Tucked away in dozens of archived folders on my computer are literally thousands of works of art or horror stories – all in the form of academic papers. I have been blessed to teach some of the most extraordinary researchers and writers on the planet. I have also had that fingernails-on-the-chalkboard experience of reading some really bad stuff. I thought I would go off the reservation a little today to share with you what I have learned from the best of the best and the worst of the worst.
Regardless of whether you are just starting to college or about to graduate with an advanced degree, you will not succeed in online education (or classroom either, for that matter) beyond your ability to write effectively. Moreover, there is a massive difference between speaking English and writing it in a formal setting. If a professor ever tells you that you write like you talk, they aren’t giving you a compliment. Academic writing is a formal setting. (This post is not.) I make my living doing both. If I spoke the same way I write in formal settings, I’d be stuffy and boring. If I wrote the same way I talk conversationally or when I preach, I would butcher the King’s English and my paper would be filled with colloquialisms, contractions, sweeping statements that had little or no support, and at times poor grammar.
Here are some specific suggestions for writing success with any academic writing that uses the APA style manual (no, “APA” does not stand for “American Psycho Association,” though sometimes you may wonder). You may need to adjust this for different formats (or different teachers with different hot buttons).
1. Write to a general audience. Don’t assume that I, the reader, know the assignment or that it IS an assignment. Do NOT refer to “this assignment.” Explain the purpose of your paper so that anybody could pick it up and read it without feeling like they’d been left out of a part of the conversation.
2. Write an interesting introduction that tells me why you are writing this and where you are taking me. Use “boring” phrases like “the purpose of this paper is…” and “this paper will explain…”
3. Take the reader where you are going seamlessly. Sentences and paragraphs should flow from one to the next. In formal writing, there should be little-to-no surprises in the body of your work. For every paragraph in the body of your paper, I should already be aware from your introduction that you were going to somehow cover that topic. Save the surprises for the tabloids and magazines.
4. Write a compelling conclusion that summarizes what you have said and answers the question, “Where do we go from here?” Leave me, the reader, with the confidence that you know what you are talking about and are committed to making it happen.
5. Use appropriate capitalization and punctuation. Different style manuals use different capitalization rules for titles. Know yours and use them. Some common issues in Christian College settings: Capitalize “Bible.” Do not capitalize “scripture,” “scriptural,” “godly,” or “biblical.” If you choose to capitalize pronouns for deity (“He”, etc.), BE CONSISTENT and do it throughout the paper. Same goes for if you do not capitalize pronouns. Either is acceptable.
6. Learn the difference, please, between commas and semicolons. Commas, used frequently in all levels of writing, separate clauses; semicolons separate at least two complete thoughts (as in this sentence).
7. Read the APA rules for listing items in a series. APA is very specific about this. NEVER use bullet points. If you are listing items in a series, keep them in-paragraph and use lettering. This shows that (a) you read the manual, (b) you are following the directions, and (c) you have the potential to be an outstanding academic writer. If you are using longer blocks of texts, but are listing them in a sequence, use numbers and start a new paragraph for each. (See APA).
8. Passive voice should be avoided. (Okay, be honest: how many of you caught that?) It is much more powerful to say, “Avoid passive voice.”
9. Learn the appropriate way to punctuate citations. APA utilizes the following format: “Quotation” (Author, date, page number if directly quoted). The period always comes after the citation.
10. Avoid contractions. They work well for speaking, but not formal writing – unless, of course, they are used in direct quotations.
11. Document, document, document! Avoid sweeping generalizations. If I wanted to read opinions, I’d read the op-ed page of the newspaper. In an academic setting, you must back up your assertions, or you will not be taken seriously. Remember, too, that you don’t have to be quoting someone verbatim to cite a reference. If someone else’s ideas have contributed to what you are saying, cite them.
12. Write in third person or first person singular. Never refer to yourself as “we,” as in “In this paper we will describe…” Say “I” or “the writer/researcher” if you are referring to yourself. Above all, avoid second-person.
13. At the risk of sounding sounding repetitive repetitive, NEVER use the word “You” in a formal paper. Never? Never.
14. Write in complete sentences, with a subject and a verb. It’s cool to write conversationally in informal writing. I do it all the time. But not in formal writing.
15. Learn to format citations and a reference page. If you have never written an APA paper, then whatever you think a reference page is, you are wrong. Learn the format.
16. Always, only double-space. Never insert extra lines for any reason. I know it looks pretty. Don’t do it. And never single space. I know you’re used to it, especially for bibliographies. Don’t do it. Ever? Ever.
17. Microsoft Word is sort of like the devil. I don’t hate it – it’s just business. But it is not your friend. All the cute shortcuts and gadgets, left untended, will cost you points.
- It has the wrong default font. Only use Times New Roman or Arial.
- It may have the wrong default size. Only use 12-point.
- It has the wrong default margins. Always use one-inch page margins.
- It has the wrong typesetting for its automatic citation or reference page settings. Again, only use Times NR or Arial, consistent with your body text.
- In a cruel twist of evil trickery, it adds extra space whenever you hit a return. This is wicked and wrong, and I’m quite sure somebody’s gonna pay for that one, if you catch my drift. Always, only double space. This means always set “before” and “after” spacing to zero. This will improve your grade and keep me from going into convulsions.
18. Using MS Word, please learn how to start at the top of a new page. This is necessary to start an Abstract (if you use one), the first page of the paper, and the reference page. Even here, you should never, EVER hit the “enter/return” key more than once. To start at the top of a new page, the easy way is to type <ctrl> Enter, where you hold the Control button down and hit enter/return. However, if you MUST use a mouse, click on “Insert,” then “Page Break.”
19. (I’m about to show my age here…) Whatever happened to the Tab key? I have lost count of the number of papers I received when people spaced five times to indent a paragraph. Don’t do it, friends. Lift that left pinky and assert yourself. Use half-inch tabbed indentations to start each paragraph.
20. You can have a perfectly formatted, beautifully written paper and completely fail the assignment. Happens all the time. (The preceding sentence is not allowable in formal writing as it is not a complete sentence. Jus’ sayin’.) How can a perfectly-written paper fail? Because it does not have the required content. Content usually accounts for 70-80% of your paper. When all else fails, read the instructions. Then read them again. Then (most important), read the grading rubric. That’s what I or any other teacher will have in front of me when it comes time to evaluate your paper and give feedback.
There is more I’ll grouse about (um, I mean offer suggestions about) later. Such as the seven words you can never use in an academic paper (or at least you shouldn’t). Or how to use scripture effectively as an academic source (hint: randomly tossing a Bible verse into a paper doesn’t guarantee its authority). I’m even thinking about starting a new blog called “I Hate APA.” And yes, I’ll create a Turabian version of this sometime.
But until then, I hope this is helpful for those of you who are in school. And for those of you who have vowed your best view of school was in the rearview mirror – you’ll probably be needing this in a couple of years.
Ask me how I know. You can even use second person if you want.
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