Morgan and I work with students to produce written reports all the time. Sometimes, they’re working on their senior capstone project, which culminates in a formal written thesis… other times, they are working on shorter reports. Ultimately, the goal of writing is to produce an artifact that will effectively communicate a specific message to a specific audience. What people don’t as easily recognize, however, is that for this to occur — the audience has to understand what you’re trying to say. Since we’re academics, we write all the time (sometimes well, and sometimes badly). We’re used to writing one draft, and then another, and then another… serving as our own worst critic every time we pick up the paper with fresh new eyes. Sometimes, we benefit from the critiques of an external reviewer, and when we hear what they have to say — more often than not, we say “yep, I didn’t do that part well… I’ll try again.” And then we try again and again, never really getting it perfect, but sometimes getting it close.
What follows are some comments Morgan provided to one of our students after the student submitted a portion of a thesis draft for us to review. We quickly realized that we could give almost all of our students the exact same advice. So here are some tips to help you improve the quality of your writing… and it usually starts with eliminating most of what you started with.
Let’s start with the quality of your writing. This feedback may come across as harsh, but it is not intended to be so. Please rest assured that Nicole and I have your best interests at heart, and since this is perhaps one of the last opportunities you’ll have in your educational career to get detailed, personal feedback on your writing, we feel it is our responsibility to be blunt and honest with you. This may be your last chance to really work to improve before you enter a professional setting. So you might want to brace yourself because this may sting.
Okay, here’s the bad news: your writing is shockingly bad. If I didn’t know better, I would be convinced that English is not your native language. If you were to write like this in a professional setting, you would certainly embarrass yourself and it might actually damage your career.
The good news is that you can improve and we’re going to help you. Before I make specific guidance on your draft, I’d like you to take the first stab at revising what you’ve written so far. Here are your instructions. Please follow them closely.
Do not spend any time apologizing to us, or making excuses for your writing. Everyone starts somewhere. You need to not be self-conscious, and be open to really working on getting better.
Stand or sit in front of a mirror and read what you wrote out loud to yourself. I’m totally serious about this. It may feel silly to you, but it will help tremendously. I know from talking to you that you talk and communicate like a totally normal person. I also know from experience teaching many people that it is not uncommon for people, who can have normal conversations, to totally fall apart when they try to communicate in writing. As you read your paper to yourself, imagine that you are listening to someone else read this paper to you and that it is not your own work. Trust your gut. If it sounds weird or bad, it probably is.
Every time you hear a sentence that sounds strange, put a mark on the paper to indicate that the sentence needs to be revised, but don’t make any changes yet.
Once you’ve read the whole paper out loud to yourself, go through the paper again. Read each sentence one by one and ask yourself the following questions:
- What was the purpose of this sentence?
- What vital information does it convey?
- Could it be said in a much simpler, more direct way?
- If I erased this sentence altogether, would it change the meaning or impact of the paragraph?
- What was I trying to say? Listen to the words that just came out of your mouth when you answered that question. Why didn’t you just say that?
- Is there anything else I could do to improve this sentence?
If the answer to questions 1 and 2 are “I don’t know” or “none” then you should delete the sentence. If you get to question 3 and the answer is “yes” then revise the sentence to make it shorter and more direct. For question 4, read the whole paragraph leaving out this sentence. If the meaning of the paragraph doesn’t change, then delete the sentence. If the sentence is still there and you get to question 5, then make any final changes and move on.
You might find that you need to revise earlier sentences based on changes you make on later sentences. It’s okay to go back.
As you do this, don’t be discouraged. Persevere. This should be tough, but I think you’ll find several things:
- Your draft will probably be 50% shorter without losing any meaning. This is a GOOD thing!!!
- It will feel much better and be much easier to understand, both for yourself and for other people.
Here are a couple of other pointers:
- Don’t use an inflated font size.
- I know for a fact that the default font size in Google Docs is not 14. Just stick to the default, which is 11. Regardless of whether this was your intention, boosting the font size makes it look like you’re trying to make us think you wrote more than you did. Since shorter is better, this doesn’t help you in any way.
- Stick to single spacing.
- Again, stick with the default. You can take care of formatting the document at the very end, after you know that you’ve got the content right.
A lot of this restates the feedback we give you in every one of the classes you’ve taken with us. Keep it simple. Keep it direct. Only include a sentence if it really adds something to the narrative.
Unless they really convey something crucial, leave out images for the time being. Don’t include images just to make the report “look pretty” or to take up space. Pretend you’re writing for Wikipedia. Include the facts, just the facts, and nothing but the facts. Don’t embellish.
Don’t try to make it fluffy or sound like marketing. Keep it clean. Keep it objective.
Okay, whew. I know I’ve just thrown a lot at you, but stay positive. My goal is not to tear you down, but to support you in getting better. This is uncomfortable sometimes. You are working on really amazing stuff and I have confidence in you that you can do something that we’ll all be proud of. Hang in there!