One of the hardest parts of writing is figuring out where to begin. After reading the assigned material and the paper prompt, if you are still not sure how to start, then you should consider a brainstorming activity. Brainstorming describes a number of techniques that you can use to gather your thoughts, to put your ideas onto paper, and to create some kind of order from the chaos of information floating around inside your head.
The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill presents several methods to gather your ideas about a particular topic. Making lists can be one effective way to jot down information. You might start by writing a word or a phrase that relates to your topic, then listing in bullet-point fashion as many ideas or examples that come to mind. If you have already thought of a thesis statement or an argument for the paper, you might want to write down each element of the argument, then list all of the evidence that you can find from the readings or texts to support that part of the argument.
Clustering and mapping can also help you to jot down your ideas and begin to organize them. Write down words, phrases, examples, and ideas that relate to your topic. Then draw lines between items that share some sort of connection. By the end of the exercise, you should have a map or a web of various thoughts, with links drawn between them. This will help to group your ideas together and see different ways to approach the topic.
There is no one “right” way to brainstorm, but lists, clusters, and webs can serve as useful tools to get your ideas onto paper.
Planning is paramount,
When you write, you should aim to make your paper as easy to understand as possible. At an intellectual level, the writing process communicates your ideas. Doing so in a clear way makes it easier for readers to understand what it is that you are trying to say. At a practical level, clearer writing usually results in better grades. Students often run into trouble when a professor or grader cannot understand a section of the paper. Most of us have received comments such as “too wordy,” “I don’t understand,” or “huh?” at one point or another on papers. Improving clarity can help solve these problems.
The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers several tips to improve clarity in your writing. First, try to keep your sentences as short and simple as possible. Limit yourself to one idea per sentence. While it may be tempting to go to a thesaurus and attempt to use as many large words as you can, this often leads to wordy writing that clouds your meaning and makes it difficult for your reader (or grader) to understand what it is that you’re trying to say. Keep it short and simple!
You should also avoid passive voice in your writing. When you use passive voice, the subject of your sentence receives the action rather than performing it. Sentences written in the passive voice often contain a form of the verb “to be:” is, are, was, or were. Re-wording these sentences to use an action verb makes your writing more direct. The UW Writing Center website contains several excellent examples of how to do this. By making the subjects of your sentences perform actions and by reducing vagueness and wordiness, you can write in a clearer way and transmit your ideas more effectively.
Use your active voice,
One important way to develop your writing is to read. In a college history class you will, of course, do quite a bit of reading. Trying to balance that reading with all your other commitments can be tough, but there are skills to learn that will help. It is important, for instance, not to treat all college reading as if it is a novel. You may not have to read an assigned history monograph word-for-word and cover-to-cover to understand its contribution. For example, an article in the Harvard Business Review on How to Read a Book a Week outlines a five-step process to understand a book, even if you do not read every word. In this article, Peter Bregman suggests that you “start with the author” and learn a little about them, and then “read the title, the subtitle, the front flap, and the table of contents” to figure out the overall scope of the book. Next you “read the introduction and the conclusion” to focus in on the author’s main argument, and next “read/skim each chapter” to examine how they support the argument. Finally, Bregman recommends that you should “end with the table of contents again” to make sure you have summarize the major points of the book.
Best, Dr. Ferdinando
Clichés are best avoided in academic writing. They are unclear, not specific, and generally can lead to reader confusion. Clichés often only have very general meanings, if indeed they mean anything, and thus do not help support your paper’s argument with any specificity. If, for example, you are describing historic trends in the consumption of various meats, you do not want to say “from the beginning of time people have always eaten meat.” All this phrase does is leave open questions about when, and what meat and people. Rather, you should state the time period, a particular century perhaps, and include the meats and people under study. Thus, a more specific sentence is “US consumption of red meat decreased over the last three decades of the twentieth century, with a correlated increase in poultry evident.” Then, of course, you could analyze potential historical factors leading to these changes.
To learn more about clichés and how to avoid, visit The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center: Clichés. Finally, remember to avoid clichés like the plague.
Best, Dr. Ferdinando
For your writing to be successful, it must be grounded on substance. In the discipline of History, substance is derived directly from the evidence provided by the historical sources assigned. These sources are the key to your argument. Consequently, it is imperative that you read all of the assigned materials that apply to the essay assignment in question. This may seem rather obvious – and of course it is. Yet some students do otherwise.
Instructors can usually tell whether or not a student has read the assigned material by the amount and quality of the evidence put forth. Broad, sweeping statements of personal opinion on a given topic or discussions of events and people outside of the historical era assigned demonstrate that the material was not read or was lightly skimmed. Not good. On the other hand, an essay that provides plenty of specific examples as evidence from the assigned readings will likely also provide in-depth argumentation – in other words, substance. So the lesson is: read all of what has been assigned. Only then will your writing and analysis be able to fully engage the historical topic at hand.
Good luck going forward,
René J. Silva
One of the best online resources for writing is Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL). The grammar section of the OWL covers a number of common issues, including common spelling errors,the difference between adjectives and adverbs, and the proper use of numbers. As historians, we deal with dates quite a bit. So, one important thing to remember is that any number that starts a sentence should be spelled out. For example, it is fine to say “Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743,” but not “1743 was a momentous year, because of Thomas Jefferson’s birth.” Rather, “Seventeen forty-three was a momentous year…” is the correct form.
Best, Dr. Ferdinando
Commas are a vital part of sentence construction. They help your reader figure out what parts of a sentence go together, and what parts are separate. For today’s blog entry I decided to forgo the more famous image highlighting grandma cannibalism. Instead, in the above image, two commas are missing, leading to the consumption of both family and pets. When listing several things, commas help separate those items: “I like cooking, my family, and pets.” The use of commas in a list is relatively straight forward, but commas have many other uses.
For help with these various comma usages, check out the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s handy Commas Handout. They highlight several important comma myths, including that long sentences need commas, and that a comma should go everywhere you pause when speaking. They also encourage the use of a mnemonic device called “FANBOYS.” “FANBOYS” stands for conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. These words help connect parts of a sentence, and when they are connecting two independent clauses, you need a comma.
Still worried about your commas, or perhaps you remain beguiled by grammar? You can make an appointment with a Writing in History tutor. They are available Monday through Friday, usually 9am to 5pm. Learn more and make an appointment on our website.
Best, Dr. Ferdinando