First, ask yourself "Do I really want to become a better writer?" If yes, then decide whether you are willing to devote the attention that is required to become a good writer. No one can force you to write better; you must first want to.
Good writers are not born. They develop. Like any other skill, good writing comes more easily to some than to others. But we all must be aware of the rules and conventions of English and good writing style. If you are a rebel and reject all rules and authoritative declarations, then you will never be a good prose writer. Choose poetry instead.
While there is some room for disagreement about what makes writing good, there is also nearly universal agreement about what makes writing bad. Written work can be bad in several ways: clarity, grammar, punctuation and mechanics, documentation, and diction. In teaching history at five universities and colleges, and by reading a number of style manuals and writing tip sheets, I have concluded that there are twenty basic problems to overcome when writing. Mastery of these twenty problems is guaranteed to make your writing better. Only with this mastery can you hope to reach a higher plane of writing, when the basic rules are second nature and one can wrestle with another set of complex issues of style and creativity in what is truly a neverending quest to write well.
The twenty items listed below are arranged in the categories found in Diana Hacker's A Pocket Style Manual, 2d ed. (Boston, 1997), which is an inexpensive, compact, and helpful book to own and to keep at hand when you write. I have also included cross-references in many places to the 7th ed. of Turabian. Do not forget to write with a dictionary close by, too.
1. Wordiness. Beginning writers are especially prone to flowery language, meandering sentences, and too many words conveying too little information. One can attack wordiness by eliminating redundancies, deflating inflated phrases into concise ones, and simplifying needlessly complex structures. A common inflated phrase is "due to the fact that," which should be replaced with "because." [See the good strategies in Turabian, chap. 11]
2. Passive, rather than active, voice. The goal here is to write vigorous, direct sentences rather than flabby, indirect ones. Avoid be verbs (be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been), especially if an active verb can be substituted. Avoid passive voice. In passive sentences, the subject receives the action: The king was overthrown by the people. In active sentences, the subject does the action: The people overthrew the king. Active voice is less wordy, more direct, and often clearer. When proofreading, one should look for "was (verb) by" phrases as tipoffs to passive constructions. [See Turabian, 11.1.6.]
3. Unparallel forms. This is a more subtle point that when mastered brings one's writing clearly up a notch. Usually parallelism is a problem in a series, such as the sentence above in item one that begins "One can. . . ." The series of ways that one can attack wordiness is expressed in parallel grammatical forms: eliminating, deflating, simplifying. An unparallel, and thus confusing, version of this sentence would read: "One can attack wordiness by eliminating redundancies, deflation of inflated phrases, and needlessly complex structures."
4. Shifting to wrong tenses. When writing history, it is almost always preferable to use the past tense. Do not shift between present and past, such as "The slave woman picked up her baby and makes him eat." Present tense is appropriate when one is discussing the content of a literary or artistic work: "Melville uses the whale as a metaphor for human vulnerability" or "Historian Bernard Bailyn believes that the American Revolution was in part a battle of ideologies."
5. Misplaced or dangling modifiers. A misplaced phrase can make a sentence absurd: "There are many portraits of generals who fought in the war hanging on the wall." Dangling modifiers are often introductory phrases: "Taking a lesson from earlier explorers, Indians in New France were treated kindly." The Indians were not the ones taking a lesson; unnamed French explorers or colonists were (note also the passive voice). Correct: "Taking a lesson from earlier explorers, French traders treated the Indians kindly."
6. Computer lingo and symbols, and awkward attempts at gender-free language. As computers have become ubiquitous so has the temptation to use shorthand symbols and other constructions that do not belong in formal writing. Do not even think about using text message shorthand in your formal writing! There is hardly ever a reason to use a slash (/) in your writing. Avoid: The president's cabinet urged her to attack the economic/social problems related to poverty. Usually the slash in these cases is substituting for a perfectly good or, and or other conjuction, and sometimes a hyphen. Also avoid clunky attempts to be inclusive, such as "The student interviewed his/her alumnus." It is wonderful to write with gender neutrality. (Note that in the example above I allowed the president to be a woman.) There is no rule that you must always use the male and female pronouns. Bunches of "his or her" phrases really get annoying. And sometimes writing with no gender in history is anachronistic (historically inaccurate). For example, there were no female puritan ministers in the seventeenth century, so one need not write as if there were. [See the Chicago Manual of Style, section 5.206: "Gender bias. Consider the issue of gender-neutral language. On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example), or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers. What is wanted, in short, is a kind of invisible gender neutrality. There are many ways to achieve such language, but it takes thought and often some hard work. See 5.43, 5.51, 5.78.]
7. Slang, cliches, and colloquialisms. Formal writing is not the place to show how cool or trendy your language skills are. (Ugh: "My class interviewed a ton of alumni, and my alumnus was the bomb.") Avoid cliches as well: "The Iroquois were between a rock and a hard place."
8. Subject-verb disagreement. The subject must agree with the verb in number and in person. Subject-verb disagreement appears in many forms: separating subject and verb; joining subjects by and, or, or nor; using indefinite pronouns (everyone, each, some); using collective nouns (jury, family, middle class); using a plural form with a singular meaning ("the data show"); and using titles as a word ("Little Women tells ...").
9. Pronoun disagreement. Pronouns must agree with their antecedent, i.e., the word to which they refer. Pronouns should refer clearly to their antecedents. There are many cases in which this problem occurs. Refer more closely to Hacker or the other guides.
10. Fragments. To stand alone as a sentence, a clause must have a subject and a verb. Fragments: "That he should take the cake"; "Someone who must have seen the massacre." Corrections: "He should take the cake." "Someone must have seen the massacre."
11. Comma splicing and other incorrect comma usage. In general, commas separate independent clauses joined by a conjunction. Commas separate items in a series and introductory or parenthetical phrases from the rest of the sentence. Some comma usage is a matter of preference, but even then, one must prefer consistently. Most students use too many commas. [See Turabian, 21.2.]
12. Incorrect usage of colons (:) and semicolons (;). Every punctuation mark has a specific use; do not use colons, semicolons, and commas interchangeably. A colon is the most abrupt break. Semicolons should be used sparingly to join independent clauses not separated by conjunctions and to replace commas in a series when commas would be confusing. [See Turabian, 21.4]
13. Using apostrophes in plurals and possessives. Know the difference between a plural, a possessive, and a plural possessive. "The athletic students took the tall student's book to the female students' dorm." Know the difference between its and it's. If you mean "it is," use it's. Otherwise, use its. It's that simple! [See Turabian, 20.1 and 20.2.]
14. Use of contractions or apostrophes in dates. At least in my class, do not use any contractions. Other instructors may tell you this is acceptable in their classes. Likewise, it is preferable to list dates without apostrophes: "1530s" instead of "1530's." [See Turabian, 23.2.1.]
15. Incorrect use of quotation marks and ellipses. Enclose direct quotations in quotation marks, putting the closing q.m. after the comma, period, or question mark. Place q.m. before a semicolon or colon. Introduce quoted material properly: McPhee said, "MTSU is a great university!" McPhee described MTSU as "a great university." If you cut out a passage in a direct quotation, use ellipses (three spaced dots). Do not use ellipses at the beginning of a quotation; it is usually not necessary to use ellipses at the end, either. Example: McPhee told the students "to buckle down and spend more time . . . studying, singing, and reading poetry." The full sentence from which the quotation was taken: "I advise all MTSU students to buckle down and spend more time not in drinking, watching television, and having sex but in studying, singing, and reading poetry." [See the "general method" in Turabian, 25.3.2.]
16. Numerals instead of words. Spell out numbers less than 100. Spell out the names of centuries. Use numerals before the word "percent." Example: In the eighteenth century 18 percent of males committed a crime before reaching the age of fourteen. [See Turabian, chap. 23]
17. Confusing one word for another. The most common occurrences are: there, their, they're; effect, affect; accept, except; to, two, too; its, it's; then, than. Be aware of commonly misspelled words, such as separate, Britain, and Parliament. The plural of colonist is colonists.
18. Less than complete identification of people. Identify a person fully the first time that you mention him or her, even if you assume the person is so well known that the reader will know him or her. Give the full name and some idea of who the person is or was. "Abraham Lincoln" is usually enough; "Margaret Paxton" would require additional information such as "Margaret Paxton, a barmaid in seventeenth-century Philadelphia." Do not refer to historical persons by their first name.
19. Overuse and orphaning of quotations. Use quotations sparingly. As a general guide, ask yourself if the wording is so special that paraphrasing it would rob it of its meaning, charm, or conciseness. If you decide to quote, use only the most essential phrase. Avoid quoting long passages; break up longer quotations with your own paraphrasing. Do not quote statistics or common knowledge. "George Washington was a good military leader" is not quote worthy. However, you may wish to quote a Continental soldier who described Washington as "kind, thoughtful, and exceedingly impressive on a horse." Do not orphan quoted material. Introduce it and weave it into your sentence. WEAK: Reginald Pole described the attitude of English people toward their ruler. "Anne was sorely beloved by the English people." (The second sentence is an orphaned quotation.) BETTER: As Reginald Pole remarked in 1714, Queen Anne was "sorely beloved by the English people." [See Turabian, chap. 25!]
20. Plagiarism and improper note form. Plagiarism is the use of someone else's ideas without proper citation and is a serious act of academic dishonesty. Cite the source: 1) when quoting, 2) when using an exact number or statistical statement from a source, 3) when stating something not commonly known, 4) when stating someone else's interpretation or opinion, and 5) when summarizing material from a published or manuscript source. NOTE: Most notes will document material in your writing that is not direct quotation. In history essays, nearly every paragraph should have a note. Do not cite common knowledge, the common facts of history that it may be assumed every intelligent person knows. When using footnotes or endnotes, number them consecutively from beginning to end; do not begin anew with "1" on every page. The assignments in this course ask you to use either in-text citations or foot/endnotes. Make sure you understand the difference and how to use each type. Refer to A Pocket Guide to Writing in History or the Turabian condensed version of The Chicago Manual of Style for examples.
Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History
Diana Hacker, A Pocket Style Manual
Diana Hacker, A Writer's Reference
Richard Marius and Melvin E. Page, A Short Guide to Writing about History
Richard Marius, A Writer's Companion
Jules R. Benjamin, A Student Guide to History
The Chicago Manual of Style, now in the 15th edition and available for online subscription
Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (based on the Chicago Manual)
(Copyright 2007 by James H. Williams)