Ninth Edition CoverGraziano & Raulin
Research Methods (9th edition)

A Quick Guide to
Improving Your Writing

Because many college students have the same problems when writing technical papers, we have prepared a brief summary of technical writing tips. Not all of the suggestions in this summary will apply to you, but many of the ideas are worth considering. Our own writing has many of these faults--faults that we try to correct in our second draft of a paper.

  1. Use strong topic sentences to begin each paragraph. Topic sentences focus the reader and reduce the organizational load on the reader.

  2. In addition to paragraph structure, make sure you structure your entire paper. Tell the reader early on what the paper is about, and pull the paper together at the end by summarizing the key points.

  3. Avoid passive voice. Sentences in passive voice are often wimpy and much more likely to be convoluted and misunderstood than the same information expressed in active voice.

  4. Avoid long sentences. Occasionally, long sentences work well. More often, long sentences are complicated and confusing. It is no accident that virtually every grammar checker (computer program that identifies potential grammar problems) flags long sentences for rewriting.

  5. Never use a phrase if a single word will do, and never use a long phrase if a shorter phrase conveys the same meaning. Unnecessary words rob your writing of power. Your ideas get lost in the words. One of the best ways to overcome this problem is to force yourself to cut 10 to 15% from your paper without cutting a single idea. You will be surprised at how easily you can express the same ideas in tighter, more powerful sentences.

  6. Take a hard look at every adverb. Most can be deleted. If the adverb seems necessary to express the thought, look for a stronger verb or adjective instead.

  7. Be especially careful to avoid unclear references. By unclear reference we mean any word (usually a pronoun) that could refer to more than one person or thing. In general, avoid using pronouns. Even when the pronoun reference is unambiguous, the reader has to work harder to interpret a paper that uses too many pronouns.

  8. Many people use the words "that" and "which" incorrectly. Use "that" when you are defining an object (e.g., The car that I just bought is a lemon.). Use "which" when adding a parenthetical comment about an object (e.g., My new car, which I bought just before I started this job, is a lemon.). Since you use "which" for parenthetical comments, the comment is usually set off with appropriate punctuation, as shown in the example.

  9. Consider using a grammar checker routinely on papers you write. Most high-end word processing programs have built-in grammar checkers. You can also buy grammar checkers as stand-alone programs. Good grammar checkers will flag most common errors and offer suggestions on how to correct them. Also, use the spell check feature of your word processor as the last step before printing the paper. Spell checkers will not catch every error (e.g., typing "than" when you meant to type "then"), but they do help to clean up a paper.

  10. Books like Strunk, White, and Angell's The Elements of Style (Macmillan, 2005) and Zinsser's On Writing Well (HarperCollins, 2006) will give you many ideas on how to sharpen your writing. However, if you want to learn to write well, there is no substitute for practice.