Writing Well, by Kerry Magruder

Here are some writing tips for research papers.

1. Expect to take some time to write a cogent argument concisely. Blaise Pascal once apologized to a friend that he had not had the time to write a shorter letter. It takes time to say things concisely. You will not have room for lengthy introductions, descriptive narration, concluding recapitulations, or long block quotations. Avoid meaningless filler fluff. Omit needless words. Strive to be clear and concise.

2. Condense the point of your entire analysis into a crystal-clear sentence to let the reader know where you are headed (this may even be your first sentence, though it is best written last). Then pare away everything that does not lead the reader toward that goal; everything that does not directly support that argument. This is especially important in a short essay. How does each sentence of your essay relate to and develop your thesis? Outline the overall progression of your essay to tighten it and ensure its coherence. After the initial writing, expect to re-read and revise in several iterations until your essay appears slim and trim, tight and cogent.

3. What is your thesis (i.e., the point of your argument)? Is it clearly indicated? Is it clear and specific? Are special terms or concepts explained concisely, or defined with precision? Make your argument a clear target; do not leave your reader guessing at your interpretation, unable to read between the lines, unsure of your position. The latter may be good politics, but it is not good essay writing!

4. Support your assertions with specific evidence; forceful emphasis and simple repetition do not count as persuasion.

5. Anticipate and identify counter-arguments and evaluate their soundness if you can. An argument that simplistically ignores contrary evidence is weakened, not strengthened.

6. Restrict quotations; respect your reader. Assume that you are writing for a broadly informed reader (or classmate) who has a general familiarity with the texts under discussion, yet who may be inclined to disagree with you. This means that you must construct a friendly argument, not parrot a summary.

7. What if I love quotations and feel that they’re essential to my purpose? The default assumption – to assume your reader’s familiarity with the text – still holds. Yet sometimes, as with Torrance and Lewis, it’s helpful to preserve the “voice” of an author. In such cases, quotations may be justified. Yet for each quotation, instead of placing the quotation in the main text, in most cases it is generally better to summarize the chief point you are making with the quote, add a footnote, and then put the quotation into the footnote with a citation.

8. What if I am micro-analyzing a passage? May I include a quotation then? Yes, of course. These are tips, not rules; you get to make the choice.

9. Guard against grammatical ambiguities: “I listened to an album in my dorm room. It was full of violence and sex.”

10. Avoid weasel words and filler words (“doubtless,” “likely,” “clearly,” “seems to,” “appears to be,” “possibly,” “may have been,” etc.). Take responsibility. Look the reader in the eye. Put your head out over the parapet.

11. Avoid generalized “reification,” where a writer hides fuzzy thinking with overgeneralized, abstract terms (e.g., “Science says...,” “History has shown...” etc., instead of “This person at this time said...” etc.). Be particular, specific, and concrete.

12. Avoid logical fallacies. For example, can you spot anything wrong with this argument? “Witches float; wood also floats; therefore witches are made of wood; ducks also float; so if someone weighs as much as a duck, she is made of wood, and therefore a witch” (Monty Python and the Holy Grail). For an introduction to common fallacies, see “Love Is a Fallacy,” in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, by Max Shulman (1951). Or see this article at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing /logic_in_argumentative_writing/fallacies.html.

13. Acknowledge all sources used with citations and a bibliography!

14. Prefer the active voice. “I wrecked the car” is much better than “The car has been wrecked.” The passive voice is a way to avoid responsibility. For reasons not “to be explored” here, it is common in academic writing.

15. Avoid lifeless, awkward, and affected intellectualisms (“it could well be argued…”).

16. For a serious essay, avoid over-relaxed colloquialisms common in ordinary conversation (“hey man, just look, it’s like this here…”). Colloquial speech is fine in forum interaction, but not for research papers unless it’s part of a dialogue or other creative writing style.

17. To ensure a smooth and natural style, have a friend read your essay aloud and see how it sounds. Develop your own written “voice.”

18. Some frequently troublesome contractions and pronouns: Use apostrophes to denote a missing letter or letters and to denote possession, but never to denote plurals. For many students, the most troublesome word is it’s. In nouns, an apostrophe is often used to denote possession, but pronouns have their own possessive form and do not use an apostrophe for possession.




it is, or it has


belonging to it


belonging to Jesus[1]


If you want to hone your writing skills, one way to begin is Andrew T. LePeau, Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality (IVP Books, 2019).  

[1] Jesus' is an exception to the normal rule that singular nouns form a possessive with an apostrophe and s. (e.g., Moses’s). Jesus’s is also correct. Jesus freaks is correct because it has a specialized meaning, but Jesus disciples is not correct - "Jesus' disciples" is correct when referring to the disciples of Jesus (ancient or modern).

Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2020, 11:37 AM