While there are many roads to launching a successful essay, article, or research paper, many of those roads have bumps, tolls, and avoidable potholes. Luckily, the Office of Research, Doctoral Programs, and Strategic Initiatives at the Fox School is here to help doctoral students and faculty avoid some of the most common writing mistakes.
Matt MacNaughton, a professional copy editor, shares his six recommendations for writers who want to get the most out of their papers.
1. Know Your Audience
Take a moment to ask, “Who am I writing this for?” If you are planning to submit your work to a journal or present it at a conference, look for submission guidelines that can help you tailor your entry for those readers. If your paper has the wrong format or layout, or uses a non-preferred citation style, your readers may decide that this isn’t the publication for you.
Be sure to introduce language with which your readers may not be familiar. If your audience is in your field, then perhaps you can assume a rudimentary knowledge of technical terms. If you are writing for general purpose, like a newspaper or magazine, define any jargon. If it’s redundant, an editor will remove it anyway.
2. Utilize Clear, Concise Language
In writing as in life, our diction requires our utmost attention. While we sometimes think that certain concepts require vivaciously paced sentences that deliberately pontificate their topic with the multisyllabic majesty of a character from Twelfth Night, most of the time it is truly unnecessary.
Did you understand that paragraph? Probably not as well or as quickly as you could have, if I had simply said, “Long sentences with big words are not usually better than shorter sentences with simpler words that convey the same meaning.” In fact, the latter contains more information in a shorter sentence. Keep it simple!
3. Quick Grammar Tips are Great…
Spelling mistakes and grammar missteps happen all the time, whether intentionally or by accident, but it does not have to be this way! There are a number of tools online that can help with easy questions concerning unfamiliar grammar rules. For example, does the comma go inside quotations, or outside? How about a semicolon or colon? I could tell you that most places in America will tell you unequivocally to put the comma inside and the colon outside, however –
4. …But Not Always Perfect
–in the U.K., sometimes those grammar rules are flipped!
Be very careful with these rules, because even if I comes before E except after C, the science can be very flawed! While knowing the difference between They’re, There, and Their will never come back to bite you (there are, in fact, no exceptions to this rule), style guides vary widely over things as silly as the Oxford comma. While quick grammar rules and tips can be helpful, don’t be afraid to take a few seconds to search for an answer in a style guide or the internet. A recommended style guide is the Associated Press, but, again, it depends on the requirements of the publication or conference.
5. Read Your Paper Out Loud
This is something that a number of people have heard about but very few practice. When you read your work out loud, you become acutely aware of each and every choice you made while writing, and can tease out the minute problems in pacing and language that otherwise your eyes would have glossed over .
You may not realize it, but you can hear grammar mistakes that your brain doesn’t recognize in print. You may even find yourself confused out loud when you were positive it made sense in print.
6. Get a Second Pair of Eyes
So you’ve gone through your paper to make sure you weren’t being verbose, that you were aligned with your submission guidelines, and that all your questions of grammar were addressed. Then, for good measure, you read it out loud and found a few more areas that could be edited for clarity. But sometimes reading and re-reading a paper can make you essay-blind. You need a second pair of eyes (and, maybe, a vacation).
That’s why the Office of Research at the Fox School has set you up to succeed with a copy editor who is available to read your manuscripts and provide feedback tailored to your needs. Doctoral students and faculty can send a request for copy editing services through our website. Once received, most submissions are returned with feedback within a week. Happy writing!