Most grad students don’t know how to write. At least, I’ve read this claim in books and heard it from a professor. My thesis was written worse than any undergrad paper I ever wrote. The further I climbed the Tower of Babel, the less I knew.
Universities don’t commonly teach students the basic skills of how to write. So how do we avoid a poorly drafted essay? As one solution, we could watch vigilantly for signs of poor writing.
With that said, here are four signs of an amateurish essay—and four easy fixes:
Amateurish Essays use the Words “is,” “are,” and, “be” Often.
The best written essays have few or none of these passive verbs. But how do you get rid of them? You can start by reading through your essay and highlighting every incident of these words. Then, replace these words with stronger verbs or rewrite the sentence.
Example 1: “He has been grooming the horse” could become “He groomed the horse.” It changes the tense but makes it a less mumbled read.
Example 2: “The cat was pet by the man” could become “The man pet the cat.” It changes the voice from passive to active by putting the subject of the sentence—”the man”—first
Example 3: “Charles is a royal name” could become “Charles resonates as a royal name” or “Charles sounds like a royal name.” The word “is” sounds too bland for an A+ essay.
Example 4: “Sally is beautiful” could become “Sally looks beautiful.” Or you could rewrite it to say, “Sally shines like an angelic presence.” Despite this, when the “is” comes before an adjective, the simplicity of the form “Sally is beautiful” might work just as well.
Poorly Written Essays Separate the Subject from the Main Verb by Cramming in Long Clauses. Instead, keep the subject and verb close together. “Johnathon, despite his reckless driving record that spanned ten years, although he once won an indie 500 car race, seemingly oblivious to any threat of danger, bought a Porsche” could become “Johnathon bought a Porsche, despite his reckless driving record that spanned ten years, although he once won an indie 500 car race, seemingly oblivious to any threat of danger.” Keep the subject and verb close together wherever possible. I heard a rule that said something like “limit the words separating the subject from the verb to no more than twelve words.”
Amateur Essays Don’t Begin and End Sentences with a Bang.
Exciting essays start and end sentences with punchy words. “It was a cold day with a flutter of glowing light” could become, “Cold, the day was met with a flutter of light, glowing.” Similarly, “Sometimes monsters growl at night” could become “Monsters at night sometimes growl.” The best words start and end the sentence.
Amateur Essays Make it Unclear Whom “it” Represents.
“The day and the night merged into one color, a kind of muddy road I remembered walking as a youth. It always brought back memories of the tragic day the window shattered” could become “The day and night merged into one color, a kind of muddy road I remembered walking as a youth. The color always brought back memories of the tragic day the window shattered.”
Or you could end with “The merging of the day and night always brought back memories of the tragic day the window shattered” or “The muddy road always brought back memories of the tragic day the window shattered.”
If “it” could represent more than one thing, replace “it” with the thing it represents. My editor once said something like, “Clarity is key to good writing. Writing is intended to be understood.”
If you’re a grad student who never learned to fix these four writing errors, join the club.