Multiple times in my upper level undergraduate courses I’ve had students complain that I marked off for writing quality – spelling, grammar, clarity. Students’ argument is generally, I already took my W (writing) course, why should I be graded on writing in a non-W course?
Hopefully by graduate school you recognize that clear, accurate writing is important in any writing setting [well, hopefully you realize this in undergrad, but if not…]. So, here are some things to be aware of in your writing. Note that these issues are based on ones that I’ve noticed most frequently in graduate student class papers. Some of them arise more frequently because of the kinds of classes I teach (e.g., adolescence vs. adolescent).
- Identify your writing foibles: A general point is that everyone has different writing issues. The ones I’m listing are those I notice frequently; yours may be different. Start to notice what errors your instructors and/or advisors note on your writing. And then be aware of them. I know for myself, for instance, I have issues with consistency. So before I submit a paper, I figure out what terms I am using interchangeably, decide which ones I want, and go through and search and replace. I had an international student who had great English, but often confused she and he. Figure out yours, and check for them before submitting papers.
- Tense switching: An easy one to go back through your paper and check on. Make sure that you are not being inconsistent.
- Incorrect example: Lifetime rates of kissing and touching are similarly high for male and female adolescents and college students (Garcia et al., 2008; O’Sullivan et al., 2007; Regan et al., 2004), but reported daily rates were higher for female than male students (Patrick et al., 2015).
- Corrected: Lifetime rates of kissing and touching are similarly high for male and female adolescents and college students (Garcia et al., 2008; O’Sullivan et al., 2007; Regan et al., 2004), but reported daily rates ARE higher for female than male students (Patrick et al., 2015).
- Singular/plural switching: Make sure that you consistently use singular or plural. So don’t go back and forth between describing people vs. a person. For instance:
- Incorrect: An adolescent who feels rejected by his/her peers may be less open to seeking out new friendships. Feeling rejected by peers, therefore, may lead adolescents to perpetuate future rejection.
- Correct: ADOLESCENTS who feel rejected by THEIR peers may be less open to seeking out new friendships. Feeling rejected by peers, therefore, may lead adolescents to perpetuate future rejection.
- Too long sentences: Think about your sentence length. You will lose the reader if it goes on too long. It’s relatively easy to break up your points into two separate sentences.
- Contractions: Avoid contractions in formal writing. I get to use them in blog posts; but don’t use them in manuscripts, theses, or class papers
- While vs. although/whereas: Use WHILE for comparing time. Use ALTHOUGH or WHEREAS for comparing arguments:
- Incorrect: While limited past work has examined longitudinal changes, our findings are in line with prior cross-sectional work…
- Correct: ALTHOUGH limited past work has examined longitudinal changes, our findings are in line with prior cross-sectional work…
- Incorrect: Some research demonstrates similar reported rates of couple-level oral contraception use for men and women, while other research demonstrates…
- Correct: Some research demonstrates similar reported rates of couple-level oral contraception use for men and women, WHEREAS other research demonstrates…
- Correct: While the participants completed surveys, the researcher surreptitiously rated their Tanner level.
- Since vs. because: Use BECAUSE for logical arguments; only use SINCE to describe time.
- Incorrect: Since multilevel models allow for incomplete data, we retained all measurements…
- Correct: BECAUSE multilevel models allow for incomplete data, we retained all measurements…
- Correct: Researchers have recognized the value of human subjects protection since several high profile unethical research studies.
- That/which: This rule has taken me the longest to learn of any grammar rule, I think. Use THAT if the clause (defined as a restricted clause) is critical to the sentence’s meaning. Use WHICH to add additional information (nonrestrictive clause).
- Future research might consider whether such health benefits are especially true for nonpenetrative behaviors, WHICH do not have accompanying risks of unwanted physical health outcomes.
- We excluded behaviors THAT do not have accompanying risks of unwanted physical health outcomes from other analyses.
- Relationships/associations: People have relationships; variables have associations. This distinction is particularly important when writing about relationships. Otherwise, you end up with sentences like “the relationship between relationship satisfaction and depression was…”
- Male/female vs. women/men or boy/girl: APA style says to only use male/female as adjectives when referring to humans; use them as nouns only for non-humans. Use women/men or boy/girl for humans. Yes, this wording can be challenging when describing adolescents. Depending on the age, we sometimes use boys/girls, sometimes young men/young women, sometimes male adolescents/female adolescents.
- Adolescents vs. adolescence: For whatever reason, students often mix up these two forms. I know if asked which is used when they could quickly identify; I guess because they sound similar, in writing quickly students sometimes mistype them.
- Plural vs. possessive: Students often use apostrophes when they intend the plural form, or vice versa.
- Others: See my other posts for how to dis the this; use consistent ordering (different from consistent terms); and vanquish the vague.
Getting a handle on these issues, and your other writing foibles, early in your academic career isn’t just about getting better grades. It’s about your ability to communicate your ideas and your research with other academics and outside of academia.
What are your writing foibles?
“ first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on September 13, 2018.”