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
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
Historiography is central to the historian’s craft. At the most basic level, historiography is the history of history. If you do not know what has been written on a particular topic, the various interpretations of that topic, and the ongoing debates about it, then you cannot write good history. To quote a professor from my graduate school years, “you’ve got to know the gods and goddesses of the field.” The excellent Writing on History website from Queens College, CUNY includes a section on Historiographic Essays. As they suggest, one of the best ways to start exploring historiography is to write an annotated bibliography on a particular topic that interests you. One you have a clear idea of the major works and interpretations, then you can develop an argument about the historiographical development of that topic.
20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes
Jon Gringerich’s list of twenty common grammar mistakes, in particular, covers a number of commonly confused pairs of words. For example, which and that, lay and lie, fewer and less, and the always tricky who and whom. Knowing how and when to use these various words will help improve the clarity and flow of your writing.
Best, Dr. Ferdinando