Monthly Archives: July 2011

Rules for writing an essay.

Writing. (From Jase Curtis on Flickr)

There is a lot involved when writing an essay. If there wasn’t, then writing would be easy; there wouldn’t be a need for writing classes, books, or tutors (yikes!). So, while I still have a job, writing is still hard. To make up for it, I’ve compiled a short list of basic rules to live by when writing an essay.

Avoid using contractions.
I know– I myself just used a contraction (if you forgot what a contraction is, here’s a refresher) in my header. However, when writing a paper, this is NOT the way to go. Why? Well, a paper is, basically, a serious presentation of an argument. Using contractions like “I’m” or “don’t” is too informal, which could make you sound less smart. Clearly, you can see why this would be a bad idea for a paper. This is, of course, not the case when using a direct quote, as you are using someone else’s words and phrasing and, if they themselves used contractions, that’s okay. But, for your own writing, it’s best not to use them so that you can sound as compelling, persuasive, and, yes, smart as possible.

Sentences shouldn’t be more than three lines long.
When writing a paper, you want to be as clear and clean as possible. Writing sentences that are too long can confuse your reader, and dilute what you’re trying to say. If you’re not sure whether a sentence is too long, try reading it out loud. If you find yourself losing your breath or your place, try shortening it. It’s better to have shorter sentences that are strong and to the point, than to have really long, confusing ones.

Avoid slang.
For the same reasons I’ve stated above, using slang in a paper is a terrible idea. The goal of your paper should be to address issues and arguments in the most intelligent way possible. Unfortunately, using slang like “gonna”, “ppl”, or “on the down low” isn’t going to do that. A good marker of whether a word or phrase is slang or not is to think, would this be printed in the New York Times? If yes, then you should be fine. If it’s on Urban Dictionary, then maybe not.

Stefanie Arr

Common grammar mistakes.

Below are a few of the most common mistakes I have found in students’ writing. They are also some of the more trickier rules in grammar– interesting correlation, no? So I’ve compiled a list with basic explanations in order to alleviate some of this confusion.

1- Your and You’re
These two always, always, always, trip up my students. Admittedly, I get a little confused, too, at times and autocorrect doesn’t help. However, the basic rule to remember is the difference between using the possessive pronoun and using a contraction.


Your is a possessive pronoun. It’s helpful to think of it as a form of the word “you”, as in “I edited your paper” or “I love your blog”. It is a possessive pronoun in that it means the paper and the blog in the above sentences belong to, well, you.

You’re, on the other hand, is a contraction; more specifically, it’s a contraction of you and are. For example, you can say “You’re right, this blog is awesome” or “That paper you’re working on is coming along great”.

See the difference? When trying to figure out when to use you’re or your, think of what you’re trying to say. What always helps me is to substitute them with “you are” and see if it makes sense. “You are doing so well” make sense, so you can use the contraction you’re. “Congrats on you are A” doesn’t, so you have to use your.

2- Its and It’s
Okay, here’s when it starts to get a little trickier. The difference between its and it’s is similar to your and you’re– one’s a possessive pronoun and and the other is a contraction. But, how they are formed is a little confusing.

It’s seems like the possessive of it, yes? Well, no.
It’s is, instead, the contraction of it and is. Weird, I know. Apostrophe and all, it’s is used like this: “It’s important to avoid grammar mistakes”.

Its, on the other hand, is the possessive of it. You use it like this: “My paper! I lost one of its pages”. The pages, of course, mean they belong to the paper itself. So, you can think of “its” being like her or his, possessive pronouns (more on parts of speech later) that show ownership of something.

3- Than and Then
This is the hardest rule to keep straight; I say this because this trips me up, too. What’s so difficult about than v. then is that it’s not a difference of pronouns or contractions, but of conjunctions and adverbs.

“Um… what?”

I know. Let me explain.

Than is a conjunction (specifically a subordinating conjunction, but we can get into that later). Conjunctions conjoin — they bring together two parts of a sentence, whether it’s nouns, clauses, or sentences. Than works to compare two items, as in: “It’s better to do well than to fail” or “I like this topic choice more than that one.”

Then is an adverb (again, more on that later) that relates to the passage of time.

You can use then in ways like the following example:
“I started working on my essay but then realized I needed some help.”

Unlike than, you can use then to begin a sentence:
“First, you begin by brainstorming. Then, you can work on an outline.”

It is a bit tricky, but it’s actually not very hard to keep straight once you get the hang of it. The easiest way to remember this is that the “e” in then is in “time“. It’s cheesy but it works.

Stefanie Arr

Best books on writing.

Old books (From Paper Cat on Flickr)

Many of my students ask me for recommendations of books that can improve grammar and writing skills. So, I’ve compiled a short list of books that one should have, whether it’s for school, business, or for every-day written communication.

1. Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style”:

It’s difficult to stress how helpful and necessary this little book is. It’s about as classic as classic gets, even more so than jeans or John Hughes movies could ever be. Everyone, especially students, should have a copy of this book. I personally have gone through several copies, as I am constantly using it in academia, when working with students, and even for my own writing. It’s a true must-have.

2. Modern Language Association’s “MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers” (MLA format)

-Kate Turabian’s “A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations” (Chicago/Turabian Style)

-American Psychology Association’s “Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association” (APA format)

These manuals are for the thesis and dissertation formats and styles most commonly used in high school, college, and graduate schools: MLA, Chicago, and APA. At some point in your academic career, you will be required to use at least one of these styles. Meaning, you will be required to format and structure your paper and, most importantly, cite your research in a particular style of writing. The style you use, however, will depend on your major or academic track. Social and behavioral sciences will almost always use APA so, if that is what you are studying or plan to study in the future, be sure to have a copy as it will be your life’s blood for a long while. If you are a humanities or liberal arts student, you have a choice. Some swear by MLA and others fight to the death for Chicago (also called Turabian) style. Personally, I prefer MLA but simply because my school had a preference for it and I became most used to that particular style. Other schools may prefer Chicago, and you may grow to use that one as well. There is merit to being familiar with both (especially for those in academia, like me), but see what works for you. Either way, you should choose one of these and use it consistently, unless your teacher or professor says otherwise.

3. American Heritage College Dictionary

Yes, it’s a dictionary. But everyone needs a dictionary! Sure, there is Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and even Google– but A.H. takes the cake. It’s more progressive than most, reflecting more technological and social changes to the English language than the older, tonier ones.
There are also curse words, in case you’re wondering. All in all, it’s just a great general, mid-sized dictionary that would work for everyone.

4. Patricia O’Conner’s “Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English”

Let’s face it: grammar can be confusing and downright frightening sometimes. The English language can be pretty ridiculous; trying to figure out what goes where is hard, and trying to understand why is even harder still. But, have no fear. I often recommend this book as it’s very easy to use, it’s very comprehensive, and it’s not as boring as most other grammar books. She clearly explains each rule (and there are many) with humor and plenty of examples. She also doesn’t make you feel stupid, which is an added plus. It answers most if not all grammar issues and problems but is totally not intimidating in the least. I am a big fan of this one, as are a lot of my students, and have always gotten a great deal of use out of it.

5. Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”

If you’re a nerd like me (which, let’s be honest, I have to be one to do this for a living) and want to invest further in how to improve yourself as a writer, this is one of the best. It’s been around for ages now and is consistently cited as one of the best resources a writer can use to improve their craft. He talks primarily about writing non-fiction but extends past academic writing and can be used for fiction as well– memoir, travel, and humor writing are also covered. I will admit, it can be a little hokey (see the “Field of Dreams” reference in one of the reviews, for example) but it is definitely a great insight into how to improve the quality of your writing and the importance of writing clearly, simply, and honestly. It’s not a must-have necessarily but, if you’re looking to improve yourself as a writer and want to hone your craft, I wholeheartedly recommend this.

Stefanie Arr