Suggestions for Improving Your Writing

Table of Contents

  1. Quotations
  2. Structure of the Paper
  3. Passive Voice
  4. Common Punctuation Errors
  5. Proper Use of Pronouns
  6. Proper Use of Gender Specific Nouns and Pronouns
  7. Follow Instructions

1. Quotations

Free-floating quotation. This is a quotation that the writer inserts into his/her text without explaining why it is there. Remember, You are the author of your paper, not the person that you are quoting. This means that you have a reason for quoting this material, and so you need to explain, in your paper and to your reader, how you interpret this quotation and why you find it suggestive to include in your work. Never leave a quotation floating, unexplained, expecting it to do your thinking for you. Think with and about the quotation. (Exceptions to this rule: a one-word or two-word quotation that is so clearly identified with a particular text or author and is self-explanatory within the context in which you have used it that it does not require explanation. An example of this might be Otto’s “numinous.”

Inappropriately or non-documented quotation, information, or idea. All quotations, information and ideas that you take from another source must be fully documented. (See rules for citation below.) There are three things to remember here:

  • It is imperative and morally ethical to credit the source from which you take any material.
  • You should provide sufficient information so that your reader can go directly to the source itself if he or she wants to know more information than you have been able to provide in your paper.
  • Since you are the author of your paper, you have created a different context for this material than the context in which it was originally used. That is to say, what you are trying to accomplish in your paper by using this quotation, idea, information is undoubtedly different from what the original source was trying to accomplish by saying it. By providing your own interpretation of the quotation and by clearly identifying the source of ideas and information you use from someone else, you give credit to the source and you allow your own narrative voice to shine through in your writing. In other words, you and your source both get credit and look good.

Overly long or unnecessary quotation. Avoid using long quotations in a short paper and do not quote material that can be more easily summarized or put more simply into your own words. Save quotations for something that cannot be said effectively in any other way.


2. Structure of the Paper

Structure. Your paper should have an introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction should include your re-worked, polished thesis statement. The body of your paper should amplify and explain your thesis statement by using specific and concrete examples from the texts we have read. Each point you make should be logically connected to the main point and each of the points should follow logically one from another. Use transitions between paragraphs to accomplish this. The conclusion should restate the thesis and consider its implications and significance for the study of religion. Paragraph Structure: A paragraph is a mini-paper. It should have a topic sentence and develop only one idea. Avoid over long paragraphs.

Transitions. The logical connection between one paragraph or sentence and another is not at all clear. This is “Talk Show Host syndrome,” so-named because hosts will often move from one topic to another in their opening monologues simply by saying “moving right along . . .” Weak transitions indicate that you have not thought through the logical arrangement of the evidence in your paper and its relationship to your thesis. Your thoughts thus appear to be random and your readers lose their orientation and, quickly, their patience.

Subheadings. You may find it helpful to use subheadings as aids to transitions in longer papers.


3. Passive Voice.

Reading material written in the passive voice is like running in deep mud.

We encourage you to write in the active voice, rather than in the passive voice. This is simple enough, but it assumes you can always recognize when you are using the passive voice. The passive voice is almost always constructed with some form of the verb “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, be, and been) in conjunction with another verb. Here are some examples with the corresponding form of the active voice

Passive Voice Active Voice
Otto’s understanding of the holy was adopted by Eliade. Eliade adopted Otto’s understanding of the holy.
Tillich’s essay has been deleted from the second edition.. The editors deleted Tillich’s essay from the second edition.
The syllabus was distributed on the first day of class. The professor distributed the syllabus on the first day of class.
That issue will be discussed during our next class. We will discuss that issue during our next class.
She is recognized as an excellent teacher by students. Students recognize her as an excellent teacher.

Exception: If the second verb ends in “-ing,” the sentence is not in the passive voice. “The student was writing poetry on the blackboard” is active, but “Poetry was being written on the blackboard by the student” is passive.

To check a sentence, look for a form of the verb “to be” and another verb not ending in “-ing.” If they are both there, and it is not clear who is doing the action, the sentence is probably in the passive voice.

There are good uses for the passive voice, such as in the following sentence: “The passive voice is almost always constructed with some form of the verb ‘to be.’” It would be odd to write: “People almost always construct the passive voice with some form of the verb ‘to be.’” Also, the passive is useful when you are trying to avoid active responsibility. “The check was mailed a day late” is easier to say than “I mailed the check a day late.

You can dramatically improve your writing by minimizing your use of the passive voice.


4. Common Punctuation Errors.

Commas. By far the most common problem is the use of commas. You can avoid most mistakes by learning a few rules. For a good short list of comma rules see Extended Rules for Using Commas at the Purdue Writing Lab. These rules are well worth learning.

Quotation Marks. Quotation marks are placed outside the punctuation mark (periods and commas).

Parenthesis. If the parenthesis is only a part of the sentence, a period is placed outside a parenthesis; if an entire sentence is placed in parenthesis, a period is placed before the parenthesis.

Footnotes. Numbers for footnotes are placed to the outside of the period and to the outside of quotation marks if using quotation marks.

Semicolon. A semicolon (;) is used to separate a series of items when one or more of the items contains a comma.

Colon. A colon (:) means “as follows.”


5. Proper Use of Pronouns

Ambivalent pronouns. Pronouns like “this,” “that,” and “it,” all refer to something very specific within your paper. It is not always clear, however, in student papers what the referent of the pronoun is. Check your pronouns and make sure that the referent (what the pronoun refers to) is close by, preferably in the most immediately previous clause or sentence.

Agreement. Pronouns must agree in person and number with their references. Subjects and verbs must agree in number, and your choice of verb tense must be consistent. Consider the phrase “when one reads carefully, they will realize . . .” “One” means a single individual; “they” means more than one. Be consistent in your choice of pronouns. If you use “one,” use it all the way through your paper: don’t switch to “you” and then to “he” or “him” and then to “he or she.” Any lack of agreement is confusing.


6. Proper Use of Gender Specific Nouns and Pronouns.

Do not use gender specific nouns and pronouns when you are referring to both genders. Examples: “mankind” instead of “humankind;” “his” instead of “his or her” or “him or her.” Although many of the texts you will read use gender specific language, this is now commonly considered an archaic form of writing and is unacceptable in religious studies. If you use gender specific language make sure you are, in fact, referring to only one gender.


7. Follow Instructions.

Carefully follow all instructions the instructor provides for a given assignment. Frequently, low grades are the result of not following the specific instructions.

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