This Is Why My Friends Don’t Let Me Read Their Papers

In high school, the red pen happened to be my favourite (with black a close, sophisticated second). In other words, I was not merciful when it came to editing my peer’s papers. When I would return pages covered with more red than black, looks of horror flashed across more than a few faces. A curt “Thanks” would be offered, and a voodoo doll in my image would be created that evening.

I went to an arts high school. Enough said…

My love of editing has stuck with me over the years, and I’ve even picked up a few new tricks since high school. These tricks, however, have been acquired through other people editing my papers. (I never claimed to be perfect—I just like finding mistakes.) Here are three quick examples that could help you improve your writing this semester:

  1. Avoid being verbose. In my experience, most undergrads feel the need to use the most flamboyant language at their disposal, to sound smart, of course. After reading academic journal after academic journal, using simple words and short sentences just seems unacceptable. “Arguments” become “discourse,” and pretty soon you aren’t even sure what you’re talking about. But using big or fancy words will not make your arguments any stronger. Keep it simple and the readability of your paper will increase tenfold (or something like that). You probably don’t even enjoy the academic journals assigned in your class—so why would you want to imitate that style?
  2. Ditch vocal tags. After writing in a fairly casual style for over a year, the return to academic writing was a bit of a shock for me. Early drafts of papers sounded as though I were Charles Dickens and being paid by the word. Words like “furthermore” and “conversely,” “hence” and “therefore” littered the beginning of every thought. Like verbose language, these words—which I have come to know as “vocal tags”—do not necessarily add any value to your paper. Think about the way you’re using the word: if it doesn’t help make a point, don’t include it.
  3. Maintain micro-coherence. When I started writing essays back in Grade 9, I was taught to treat them as a road map. I was to keep my main goal of each “trip” in mind and map out my “destinations” in the order I would arrive at them. My favourite papers always seemed to have a logical flow from one argument, or destination, to the next. This idea of micro-coherence helped me understand where my argument was going and kept me on a logical path to the inevitable “slideshow” that is characteristic of any trip.

While voodoo dolls were once the consequence of my editorial suggestions, I currently have no pins sticking out of my body. In fact, I eventually received gratitude for my efforts and, in exchange, similar treatments were given to my paper.

Hopefully you can use these ideas to improve your next paper. If you have any tips that you use, feel free to leave a comment below!

Ironically, this blog will probably have quite a few mistakes that need to be edited. Just another opportunity to learn.

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