Add verbal highlights

Add verbal highlights

If you want to inject energy and flair into your writing, turbocharge your verbs. Verbs perform the action in any piece of writing. They carry the story and provide the power. Slumping into lazy verb habits is very easy. As an undergraduate I got stuck on highlight: it seemed to fit almost any argument. I was like a workman reaching for the all-purpose tool that’s always ready to hand. But another tool, perhaps one tucked away in a dustier section of the toolbox, might work better.
And highlight has a precise meaning derived from painting, meaning drawing attention to an area of an image by making it the brightest part. So I shouldn’t have highlighted all my student ideas. I should have emphasised, underlined, stressed or exposed them – or even spotlit them, which is a different effect. It’s best to search for the right tool, and the right verb.

James McConnachie
24 January 2018

Time and space to play

Time and space to play

In the early stages of planning a piece of writing, try to give yourself the time and space to explore the topic in a loose way, in a state of total relaxation. We can all get very stressed about exams, grades and writing to a deadline. Giving yourself permission to experience a short interlude when you think freely and play with ideas – without your internal ‘critical voice’ intervening – can help to clarify your argument. Techniques such as free-writing (writing without thinking or stopping), mind mapping using colours and shapes, and speaking aloud, can divert you from established thought patterns and refresh your perspective on the question. Drawing, speaking and writing freely are ways of giving centre stage to thoughts that you’ve kept ‘in the wings’ up to now. Some of them may be valuable. Start by breathing deeply five or six times with your eyes closed. Relax. And then begin.

Dr Anne Wilson
10 January 2018

Hunt out the zombies in your writing

Hunt out the zombies in your writing

Helen Sword’s book on academic writing, Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), is a go-to book for me.
I particularly like what she has to say on zombie nouns (or nominalisations, to give them their proper name). Simply put, these are nouns that have a much more direct and energetic verb form. For example, discover (not discovery); discuss (not discussion); fail (not failure); notify (not notification); observe (not observation). For more examples, visit www.andynaselli.com/zombie-nouns Switch these nouns back to their verb form and not only do you create a more energised sentence, but also it’s typically shorter. You can convert: ‘Helen Sword makes an observation that nominalisations decrease clarity’ (9 words) to ‘Helen Sword observes that nominalisations decrease clarity’ (7 words). For more direct, energetic and concise sentences, try a bit of zombie hunting the next time you edit.

Dr Anna Barker
13 December 2017

Who’s listening?

Who’s listening?

Nothing is more paralysing than speaking to people who know more than you do about the very thing you’re speaking about. Students sometimes write badly for a related reason. They write with defensive terror, knowing the person reading the essay is their tutor: the expert. It’s the person who will literally judge them! Liberate yourself by imagining your essay is a talk to a group of sympathetic peers or perhaps to colleagues from different fields from your own. These are people who want to hear from you, who want to be convinced by you, who want to walk away from your essay knowing something they never knew before, and thinking something they had never thought. Then you will relax and lose that fear of your audience.

James McConnachie
29 November 2017

Write with other people

Write with other people

When I say this, I don’t mean co-writing in the sense of sharing the authorship of an article or book. I mean communal writing: writing in the same room, library or café. Make writing dates with colleagues or friends. For a start, it helps you to organise and delineate your time. It helps you focus and mentally prepare to write. You are answerable to others; if you don’t turn up, you may get a phone call. Of course, you need to set ground rules about talking only during breaks, otherwise the chatting might take over precious writing time. You can even decide you’re only going to talk about your assignments during breaks. Above all, working communally breaks the isolation of writing and changes the perception that it has to be a solitary pursuit.

Amanda Swift
15 November 2017

Reading for an overview

Reading for an overview

Reading in university libraryHow can you quickly grasp the essence of an article and work out if it will be useful to you? First, read the abstract, which summarises the article. Check the introduction and then the conclusion. If the content appears relevant, now scan the topic sentences; the topic sentence is the first sentence of every paragraph, where the author makes their point. Reading through the topic sentences will allow you to see the flow of the argument through the article. Once you have gone through this process, you will know if it is worth reading the content in more depth or discarding the article and taking your search elsewhere.

Cath Senker
1 November 2017

Keeping subject and verb together

Keeping subject and verb together

Writing tipsThe English language can be too flexible for its own good. Many structures are allowed in English, even if this obscures meaning to the point of incoherence. Clause upon clause can be inflicted on the reader, before they reach the crucial verb that explains everything. As a writing tutor, I advise students to identify the active verb in their labyrinthine sentences. Very often, this verb is miles away from its subject, to baffling effect. Here’s a short example:

BEFORE: The boy, feeling embarrassed because it was not a very cool thing to do,
gave his mother a hug.

Reducing the gap between the subject and the verb improves the clarity of the sentence:
AFTER: The boy gave his mother a hug, feeling embarrassed because it was not a very cool thing to do.

Why not check your own writing and try this for yourself?

Deborah Chancellor

31 May 2017

When the blank page is your friend

When the blank page is your friend

I’m always reading about the tyranny of the blank page, the terror of starting something new. But once you’ve got going, when you’re drafting, and especially when you’re editing, the blank page can be your friend. When I can’t see why a paragraph or a sentence isn’t working, I cut and paste it into a new document. There, in isolation, it looks different. I break paragraphs into sentences, listing them one under the other. I take sentences apart too, arranging phrases and clauses in the same way. Often I see repetitions I hadn’t noticed before or it might sound as if there’s repetition when some unintended alliteration is making the sentence clumsy. It’s a good opportunity to read my work aloud. Once I’ve rewritten and reordered the paragraph, I paste the new version back into my draft. Magic.

Cherise Saywell
17 May 2017

Zadie Smith and the semi-colon

Zadie Smith and the semi-colon

Writing tipsI was lucky enough to hear the novelist Zadie Smith speak at last year’s Cambridge Literary Festival. After discussing her novel, Swing Time, someone asked Smith if her decision to live in the United States had affected her writing. Interestingly, she reflected upon style not content, saying that she was now almost cured of her addiction to the semi-colon. A new kind of American directness had pervaded her writing, enabling her to get to the point far more efficiently. So, students and aspiring writers: do you find that your writing is littered with complex sentences, semi-colons and dashes? See if you can divide your over-long sentences so they are shorter and clearer. The over-use of the semi-colon may be the first thing to address in the quest to improve your style.

Deborah Chancellor
3 May 2017

Proofreading alert! Can you really believe your eyes?

Proofreading alert! Can you really believe your eyes?

Writing tipsYour essay’s finished, and it’s time to read it through. Your eyes glide smoothly over the lines of text, neatly ranged across the screen. It all looks so good — surely it must be right! But don’t let your eyes fool your brain. To be an expert proofreader, you need to approach a text as if you’re seeing it for the very first time. So take a break, if possible overnight, and then print out your text double-spaced and in a different typeface. This will help you read your work as if you’ve never seen it before. To make the process even more effective, read your sentences out loud – or whisper them under your breath – and note each time you stumble. (Who cares if people think you’re strange? Writers do it all the time!) You will be amazed by how much you notice and by the simple improvements you can make to your work.

Jane Bingham
19 April 2017