Writing Suggestions by Christina and students
Christina is starting a list of writing suggestions, based on what she's seeing in essays: things that people are doing that work well, or things that don't work so well. This list won't be exhaustive, but will be a way to collect issues and suggestions that come up in some tutorials but not others, so that everyone can see them!
You can add to the list based on what you're seeing in your peers' essays! Just go the URL below that says "source," log in with your CWL (see button on top left) and add to the list.
Strength of argument
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Topic Sentences and Transitions for Paragraphs
Good topic sentences can really help your readers follow the thread of your argument through the essay. Topic sentences should be at or near the beginnings of paragraphs.
You can think of a topic sentence like the thesis statement for the paragraph: it should give the overall main point you're trying to argue in the paragraph, a statement that summarizes what the paragraph is arguing for. The topic sentence shouldn't be a general area, topic or issue, but should be a fairly specific point that the paragraph is making. Also, it's useful if the topic sentence can also help the reader see how the paragraph is related to the thesis statement, or at least how it connects to other paragraphs and they, combined, support the thesis statement.
One way to think about this is to try to do an outline:
- write our your thesis statement
- write out the topic sentences for each of your paragraphs
See if you can get the gist of the whole argument supporting the thesis just from the topic sentences of the paragraphs. If so, are those topic sentences near the beginnings of the paragraphs?
Transitions between paragraphs
Using transition phrases or sentences at the beginnings of paragraphs can also help guide readers through the argumentative thread of your essay, showing them how the paragraphs relate to each other in supporting the thesis. In a number of essays, it feels like the paragraphs just appear one after the other, with no interconnections indicated. This makes the essay feel choppy and makes it harder for the reader to see how it all flows together.
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General statement about the value of getting these things right: When the reader has to stop and think their way through numerous typos or grammatical or punctuation errors, or if sentences are long and awkward, then this isn't just a problem aesthetically; it can also make it difficult for them to keep their mind on the content of your essay, and thus your points don't come through as well. When I have to stop several times in a paragraph to correct grammatical mistakes, it means my train of thought is interrupted, and it can be harder to pick it back up. Overall the flow and impact of the argument seems worse than in an essay with fewer such errors. So fixing these things is very important!
Semicolons and Commas
A number of people are using commas when they should be using semicolons or a conjunction. This is called a "comma splice."
Semicolons are used when you have two parts of a sentence that could both be complete sentences and you want to just join them together without adding another word between them, such as: "He was devastated; he didn't know what to do next." You can't use a comma there or you get a comma splice.
On the other side, a semicolon should only be used when the parts of the sentences on both sides of it could each be their own sentence (as in the above example). You can't use a semicolon when what comes before or after the semicolon is not a complete sentence--except when you're using a semicolon to connect things in a list where each thing also has a comma in it (see an example on this page (scroll down to "semicolons")).
For a good overview of the difference between semicolons and commas, see Purdue OWL, here.
To make a dash, use two hyphens rather than one, and then no spaces before or after the two hyphens. Then, when you type a word after the two hyphens and then a space, usually the word processing program will turn it into a long dash.
Punctuation before quotes
Whether you use a comma, a colon, or no punctuation at all depends on what you’re saying before the quote. If you’re introducing the quote with something like “she says,” or “he replies,” then use a comma. If the clause before the quote could stand on its own as a complete sentence, it’s common to use a colon. Sometimes you don’t need any punctuation, though: if the sentence could work grammatically with no punctuation if there were not quotation marks around part of it, then no punctuation is needed before the quote.
MLA citation style
- In MLA style, there is no comma between the author and page number: (Sophocles 36). Some people are putting commas after the author's last name.
- Commas and periods should go outside of the parenthetical page citations, not inside the quotes: "quote quote quote" (Sophocles 36).
- When it’s clear from the essay, paragraph or sentence which text you’re getting quotes or paraphrases from (because, e.g., there’s only one text, or you use the author’s name in the paragraph and you’re not talking about any other text in the paragraph), then you can just give the page number in parentheses for in-text citations rather than giving the author’s name as well for every one.
Works Cited list
- A number of people aren't italicizing the titles of texts in the Works Cited list. Books, films, plays and collections of poems should be italicized. Some bibliography creators like EasyBib are problematic because when you copy/paste citations from them the italics goes away.
Other Style & Mechanics
If a quote is over 4 lines long, make it into a block quote by indenting all lines of the quote 5 spaces on the left and taking out quotation marks. Block quotes are double-spaced in MLA style like the rest of the essay.