboard. In many types of writing, the first line of a paragraph is indented by one tab (five spaces). Indentation is also important when formatting long quotations, formatting works cited entries in MLA, and formatting outlines.
A type of electronic book. “Kindle” is an electronic reading device created by the company Amazon. Kindle books are in a different format than other electronic books; however, many people can download a free version of a Kindle “e-reader” application on almost any electronic device in order to read a Kindle book.
An acronym that is short for the Modern Language Association. The Modern Language Association is one of the foremost academic associations in the humanities, literature, and linguistics in western academia, and they publish their own style manual for publications, which is updated almost every year.
A book or publication that is published in two or more separate pieces. A publication may have multiple volumes because it has too many pages for just one piece. This is usually the case with encyclopedias. A publication may also have multiple volumes because each piece is published throughout the year at different times. This is usually the case with academic journals that are published multiple times each year.
The way the editor or publisher assigns pages to a publication. Pagination is very important for a multi-volume or multi-issue journal or other source. Generally, the editor or publisher assigns pagination by either starting at page 1 for each volume or issue or by continuing the page count throughout many volumes or issues. In the second method, the first page of a second volume of a publication will not be labeled as page one. For example, if volume one ended with page 340, then the first page of volume two would begin with page 341.
To restate another person’s idea in the writer’s own words. A paraphrase must be quite different in vocabulary and word order, but it should still retain the original idea. Paraphrases should be cited to avoid plagiarism.
A set of parenthesis in which a writer puts information from a source in order to tell the reader where the information came from. Different style manuals require different information in a parenthetical citation. Different style manuals also state where the parenthetical citation can and cannot be place within a sentence.
A short, precise title for a part of a document. Some style manuals and reports require section headings to make it easier for the reader to find information quickly.
Signal Phrase or Lead-In Phrase
A word or words that introduce information from someone else. A signal phrase or a lead-in phrase comes before a quotation, paraphrase, or summary, and it includes citation information, like the author’s name, title of the source, the year the source was published. The word or words “signal” to the reader that the writer is using someone else’s ideas, and it “leads in” to the new information.
Signal Verb or Lead-in Verb
The active verb included in a signal phrase or a lead-in phrase. Depending on the style manual the writer is using, this verb could be in present tense, past tense, or in a conditional tense. Writers should select appropriate verbs with care to accurately represent the source they are citing.
A list of rules about how to research and write for academia or publication. There are several different types of style manuals, and each has different rules for the style of writing, citation, and overall format of the paper.
A message or entry on the social media website Twitter. Tweets are limited to 140 characters (letters, numbers, symbols, punctuation, and spaces). Some style manuals give specific ways cite tweets as sources.
PLaCE Self-editing Workshop
This resource provides the user with an in-class, or self-guided, workshop that discusses self-editing your work. Editing is the final part of revision, and should be saved for before you submit your assignment. This workshop is supplemented with a handout, which can be downloaded by clicking here.
This resource was developed as part of the Purdue University Language and Culture Exchange (PLaCE) initiative. The original resource was developed by Ghada M. Gherwash and Andrew Yim, with annotation extentions completed by Joshua M. Paiz
PLaCE Elements of an Email Workshop PPT
This workshop discusses the various elements of a well-crafted email and provides the user with tips and strategies to ensure that their meaning come across clear and in the intended manner. This workshop is supported by the handout located here.
Please note that this workshop was developed as part of the Purdue Language and Culture Exchange (PLaCE) program for Purdue University's West Lafayette campus. PLaCE focuses on providing international students with additional linguistic and cultural support as the acclimate to the North American higher educational context.
MS Word Bells and Whistles Part 1: Using Grammar and Spell Checkers Effectively
This workshop provides guidance on how to use MS Word's grammar and spell checker features effectively. To download the PowerPoint file, click the above link.
Please note that this workshop was developed as part of the Purdue Language and Culture Exchange (PLaCE) program for Purdue University's West Lafayette campus. PLaCE focuses on providing international students with additional linguistic and cultural support as the acclimate to the North American higher educational context.