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Writing Tips

“Writing and thinking and learning [are] the same process,” author William Zinsser writes in Writing to Learn. At Hamilton, the ability to think, write and speak clearly and effectively is a central part of a liberal arts education. The writing tips that follow will help you write well.

Writing Tip of the Day

CATEGORY: Writers on Writing

A sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plough instead of a pen, could have drawn a furrow deep and straight to the end. — Henry David Thoreau

Writers on Writing

If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage. — Cynthia Ozick


 

I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers. — Vladimir Nabokov


 

Excuse this long letter ... I haven't enough energy ... to write a short one. — George Bernard Shaw, in a letter to a friend


 

There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting. — Louis Brandeis


 

I have never thought of myself as a good writer ... But I'm one of the world's great rewriters. — James Michener


 

A sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plough instead of a pen, could have drawn a furrow deep and straight to the end. — Henry David Thoreau


 

The act of composition is a series of discoveries. — E.L. Doctorow


 

I don't write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn't work, or what simply is not alive. — Susan Sontag


 

No one should ever have to read a sentence twice because of the way it is put together. — Wilson Follett


 

Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying. — John Updike


 

The writers who get my personal award are the ones who show exceptional promise of looking at their lives in this world as candidly and searchingly and feelingly as they know how and then of telling the rest of us what they have found there most worth finding. We need the eyes of writers like that to see through. We need the blood of writers like that in our veins. — Frederick Buechner


 

In a very real sense, the writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratifications, is a curious anticlimax. — Alfred Kazin


 

Before writing, "I always have a sense of trembling, but so does a compass, after all." — Jerzy Kosinski


 

I have always felt that the first duty of a writer was to ascend — to make flights, carrying others along if he could manage it. To do this takes courage, even a certain conceit. — E.B. White


 

To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. — Joan Didion


 

Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything really good. — William Faulkner


 

The glory of language is not simply that it enables us to explain and reason, but that it forges human bonds, and when words and moment come together perfectly, they can take us into a magic realm. — Joan Hinde Stewart, Hamilton College President


 

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon. — William Zinsser


 

Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas one long chunk of type can discourage the reader from even starting to read. — William Zinsser


 

Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper not eternal bronze: let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes. — Jacques Barzun


 

I write entirely to find out what is on my mind, what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I'm seeing, and what it means. — Joan Didion


 

Every piece of honest writing contains this tacit message: "I wrote this because it's important; I want you to read it; I'll stand behind it." — Matthew Grieder


 

Accuracy is not just a matter of facts; it is also correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, measurement, context, relevance — in a word, precision. I learned this from my first city editor, who taught me that a door is not a doorway; that "no injuries were reported" does not mean that "there were no injuries"; that a man charged with burglary is not necessarily a burglar ... At its best, accuracy is a painstaking, caring, patient and reasonable faculty of mind. — Evan Hill


 

Good ideas are overrated. It makes more difference how a writer handles an idea than what the idea was in the first place. — Andy Rooney


 

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Writing for Clarity

avoiding choppy sentences

A string of simple sentences is choppy and monotonous, and it fails to show the relationship between ideas. Consider combining short, related sentences into a more concise construction. Choppy: "Iguanas make nice pets. They take up little space." Better: "Because iguanas take up little space, they make nice pets."

Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center
 

passive voice

Passive voice produces a sentence in which the subject receives an action. In contrast, active voice produces a sentence in which the subject performs an action. Passive voice often produces unclear, wordy sentences, whereas active voice produces generally clearer, more concise sentences. To change a sentence from passive to active voice, determine who or what performs the action, and use that person or thing as the subject of the sentence. Passive voice: "On April 19, 1775, arms were seized at Concord, precipitating the American Revolution." Active voice: "On April 19, 1775, British soldiers seized arms at Concord, precipitating the American Revolution."

Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center
 

define your terms

Define your terms up front. By define, I mean immediately stating the significance of the term as well as the meaning of the word as used in your paper. If you are using a key term or phrase that could be open to more than one meaning or might be unfamiliar to the reader, failing to define it could hinder the whole paper. Undefined terms can be a problem in almost any type of paper, from an art history essay to a psychology lab report, so be sure to double check.

Erica Kowsz '11, Writing Center tutor
 

topic sentences

Topic sentences should make the arguments necessary to support your thesis. If you're not sure about your topic sentences, try this: Isolate your thesis and topic sentences, and put them in the form of an outline. If the outline would allow someone to follow your argument without the rest of the paper, then you've got clear, argumentative topic sentences. If your outline is a list of noncommittal observations, take a stand and argue it in each topic sentence. If your outline is missing an important idea, you've probably hidden a good topic sentence in the middle of a paragraph — good ideas should be up front!

Catie Ferrara '11, Writing Center tutor
 

concluding sentences

Avoid ending a paragraph with a quotation. End with your own words explaining the significance of the quotation to the paragraph.

Catie Ferrara '11, Writing Center tutor
 

his or her

Although grammatically correct, avoid the use of "his or her": "Everyone should take his or her seat." Instead rewrite: "The students should take their seats."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

no empty sentences

Every sentence in your paper should be significant. Don't use "fillers" that don't contribute to your argument. If you can remove a sentence and your paper still makes sense, remove it.

Rebecca Behrens '11, Writing Center tutor
 

opening sentences

Set your paper apart right away. Don't bother with statements of fact that give no direction to your ideas. Who cares what "many scholars" have said "over the years"? I want to know what you have to say right now!

Kate Sheridan '11, Writing Center tutor
 

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Commonly Misused Words

annual

Do not use "first annual." An event cannot be annual unless it has occurred two or more times.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

unique

One of a kind. Do not overuse or describe something as "very unique" or "rather unique."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

secondly / thirdly

Do not use - there is no "firstly." Use first, second, third.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

myriad

Avoid overuse; use only when referring to items truly uncountable or immeasurable. Do not follow by "of": the myriad stars on a clear summer night; the myriad riches of a liberal arts education.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

data

Data is plural: "The data show (not shows) that medication affects ADHD symptoms."

Tara McKee, associate professor of psychology, From the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center's
 

reticent

An adjective that describes one who keeps thoughts and feelings private. Do not use to mean "unwilling" or "reluctant."  Correct: Because she lived alone and spoke to very few of her neighbors, she was described as shy and reticent.  Incorrect: Vactioners were reticent to visit the Florida beaches after the hurricane.

American Heritage Dictionaries' 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses & Misuses
 

regardless/irregardless

"Irregardless is a word that many mistakenly believe to be correct usage in formal style, when in fact it is used chiefly in nonstandard speech or casual writing." Probably a blend of irrespective and regardless, irregardless "has been considered a blunder for decades and will probably continue to be so."

American Heritage Dictionaries' 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses & Misuses
 

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Commonly Confused Words

capital/capitol

Capital refers to a town or city that serves as a seat of government or a place at the center: "Many consider Milan to be the fashion capital of the world."  Capital can also describe wealth, an asset or human resources.  Capitol is a building in which a state legislagture meets or, specifically, the building in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Congress meets.

American Heritage Dictionaries' 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses & Misuses
 

since / because

Since is often used to mean because: "Since you asked, I'll tell you." Its primary meaning, however, relates to time: "I've been waiting since Tuesday for the letter." Most people now accept since in place of because; however, when since is ambiguous and may also refer to time ("Since she went to college, he found another girlfriend"), it is better to use because or after, depending on which you mean: "Because you are intelligent and careful, your writing has improved since the beginning of this course."

Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center
 

affect / effect

Affect is a verb meaning "to influence": "His score on the history final will affect his grade." Avoid the use of affect as a noun (except in specialized contexts such as psychology and philosophy). Effect, as a verb, means "to cause": "The new dean will effect many changes in the curriculum." Effect, as a noun, means "result": "Her research measures the effect of global warming on Oneida Lake."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

that / which

Use that in restricting (limiting) clauses that provide essential, identifying information: "The rocking chair that creaks is on the porch." You are singling out the chair from two or more chairs. Use which in nonrestrictive clauses -- clauses that provide non-essential, parenthetical information: "The rocking chair, which creaks, is on the porch." You have one rocking chair, and it creaks. If you are unsure whether a clause is restrictive or not, try omitting it. Omitting a restrictive clause will change the core meaning of your sentence. Note: A non-restrictive which clause has commas around it; a restrictive that clause has none.

Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center
 

feel / think

In common usage, feel means to sense, to be emotionally affected by something, or to have a general conviction of something. Think means to use reason, to examine with the intellect: "I think that you can write better than you have, but I feel encouraged by the improvements in your writing."

From the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center's
 

farther / further

Farther refers to physical distance. Further refers to an extension of time or degree: "The walk from the village to campus was farther than they expected." "Further research is necessary to prove his hypothesis."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

its / it's

Its is possessive. It's is a contraction of "it is": "Because it's going to rain, the cat ran under its porch."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

between / among

Between refers to two items; among refers to more than two: "A debate ensued between the student and his professor." "A debate ensued among students in the class."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

complement / compliment

Complement means to supplement: "The graphs complement his research paper." Compliment is an expression of courtesy: "The professor complimented students on their hard work in her class."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

compose / comprise

Compose means to create or put together: "She composed a symphony for her senior project in music." "The symphony is composed of three movements." Comprise means to contain and is best used only in the active voice. "The symphony comprises three movements." "The class comprises six men and seven women." Avoid "is comprised of."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

ensure / insure

Use ensure to mean guarantee: "Use these Writing Tips of the Day to ensure accuracy in your writing." Use insure only when referring to insurance: "The policy insures his life."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

fewer / less

Fewer refers to individual items; less refers to bulk or quantity: "Fewer than 10 students received a fellowship." "She had less than $50 in her wallet." (Here, $50 is considered a singular lump sum; however: "She had fewer than 50 $1 bills in her wallet.")

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

utilize / use

Use refers to the intended job an object was designed to perform: "Please use a pencil to complete the test." Utilize means to make use of an object beyond its intended purpose: "He utilized a paper clip to fix the hinge of his laptop." In almost every case, use is the word to use.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

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One Word or Two

online

One word and no hyphen when referring to use of the Internet. However, use two words when meaning "into service": "The new facilities came on line this month."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

lifelong

One word; no hyphen: "Winning an Academy Award was the actor's lifelong dream."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

download

One word: "In order to download the new software, she needed to install more memory on the computer."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

under way

Two words: "The game was already under way by the time the coach arrived."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

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Plurals

plural names ending in s

Add "es": Charleses, Joneses, Gonzalezes. Do not use an apostrophe to form a plural.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

compound words

For those terms that include two or more separate words or a hyphenated word, add "s" to the most significant word: attorneys general, daughters-in-law, lieutenant colonels.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

numerals

Add "s" with no apostrophe: "She was in her 40s when she received tenure."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

common nouns that end in s

Add an apostrophe and "s" unless the word that follows also begins with an "s": the class's graduation, the class' senior dinner.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

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Punctuation

commas between two independent clauses

Use a comma to separate two independent clauses linked by conjunctions such as and, but, or, so or yet: "She smiled as she accepted her diploma, but a tear slid down her cheek when she turned to face her classmates." "She smiled as she accepted her diploma but started to cry when she turned to face her classmates."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

-ly

Do not hyphenate between adverbs ending in -ly and adjectives they modify: An easily remembered rule; the nationally ranked women's lacrosse team.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

semicolon in a series

To clarify in a series, use the semicolon before and: "Among the speakers were Doug Weldon, the Stone Professor of Psychology; Donald Carter, chief diversity officer and professor of Africana studies; and Lydia Hamessley, associate professor of music." Place semicolons outside of quotation marks.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

co-

Use a hyphen when forming nouns, adjectives and verbs that show occupation status: co-author, co-chair, co-worker. Omit the hyphen in other combinations: coeducation, coexist, cooperative.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

apostrophes in decades

Use an apostrophe to indicate numerals omitted. Show plural by adding "s": "She attended Hamilton in the '80s." "The 1940s marked a change on college campuses."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

prefixes

Generally do not hyphenate when using a prefix with a word starting with a consonant: predecease, reconvene. With the exception of cooperate and coordinate, use a hyphen if the prefix ends in a vowel and the word that follows begins with the same vowel: re-elect, pre-eminent, re-establish.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

apostrophes

Use the apostrophe to indicate possession and to mark omitted letters in contractions. Writers often misuse apostrophes when forming plurals and possessives. The basic rule is quite simple: use the apostrophe to indicate possession, not a plural. Yes, the exceptions to the rule may seem confusing: hers has no apostrophe, and it's is not possessive. Nevertheless, with a small amount of attention, you can learn the rules and the exceptions of apostrophe use.

Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center
 

hyphens, compound modifiers

As a general rule, compound modifiers are hyphenated before the noun but not after the noun: "The team scored in the first quarter." "The team scored a first-quarter goal." However, when a modifier that would be hyphenated before a noun comes after a form of the verb "to be," the hyphen is usually retained: "The scholar is well-known." "The child was soft-spoken." Two words that are commonly associated do not require a hyphen: the real estate agent, the health care system. Compounds that end in "ly" are not hyphenated: the newly appointed dean, the nationally ranked hockey team.

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

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Collective Nouns

Nouns that denote a unit take singular verbs and pronouns: "The class graduates in May." "The group made its recommendation." "The committee met to set its agenda." Note that team names take plural verbs: "The Continentals are playing at Sage Rink." Exceptions to this rule are couple, when used to refer to two people, and family, when used to refer to a two or more people. Both of these take plural verbs and pronouns: "The couple were visiting campus to see their daughter on Family Weekend." When referring to a single unit, use a singular verb: "Each couple was asked to contribute $10."

Hamilton College Editorial Style Guide
 

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