Tips for Writing

Click on any of the links below to learn . .  .

How to Proofread
  1. Divide and Conquer! Proofread AFTER you’ve planned, drafted, and revised your work, when you can give proofreading your f u l l attention.
  2. Take a break! Whenever possible, proofread after a time lapse, ideally overnight, so that your memory of what you intended to write won’t keep you from seeing what’s really on the paper.
  3. Slow down your eyes! If you’re writing on a computer, use the right arrow key to move the cursor across each word. But be sure to proofread the printout too, tapping each word with your pen.
  4. Read aloud! Read your paper aloud so that you can hear some problems that you might not have seen.
  5. Check it out! Consult a checklist as you proofread, or use computerized grammar and spelling checkers (with a grain of salt).
  6. About face! Read your paper backward, sentence by sentence, to catch errors in sentence structure.
  7. Know thyself! Identify your most common error, and proofread once, looking for only that error. Then, proofread again, looking for all types of errors.
© 1997 Teresa M. Redd
 How to Avoid Sexist Pronouns

Instead of these . . .

1. "Generic" he: If a student hands in his essay late, he will lose points.2. "Singular" they: If a student hands in  their essay late, they will lose points.3. Either/or: If a student hands in his or her essay late, he or she (s/he) will lose points.4. Indefinite pronoun: If one hands in one’s essay late, one (he) will lose points.5. Alternating: If a student hands in her essay late, she will lose points. (Use he in another paragraph.)

  . . . try these!

6. Plural antecedent: If students hand in their essays late, they will lose points.7. Deletion: If a student hands in essays late . . . .8. Another Determiner: If a student hands in an essay late . . . .9. Repeated noun or synonym: If a student . . . , the student  will lose points.10. Point of view: If you hand in your essay late, you will lose points.11. Relative clause: A student who hands in an essay late will lose points.12. Verbal phrase: A student handing in an essay late will lose points.

© 1996 Teresa M. Redd

When to Use the Passive Voice *

To communicate effectively, you need to adapt your style to your goals. One way to change your style is to choose either active or passive voice for effect.First, some definitions:

  • Voice: the verb form that shows whether the subject is acting or acted upon
  • Active voice: the sentence construction in which the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb

T. Smith packed the machine.The manager moved the project to Dallas.

  • Passive voice: the sentence construction in which the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb

The machine was packed by T. Smith.The project was moved to Dallas by the manager.

Advantages of the active voice. Today most writing books and writing teachers recommend using the active voice whenever possible, even in scientific and technical writing. Here are its advantages:        1.You can write shorter sentences. An active verb is often only one word, and the doer of the action, as the subject, can also be one word. In the passive voice, you need a verb phrase; you also need a prepositional phrase if you intend to include the doer.

Oil companies lease offshore oilfields from the federal government. (active voice, 9 words)Offshore oilfields are leased from the federal government by oil companies. (passive voice, 11 words)

Admittedly, this is not a large difference, but it’s one that becomes large when passive voice sentences mount up in a paragraph or passage.        2. You can be more forceful. An active doer at the beginning of a sentence gets things going. The action then moves through the verb to the object, just as the batter connects with the ball and sends it flying. This makes the active voice especially useful for instructions.        3. You can make the reader’s task easier. Active sentences link doer, action and recipient in a logical progression like a chain link fence. Passive sentences either omit the doer (a crucial link) or force the reader (once the doer is produced) to reread the sentence and insert that information.

You should address a job application letter to a specific, named person. (active)A job application letter should be addressed [by you?] to a specific, named person. (passive)

        4. You can be more personal. Putting the doer "up front" in a key position lets you stress individuals instead of things. Most of us are more concerned with (and more interested in) other people that we are in objects. The active voice is especially useful in letters and memos, which are directed to specific persons. You can communicate better with those readers in the active voice.        

You ordered 14 heat shields on September 20, and we are shipping your order today. (active)Fourteen heat shields were ordered on September 20, and your order is being shipped today. (passive)

        5. You can assign responsibility.        

We will pay all costs if the unit fails. (active)All costs will be paid if the unit fails. (passive)I designed the overload circuit. (active)The overload circuit was designed by me. (passive)

  Advantages of the passive voice. The passive voice also has its uses. Sometimes it’s worth adding the extra words, being less forceful and personal. You need always to ask where you want the focus to be. Here are the advantages of the passive voice:         1. You can emphasize the receiver, events, or results of an action.

Price-determination analyses were performed at a 0% DCFROR.

Who did the analysis is not important here, but the analyses themselves are, so they become the focus of the sentence. Emphasis on the receiver or results may make the passive voice useful in writing procedures or physical descriptions.        2. You can avoid assigning responsibility or soften the responsibility by removing the doer.

The T-14 air scrubber was badly designed.

This sentence avoids the finger pointing that you’d get in an active voice sentence like

You designed the T-14 air scrubber badly.

When you convey bad news to a customer or a boss, you may find the passive voice useful.

We are reducing your discount to 8 percent. (active) Although the discount has been reduced to 8 percent, you will notice that by paying within 30 days your actual cost is less. (passive)

3. You can avoid the first person. Using the first person in technical writing is no longer considered a bad thing, but when you want to remove yourself as the doer, you can shift to the passive.

I took samples of the precipitate at 60-second intervals. (active)Samplings of the precipitate were taken at 60-second intervals. (passive)

In this example, who took the samples is not important, so the    emphasis rightly shifts to the samplings.        4. You can avoid a long phrase as the subject, changing it to a prepositional phrase and moving it to the end.

MINSIM, a computer-based comprehensive economic evaluation simulator, performed the DCFROR. (active)The DCFROR analyses were performed by MINSIM, a computer-based comprehensive economic evaluation simulator. (passive)

5. You can make a transition by placing old information in the subject slot.        

Mary received a letter. A madman [new info] wrote it [old info]. (active)Mary received a letter. It [old info] was written by a madman [new info]. (passive)

I have listed almost equal numbers of advantages for active and passive voice, so you might think that one is as good as the other. Remember, though, that you want to communicate as crisply and clearly as possible. When you want to be crisp and clear, you will use the active voice most of the time—for its shorter and more forceful sentences.

*adapted from Joseph Williams' Style:  Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace

How to Write a Summary*
  • Read the passage carefully.  Determine its structure.   Identify the author's purpose in writing. (This will help you to distinguish between more important and less important information.)
  • Reread.  This time divide the passage into sections or stages of thought.  The author's use of paragraphing will often be a useful guide.   Label, on the passage itself, each section or stage of thought.  Underline key ideas and terms.
  • Write one-sentence summaries, on a separate sheet of paper, of each stage of thought.
  • Write a thesis: a one-sentence summary of the entire passage.   The thesis should express the central idea of the passage, as you have determined it from the preceding steps.  You may find it useful to keep in mind the information contained in the lead sentence or paragraph of most newspaper stories--the what, who, why, where, when, and how of the matter.   For persuasive passages, summarize in a sentence the author's conclusion.  For descriptive passages, indicate the subject of the description and its key feature(s).   Note: In some cases a suitable thesis may already be in the original passage.  If so, you may want to quote it directly in your summary.
  • Write the first draft of your summary by (1) combining the thesis with your list of one-sentence summaries or (2) combining the thesis with one-sentence summaries plus significant details from the passage.  In either case, eliminate repetition.  Eliminate less important information.  Disregard minor details or generalize them (e.g., Nixon, Ford, and Carter might be generalized as "recent presidents").  Use as few words as possible to convey the main ideas.
  • Check your summary against the original passage, and make whatever adjustments are necessary for accuracy and completeness.
  • Revise your summary, inserting transitional words and phrases where necessary to ensure coherence.  Check for style.  Avoid a series of short, choppy sentences.  Combine sentences for a smooth, logical flow of ideas.  Check for grammatical correctness, punctuation, and spelling.
* excerpt from Leonard Rosen and Laurence Behrens' Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum , 5th ed., New York: HarperCollins, 1994, 6 
How to Write a Critique
  • Introduce both the piece under analysis and the author.   State the author's main argument and the point(s) you intend to make about it.
  • Provide for your readers background information that will help them understand the nature of the passage.  Background information might include responses to one or more of the following:
    • Is there biographical information or, perhaps, a comment concerning the circumstances under which the passage was written, that would aid the reader's understanding?
    • Is the passage part of a book or a magazine with a specialized audience?
    • Is there a controversy surrounding either the passage or the subject which it concerns?
    • What about the subject matter is of current interest?
  • Briefly summarize the author's main arguments and state his or her key assumptions.
  • State the criteria by which you will evaluate the passage.   (That is, to the extent possible, state your assumptions.)  Then analyze the passage in light of your criteria.  You may wish to critique the author's purpose, the author's method for achieving that purpose, the author's assumptions.  Having written the summary, you may wish to state and analyze the author's assumptions one at a time.
  • State your conclusions about the overall validity of the passage.   Remind the reader of the weaknesses and strengths of the passage you've critiqued.   Discuss the implications of your analysis.
* excerpt from Leonard Rosen and Laurence Behrens' Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum,5th ed., New York: HarperCollins, 1994, 74

  How to Write a Synthesis

Although writing syntheses can’t be reduced to a lockstep method, it should help you to follow these procedures:

  • Consider your purpose in writing. What are you trying to accomplish in your essay? How will this purpose shape the way you approach you sources?
  • Select and carefully read your sources according to your purpose. Then reread the passages, mentally summarizing each. Identify those aspects or parts of your sources that will help you in fulfilling your purpose. When rereading, label or underline the passages for main ideas, key terms, and any details you want to use in the synthesis.
  • Formulate a thesis. Your thesis is the main idea that you want to present in your synthesis. It should be expressed as a complete sentence. Sometimes, the thesis is the first sentence, but more often, it is the final sentence of the first paragraph. If you are writing an inductively arranged synthesis, the thesis sentence may not appear until the final paragraphs.
  • Decide how you will use your source material. How will the information and the ideas in the passages help you to fulfill your purpose?
  • Develop an organizational plan according to your thesis. How will you arrange your material? It is not necessary to prepare a formal outline. But you should have some plan that will indicate the order in which you will present your material and that will indicate the relationships among your sources.
  • Following your organizational plan, write the first draft of your synthesis. Be flexible with your plan, however. Frequently, you will use an outline to get started. As you write, you may discover new ideas and make room for them by adjusting the outline. When this happens, reread your work frequently, making sure that your thesis still accounts for what follows and that what follows still logically supports your thesis.
  • Document your sources. You may do this by crediting them within the body of the synthesis or by footnoting them.
  • Revise your synthesis inserting transitional words and phrases where necessary. Make sure that the synthesis reads smoothly, logically, and clearly from beginning to end. Check for grammatical correctness, punctuation and spelling.
* excerpt from Leonard Rosen and Laurence Behrens' Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum , 5th ed., New York: HarperCollins, 1994

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