Some thoughts on writing

"Sure, writing's easy. You just sit there and watch the blood emerge from stone."

-- Red Smith

Make sure that you understand the question and answer it. Few writers can recover from a failure to address their topic, an error as fundamental as it is common. If you find the question ambiguous seek clarification or, if necessary, refine it yourself.

Organize and outline your essay, making sure that each segment has an essential part to play. In a well-constructed paper each segment depends upon its predecessor and provides a bridge to that which follows. Most essays have only a few major sections: make sure that your reader perceives them, using headings if appropriate.

Do not "tell 'em what you are going to tell 'em, tell 'em, and tell 'em what you told 'em." That style suits preaching or instruction of the very young, but not the writing of essays. Make your introduction and conclusion count. The former should set up the topic for your reader, while the latter should pull together the strands of your arguments with an original and attractive twist. The reader should come away satisfied that you have treated the subject in a complete fashion, but also aware of issues that require further reflection.

Think about what words mean. Mixed metaphors, jargon, and anachronism stem from an inability to visualize one’s prose. Bad writing is not merely painful to read, but difficult to understand, and usually reflects either laziness or confusion on the part of the author. Use the active voice. Nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs, constitute the skeleton and sinew of written work. Avoid the verb "to be" whenever possible. Cite accurately. No academic sin, save outright falsification, brings harsher consequences than plagiarism. Follow meticulously a standard footnoting guide (Turabian’s "A Manual for Writers" and the "Chicago Manual of Style" are best). Proper citation allows others to verify your work or pursue their own research; it also enables you to retrace your steps or explore further old lines of investigation.

Do not patronize either your reader or your subject. Shun the fulsome compliment as well as the lordly sneer: imagine that your reader has little disposition to take anything you say for granted. Do not assume that any one -- other writers, members of your audience, or individuals who have taken part in past events -- is a fool or a dullard. You may, of course, come to such a conclusion, but only after considering the evidence and presenting it. If you do otherwise you will deserve your reader's suspicion that you have let your prejudices rule your intellect. Remember that most (not all) soldiers and politicians have reasons for the things they do, and many of the figures you write about were as intelligent as you are, if not more so.

Most arguments have two sides, if not more. Make sure that you address all of them adequately. Of course, in the end you must take a position, but only lawyers and flacks should write briefs or concoct press releases. Avoid polemics. Good writers combine conviction with sobriety, a clear point of view with fairness to those who disagree, moral seriousness with an awareness of complexity and ambiguity.

If you have not already done so, read Strunk and White, "Elements of Style", Fowler's "Modern English Usage", and Follett's "Modern American Usage". Better yet, buy them and read them several times.