Improve your writing with this one weird tip

Just kidding, it’s more like forty tips, and it won’t apply to all pieces of writing or even all writers equally, but here’s a list of writing tips and suggestions that I compiled for the Canadian Studies course for which I am a marking / grading Teaching Assistant. The tips do seem generalizable to a few contexts (including internet comments), so in the interest of sharing the usefulness and redirecting future students here, I give you:

Amanda Murphyao’s Fun Happy Good Times Writing Tips & Suggestions

  • Despite Stephen Harper’s claims to the contrary, Canada does have a history (and present) of colonialism. Canada is treaty territory. Canadians are treaty people. If you are not quoting Harper to refute him, you should not write that Canada has no history of colonialism (or that ownership of Canada is undisputed), because that is inaccurate.
  • Define your terms, especially if they are key themes of the course. What is “critical nationalism”? What is “food sovereignty”? What do you mean by “identity” in your essay? etc.
  • Avoid colloquialisms (such as “down the drain” / “should of” / “way too much” / “naughty list” / “swept under the rug” / “new kid on the block” / “hell” / “shenanigans like Rob Ford” [although that was mildly amusing to read] / “fine and dandy” / “damn” / “laid back” / “hangover” / “our example rubs off on others” / “shitty” / “hot topic” / “big deal” / “sleazy” / “slap on the wrist” / “dumb as a rock” / “not so great” / “all well and good” / “peacocking” / “bottom of the food chain” / “practice what you preach” / “half-assed” / “amazing” / “drop the ball” / “work your butt off”). Instead, offer specific, serious examples to demonstrate the point you are making. Choose your words carefully and thoughtfully. Qualifiers (like “not so great” or “amazing”) have their place, but a stronger essay will avoid these terms, instead demonstrating with examples and evidence what is “awesome” or “half-assed” about various policy initiatives.
  • Avoid passive voice. “Canada is seen as ___” (passive) versus “Many global actors see Canada as a good trading partner, as various trade agreements with the United States demonstrate” (active, specific, and generally stronger writing). “Canada is portrayed as ____” (passive) versus “Many current policies advocate Canadian involvement with ____, contributing to Canada’s international reputation as ____” (active, better, faster, stronger, etc.).

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  • Be specific. Who do you mean by “us” / “we” / “they” / “them” / “their” / “everyone” / “it” / “the beginning” / “the statistics”? Who are “neoliberals”? There can be a “neoliberal agenda” but it is usually better to be specific. If you can replace a noun with “zombies” and retain much of the meaning in your sentence, you should probably pick a better noun / phrasing. The sentences “neoliberals are destroying Canada” and “zombies are destroying Canada” give your reader pretty much the same information, whereas “a neoliberal agenda of tax cuts is arguably detrimental to Canadian social services” and “zombies hate taxes” are very different.
  • Never (!) use absolutes, like “always” / “no one” / “everyone” / “never” / “worst” / “best” / etc. (You did not lose marks for this on the exam, but try to avoid such absolutes in the future – always and forever!)
  • Be a bit less liberal with the phrase “I think” / “I believe.” Occasionally it’s acceptable or even necessary, but don’t start every paragraph or sentence with “I think that….” Instead, try “Based on the evidence…” or “According to experts in the field…” or “Survey results indicate…” and weave your argument to present your opinion with a bit more nuance.
  • It is probably unwise to needlessly mock Americans in your various written assignments. First of all, that might be a good way to alienate any disgruntled American Teaching Assistants who are marking your work. Secondly, consider if it actually is, in fact, relevant as evidence in support of your thesis statement to mock another country. Invoking comparisons to Africa, Egypt, Germany, China, Haiti, Venezuela, etc., is generally not a useful rhetorical move unless you introduce a relevant and necessary comparison. The course is about Canada and global issues, so global issues should factor in to your discussion, but saying that Germany is better than Canada, or Canada is better than the United States, etc., typically detracts from other useful and informative content. On the other hand, political leaders are always fair game (when mockery thereof is relevant to the writing assignment).

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  • On the topic of jingoism, try to model critical nationalism in your writing practices. Look for sections where there may be an overemphasis on patriotic rhetoric in your essay. Do those sections serve your thesis statement, or could they be refined in some way? For example, is this class about being proud to be Canadian, or about carefully and critically considering Canada’s politics, economy, social structures, and role in global affairs? The answer can be “both,” as they are not incompatible, but be sure to showcase a thoughtful consideration of both angles in your work. This is part of being strategic and specific in your writing.
  • A note on agency: does Canada do things, or do Canadian politicians enact legislation? Does Canadian Studies tell us things, or do newspapers provide information that can be interpreted through the lens of critical nationalism as taught in Canadian Studies courses? Does Canadian identity cause things, or does broad Canadian identification and engagement with specific facets of national belonging lead to policy changes over time? Specific details set stellar essays apart. There can be relevant metaphorical uses of Canada as an actor, but it is important to be clear about who does what. Is Canada charismatic, or do adverts for Canadian tourism present Canadians as friendly and charismatic? Being deliberately (or inadvertently) vague is… ya know. And distracting!
  • Avoid words like “obviously” and “interesting.” Instead of telling your reader that something is obvious, explain the reason that you quote specific scholars and explain their meaning. Instead of telling your reader that a topic is “interesting,” explain what exactly is interesting about the topic as it pertains to the context of Canadian foreign aid (or other issues under consideration).
  • Do not write “our Aboriginal people” or “our immigrants” or “our poor people.” You can write about poverty in Canada, or struggles on reserves in Canada, or issues for immigrants to Canada, but you do not own any of the people involved.

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  • Pay attention to events and trends over time. Some people wrote that Canada was historically an unequal place, but now Canada is a haven for multiculturalism and social equality. Others wrote that Canada was historically a bastion of equality, but now Canada is a haven of racism, sexism, and social inequality. If you review the course materials, as well as current events, you may find that there is a more complicated narrative (or many complicated simultaneous narratives!) unfolding in a non-linear fashion, with reparations for some formerly marginalized groups, as well as the creation of new regressive policies, occurring at various points in Canadian history. Cite evidence to support your claims, and try to avoid unsupportable overgeneralizations.

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  • Proofread your work carefully.

– Africa is not a country.

– affect / effect <– figure it out and make sure you are using the correct word (I’d tell you the difference because you may remember it better if you look it up for yourself!)

– “elite” and “elitist” are different words

– “President” and “Prime Minister” are not interchangeable!

– “Native American” is a term used in the United States. “First Nations” is a term used in Canada. “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal” are more global terms.

– Institutionalized slavery existed in the area currently known as Canada until 1833.

– Capitalize Aboriginal, First Nations, Indigenous, United States, United Nations, Canada, and other proper nouns.

– Avoid sentence fragments. They make for awkward reading.

  • Be sure that your self-reflexive commentary is clearly connected to your response. Consider the differences:

“As a major in sociology, I find that Canadian Studies offers an interdisciplinary counterpoint to interpreting sociological data” or “Critical nationalism is a way of reconsidering [whatever topic from your usual field of study]” versus “As a Poli Sci major, I find Canadian Studies weird.”

“As a Canadian, I was surprised to learn about [various domestic issues]” or “Canadian Studies unsettled my perspective on [whatever topic]” versus “As a Canadian, I love Canada” or “Canadian Studies makes me hate Canada.”

Some of these lead-ins can offer a useful moment of reflection that leads to a more personalized, and potentially interesting, analysis of the topic under consideration. The others distract and detract from your point. (This is also part of avoiding colloquialisms in your writing and being taken seriously.)

  • Transition and analysis are important. Don’t let quotes stand on their own without contextualization and analysis. Transition to your. Who said this? Why? When? Are you convinced by your source? Does the quote demonstrate a key facet of your argument or a shortcoming? How does this evidence function in your essay?

For more tips, see the Carleton University History Department guide for writing essays.

If you skipped to the end to find out the punch line, the punch line is: read the tips and use them in your writing!

UPDATE: Part II is here.

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One Response to Improve your writing with this one weird tip

  1. Pingback: Improve your writing with this one weird tip redux | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

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