Category Archives: Academic Writing

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

Time management tips.

Finals, oh no! (From Mortsan on Flickr)

It’s coming to the end of the school year, which means, for many of you, it’s “finals season.” With what feels like 148,927,826 final papers due (give or take a few) and that many more final exams, final projects, and other final end-of-the-semester things to worry about, how do you find the time?

To do so, you have to MAKE the time, not find the time.

Sadly, there is no way to make days longer or for weeks to magically appear between now and your deadlines. Unless a way to bend time is found, there is no way to add extra days or hours to what you already have, or to recoup “lost” time. There is no two ways about it, you have a lot of things to do, and a very limited amount of time to do them. So, it’s crucial to make use of the time you have, and to do so efficiently. Time management means exactly that: to manage your time available. In order to do so, you will have to prioritize, by dividing your time appropriately.

Dividing your time “appropriately” means to devote the appropriate amount of time to the tasks at hand. The appropriate time, however, means the ACTUAL time you need to complete a task. So, your mission is to be honest with yourself. Don’t tell yourself you work best under pressure when you… well, don’t. In the same way you know your paper isn’t going to write itself, know your own strengths and weaknesses; if you know pulling an all-nighter isn’t going to end well for you and for your grade, then don’t do it. Time isn’t going to magically expand itself and you’re not going to magically work at a vastly different pace than you’re normally used to. If you genuinely feel you do work best under pressure, that’s okay, too– but, think twice about it. Is this really the case? And, if it can be avoided, why would you want to put yourself through that?

More time is ALWAYS better than too little time. By managing your time consciously and honestly, you’re allowing yourself to have more time, time being one of the most crucial factors to improving your skills as a writer. How, you say? This is how. So, again, be honest with yourself. The more conscious you are about how much time you have available and how much time it will actually take to complete your assignment fully and completely, the more likely you are to do it.

So, sit down with your planner, Google Calendar, or what-have-you, and make an assessment: How much work is due? How much time do you actually have? How can you safely allocate the appropriate amount of time to each task? This is the first step to actually managing your time effectively. By doing so, you’ll be in a much better position to not only survive your hectic end-of-semester schedule, but to totally ace it.

Stefanie Arr

Essay writing tips.

Essay writing tips (from SamJUK on Flickr)

I get asked a lot of questions from my students– mostly asking for tips and tricks to writing essays. While there’s no way to avoid doing the work, there are certainly tips and tricks to improve your writing and, in turn, to improve you yourself as a writer.

1. Write more than one draft.
It’s certainly more time-efficient to bang out a draft, staple it together, hand it in, and be done with the assignment. It saves time, but doesn’t save you from submitting an essay riddled with mistakes. Simple grammatical gaffes, like mixing up “your” and “you’re”, can go unnoticed and even more serious ones, like mixing up citations and copy-and-pasting wrong quotes, can fly under the radar if you hand in only your first draft. Thoroughly proofreading your work ensures that you’re not handing in an essay that is full of misspellings, bad grammar, or worse. Realizing your mistakes is the first step to a successful essay, and writing multiple drafts where you can make corrections and tweak your writing will ensure that you’ll be submitting your best work.

2. Have someone else look at it.
In the same way that writing two (or more!) drafts is crucial to writing a good essay, having someone else read your work can give you ideas and insight that you may not have thought of or seen otherwise. This can be your professor, a friend, your roommate, a neighbor, anyone. Giving your paper to an outside reader is essentially what you are doing when submitting your essay to a professor: you’re providing a written argument, explaining your point of view on the subject, and hoping your argument comes across clearly. An outside reader can spot critical errors that might not seen right away and tell you if your argument is explained fully and, most importantly, if what you’re saying makes sense. Through an outsider’s opinion, you can better gauge what your professor’s criticisms might be and (through drafting!) correct them preemptively.

3. Make sure you give yourself enough time.
I know, I know– this is easier said than done. And, sometimes, you’re not given the time to begin with. I have previously covered ways in which to make the most of your time allotted, but all of the above should explain why it’s important to do so. You want to give yourself enough time to complete these important steps in order to hand in an essay that truly shows off your ability. Aside from completing the assignment, you want to prove that you’re a capable student and a good writer. Skimping on these steps can lead to mistakes, which could instead showcase the opposite– that you are careless, rushed, and maybe even lazy.

All in all, these are not tips on “how to write a paper in 90 minutes or less”, or other get-rich-quick schemes. These are instead tools that will, ultimately, show your best work possible and that you are a good and careful writer.

Stefanie Arr

Choosing a final paper topic your professor will like.

Yes, this is actually backwards (From LittleDebbie11 on Flickr)

Final papers are rarely fun assignments. This much is true.

But, it doesn’t have to be so painful to pick a final thesis topic.

Professors typically assign final papers to round out their syllabi and to give more chances to make up for missed assignments and midterm exams. But, most importantly, they do so to get a full grasp of what you have learned and truly gleaned from their course. It goes beyond making sure that you did the readings and paid attention to lecture; it’s to see if you, as a student, really understand what the class was about, why the course is important and how that is. Basically, your professor wants to see that you really understand the coursework, curriculum, and, really, the whole point of the class.

You should see right away why the above should be considered first and foremost when thinking of possible thesis topics: your paper should address what your professor is looking for. Of course, don’t confuse this with just regurgitating notes from lecture and the reading; you have to show that you’ve truly digested the material and understand it.

First, evaluate the curriculum and what was covered during the course. Think as broadly as possible, and look for themes that run through the entirety of the curriculum; what kind of connections can you make between all the readings assigned and the main points of lecture? These themes and connections– the scope of the course– are the “meat and potatoes”, if you will, of what your thesis should be about or, at the very least, should resonate with your professor when reading it.

Regardless of what your topic ends up being, be sure to incorporate these themes into your work. Not only will it make your professor happy, but it will also make your paper that much more comprehensive and well-rounded.

Stefanie Arr