|How to Do a Close Reading
The process of writing an essay usually begins with the close reading of a text. Of course, the writer's personal experience may occasionally come into the essay, and all essays depend on the writer's own observations and knowledge. But most essays, especially academic essays, begin with a close reading of some kind of text—a painting, a movie, an event—and usually with that of a written text. When you close read, you observe facts and details about the text. You may focus on a particular passage, or on the text as a whole. Your aim may be to notice all striking features of the text, including rhetorical features, structural elements, cultural references; or, your aim may be to notice only selected features of the text—for instance, oppositions and correspondences, or particular historical references. Either way, making these observations constitutes the first step in the process of close reading.
The second step is interpreting your observations. What we're basically talking about here is inductive reasoning: moving from the observation of particular facts and details to a conclusion, or interpretation, based on those observations. And, as with inductive reasoning, close reading requires careful gathering of data (your observations) and careful thinking about what these data add up to.
How to Begin:
1. Read with a pencil in hand, and annotate the text.
"Annotating" means underlining or highlighting key words and phrases—anything that strikes you as surprising or significant, or that raises questions—as well as making notes in the margins. When we respond to a text in this way, we not only force ourselves to pay close attention, but we also begin to think with the author about the evidence—the first step in moving from reader to writer.
Here's a sample passage by anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley. It's from his essay called "The Hidden Teacher."
. . . I once received an unexpected lesson from a spider. It happened far away on a rainy morning in the West. I had come up a long gulch looking for fossils, and there, just at eye level, lurked a huge yellow-and-black orb spider, whose web was moored to the tall spears of buffalo grass at the edge of the arroyo. It was her universe, and her senses did not extend beyond the lines and spokes of the great wheel she inhabited. Her extended claws could feel every vibration throughout that delicate structure. She knew the tug of wind, the fall of a raindrop, the flutter of a trapped moth's wing. Down one spoke of the web ran a stout ribbon of gossamer on which she could hurry out to investigate her prey.
Curious, I took a pencil from my pocket and touched a strand of the web. Immediately there was a response. The web, plucked by its menacing occupant, began to vibrate until it was a blur. Anything that had brushed claw or wing against that amazing snare would be thoroughly entrapped. As the vibrations slowed, I could see the owner fingering her guidelines for signs of struggle. A pencil point was an intrusion into this universe for which no precedent existed. Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe. All outside was irrational, extraneous, at best raw material for spider. As I proceeded on my way along the gully, like a vast impossible shadow, I realized that in the world of spider I did not exist.
2. Look for patterns in the things you've noticed about the text—repetitions, contradictions, similarities.
What do we notice in the previous passage? First, Eiseley tells us that the orb spider taught him a lesson, thus inviting us to consider what that lesson might be. But we'll let that larger question go for now and focus on particulars—we're working inductively. In Eiseley's next sentence, we find that this encounter "happened far away on a rainy morning in the West." This opening locates us in another time, another place, and has echoes of the traditional fairy tale opening: "Once upon a time . . .". What does this mean? Why would Eiseley want to remind us of tales and myth? We don't know yet, but it's curious. We make a note of it.
Details of language convince us of our location "in the West"—gulch, arroyo, and buffalo grass. Beyond that, though, Eiseley calls the spider's web "her universe" and "the great wheel she inhabited," as in the great wheel of the heavens, the galaxies. By metaphor, then, the web becomes the universe, "spider universe." And the spider, "she," whose "senses did not extend beyond" her universe, knows "the flutter of a trapped moth's wing" and hurries "to investigate her prey." Eiseley says he could see her "fingering her guidelines for signs of struggle." These details of language, and others, characterize the "owner" of the web as thinking, feeling, striving—a creature much like ourselves. But so what?
3. Ask questions about the patterns you've noticed—especially how and why.
To answer some of our own questions, we have to look back at the text and see what else is going on. For instance, when Eiseley touches the web with his pencil point—an event "for which no precedent existed"—the spider, naturally, can make no sense of the pencil phenomenon: "Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas." Of course, spiders don't have ideas, but we do. And if we start seeing this passage in human terms, seeing the spider's situation in "her universe" as analogous to our situation in our universe (which we think of as the universe), then we may decide that Eiseley is suggesting that our universe (the universe) is also finite, that our ideas are circumscribed, and that beyond the limits of our universe there might be phenomena as fully beyond our ken as Eiseley himself—that "vast impossible shadow"—was beyond the understanding of the spider.
But why vast and impossible, why a shadow? Does Eiseley mean God, extra-terrestrials? Or something else, something we cannot name or even imagine? Is this the lesson? Now we see that the sense of tale telling or myth at the start of the passage, plus this reference to something vast and unseen, weighs against a simple E.T. sort of interpretation. And though the spider can't explain, or even apprehend, Eiseley's pencil point, that pencil point is explainable—rational after all. So maybe not God. We need more evidence, so we go back to the text—the whole essay now, not just this one passage—and look for additional clues. And as we proceed in this way, paying close attention to the evidence, asking questions, formulating interpretations, we engage in a process that is central to essay writing and to the whole academic enterprise: in other words, we reason toward our own ideas.
Copyright 1998, Patricia Kain, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Overview of the Academic Essay
A clear sense of argument is essential to all forms of academic writing, for writing is thought made visible. Insights and ideas that occur to us when we encounter the raw material of the world—natural phenomena like the behavior of genes, or cultural phenomena, like texts, photographs and artifacts—must be ordered in some way so others can receive them and respond in turn. This give and take is at the heart of the scholarly enterprise, and makes possible that vast conversation known as civilization. Like all human ventures, the conventions of the academic essay are both logical and playful. They may vary in expression from discipline to discipline, but any good essay should show us a mind developing a thesis, supporting that thesis with evidence, deftly anticipating objections or counter-arguments, and maintaining the momentum of discovery.
Motive and Idea
An essay has to have a purpose or motive; the mere existence of an assignment or deadline is not sufficient. When you write an essay or research paper, you are never simply transferring information from one place to another, or showing that you have mastered a certain amount of material. That would be incredibly boring—and besides, it would be adding to the glut of pointless utterance. Instead, you should be trying to make the best possible case for an original idea you have arrived at after a period of research. Depending upon the field, your research may involve reading and rereading a text, performing an experiment, or carefully observing an object or behavior.
By immersing yourself in the material, you begin to discover patterns and generate insights, guided by a series of unfolding questions. From a number of possibilities, one idea emerges as the most promising. You try to make sure it is original and of some importance; there is no point arguing for something already known, trivial, or widely accepted.
Thesis and Development
The essay's thesis is the main point you are trying to make, using the best evidence you can marshall. Your thesis will evolve during the course of writing drafts, but everything that happens in your essay is directed toward establishing its validity. A given assignment may not tell you that you need to come up with a thesis and defend it, but these are the unspoken requirements of any scholarly paper.
Deciding upon a thesis can generate considerable anxiety. Students may think, "How can I have a new idea about a subject scholars have spent their whole lives exploring? I just read a few books in the last few days, and now I'm supposed to be an expert?" But you can be original on different scales. We can't possibly know everything that has been, or is being, thought or written by everyone in the world—even given the vastness and speed of the Internet. What is required is a rigorous, good faith effort to establish originality, given the demands of the assignment and the discipline. It is a good exercise throughout the writing process to stop periodically and reformulate your thesis as succinctly as possible so someone in another field could understand its meaning as well as its importance. A thesis can be relatively complex, but you should be able to distill its essence. This does not mean you have to give the game away right from the start. Guided by a clear understanding of the point you wish to argue, you can spark your reader's curiosity by first asking questions—the very questions that may have guided you in your research—and carefully building a case for the validity of your idea. Or you can start with a provocative observation, inviting your audience to follow your own path of discovery.
The Tension of Argument
Argument implies tension but not combative fireworks. This tension comes from the fundamental asymmetry between the one who wishes to persuade and those who must be persuaded. The common ground they share is reason. Your objective is to make a case so that any reasonable person would be convinced of the reasonableness of your thesis. The first task, even before you start to write, is gathering and ordering evidence, classifying it by kind and strength. You might decide to move from the smallest piece of evidence to the most impressive. Or you might start with the most convincing, then mention other supporting details afterward. You could hold back a surprising piece of evidence until the very end.
In any case, it is important to review evidence that could be used against your idea and generate responses to anticipated objections. This is the crucial concept of counter-argument. If nothing can be said against an idea, it is probably obvious or vacuous. (And if too much can be said against it, it's time for another thesis.) By not indicating an awareness of possible objections, you might seem to be hiding something, and your argument will be weaker as a consequence. You should also become familiar with the various fallacies that can undermine an argument—the "straw man" fallacy, fallacies of causation and of analogy, etc.—and strive to avoid them.
The Structure of Argument
The heart of the academic essay is persuasion, and the structure of your argument plays a vital role in this. To persuade, you must set the stage, provide a context, and decide how to reveal your evidence. Of course, if you are addressing a community of specialists, some aspects of a shared context can be taken for granted. But clarity is always a virtue. The essay's objective should be described swiftly, by posing a question that will lead to your thesis, or making a thesis statement. There is considerable flexibility about when and where this happens, but within the first page or two, we should know where we are going, even if some welcome suspense is preserved. In the body of the paper, merely listing evidence without any discernible logic of presentation is a common mistake. What might suffice in conversation is too informal for an essay. If the point being made is lost in a welter of specifics, the argument falters.
The most common argumentative structure in English prose is deductive: starting off with a generalization or assertion, and then providing support for it. This pattern can be used to order a paragraph as well as an entire essay. Another possible structure is inductive: facts, instances or observations can be reviewed, and the conclusion to be drawn from them follows. There is no blueprint for a successful essay; the best ones show us a focused mind making sense of some manageable aspect of the world, a mind where insightfulness, reason, and clarity are joined.
Copyright 1998, Kathy Duffin, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
5. Essay Structure
Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formulas.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counter-arguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counter-argument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counter-argument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counter-argument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Alhough you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counter-argument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
* State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
* Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
* Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Alhough they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Developing A Thesis
Think of yourself as a member of a jury, listening to a lawyer who is presenting an opening argument. You'll want to know very soon whether the lawyer believes the accused to be guilty or not guilty, and how the lawyer plans to convince you. Readers of academic essays are like jury members: before they have read too far, they want to know what the essay argues as well as how the writer plans to make the argument. After reading your thesis statement, the reader should think, "This essay is going to try to convince me of something. I'm not convinced yet, but I'm interested to see how I might be."
An effective thesis cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." A thesis is not a topic; nor is it a fact; nor is it an opinion. "Reasons for the fall of communism" is a topic. "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe" is a fact known by educated people. "The fall of communism is the best thing that ever happened in Europe" is an opinion. (Superlatives like "the best" almost always lead to trouble. It's impossible to weigh every "thing" that ever happened in Europe. And what about the fall of Hitler? Couldn't that be "the best thing"?)
A good thesis has two parts. It should tell what you plan to argue, and it should "telegraph" how you plan to argue—that is, what particular support for your claim is going where in your essay.
Steps in Constructing a Thesis
First, analyze your primary sources. Look for tension, interest, ambiguity, controversy, and/or complication. Does the author contradict himself or herself? Is a point made and later reversed? What are the deeper implications of the author's argument? Figuring out the why to one or more of these questions, or to related questions, will put you on the path to developing a working thesis. (Without the why, you probably have only come up with an observation—that there are, for instance, many different metaphors in such-and-such a poem—which is not a thesis.)
Once you have a working thesis, write it down. There is nothing as frustrating as hitting on a great idea for a thesis, then forgetting it when you lose concentration. And by writing down your thesis you will be forced to think of it clearly, logically, and concisely. You probably will not be able to write out a final-draft version of your thesis the first time you try, but you'll get yourself on the right track by writing down what you have.
Keep your thesis prominent in your introduction. A good, standard place for your thesis statement is at the end of an introductory paragraph, especially in shorter (5-15 page) essays. Readers are used to finding theses there, so they automatically pay more attention when they read the last sentence of your introduction. Although this is not required in all academic essays, it is a good rule of thumb.
Anticipate the counter-arguments. Once you have a working thesis, you should think about what might be said against it. This will help you to refine your thesis, and it will also make you think of the arguments that you'll need to refute later on in your essay. (Every argument has a counter-argument. If yours doesn't, then it's not an argument—it may be a fact, or an opinion, but it is not an argument.)
Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 presidential election because he failed to campaign vigorously after the Democratic National Convention.
This statement is on its way to being a thesis. However, it is too easy to imagine possible counter- arguments. For example, a political observer might believe that Dukakis lost because he suffered from a "soft-on-crime" image. If you complicate your thesis by anticipating the counter-argument, you'll strengthen your argument, as shown in the sentence below.
While Dukakis' "soft-on-crime" image hurt his chances in the 1988 election, his failure to campaign vigorously after the Democratic National Convention bore a greater responsibility for his defeat.
Some Caveats and Some Examples
A thesis is never a question. Readers of academic essays expect to have questions discussed, explored, or even answered. A question ("Why did communism collapse in Eastern Europe?") is not an argument, and without an argument, a thesis is dead in the water.
A thesis is never a list. "For political, economic, social and cultural reasons, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe" does a good job of "telegraphing" the reader what to expect in the essay—a section about political reasons, a section about economic reasons, a section about social reasons, and a section about cultural reasons. However, political, economic, social and cultural reasons are pretty much the only possible reasons why communism could collapse. This sentence lacks tension and doesn't advance an argument. Everyone knows that politics, economics, and culture are important.
A thesis should never be vague, combative or confrontational. An ineffective thesis would be, "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because communism is evil." This is hard to argue (evil from whose perspective? what does evil mean?) and it is likely to mark you as moralistic and judgmental rather than rational and thorough. It also may spark a defensive reaction from readers sympathetic to communism. If readers strongly disagree with you right off the bat, they may stop reading.
An effective thesis has a definable, arguable claim. "While cultural forces contributed to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of economies played the key role in driving its decline" is an effective thesis sentence that "telegraphs," so that the reader expects the essay to have a section about cultural forces and another about the disintegration of economies. This thesis makes a definite, arguable claim: that the disintegration of economies played a more important role than cultural forces in defeating communism in Eastern Europe. The reader would react to this statement by thinking, "Perhaps what the author says is true, but I am not convinced. I want to read further to see how the author argues this claim."
A thesis should be as clear and specific as possible. Avoid overused, general terms and abstractions. For example, "Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because of the ruling elite's inability to address the economic concerns of the people" is more powerful than "Communism collapsed due to societal discontent."
Copyright 1999, Maxine Rodburg and The Tutors of the Writing Center at Harvard University
Trying to devise a structure for your essay can be one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. Making a detailed outline before you begin writing is a good way to make sure your ideas come across in a clear and logical order. A good outline will also save you time in the revision process, reducing the possibility that your ideas will need to be rearranged once you've written them.
The First Steps
Before you can begin outlining, you need to have a sense of what you will argue in the essay. From your analysis and close readings of primary and/or secondary sources you should have notes, ideas, and possible quotes to cite as evidence. Let's say you are writing about the 1999 Republican Primary and you want to prove that each candidate's financial resources were the most important element in the race. At this point, your notes probably lack much coherent order. Most likely, your ideas are still in the order in which they occurred to you; your notes and possible quotes probably still adhere to the chronology of the sources you've examined. Your goal is to rearrange your ideas, notes, and quotes—the raw material of your essay—into an order that best supports your argument, not the arguments you've read in other people's works. To do this, you have to group your notes into categories and then arrange these categories in a logical order.
The first step is to look over each individual piece of information that you've written and assign it to a general category. Ask yourself, "If I were to file this in a database, what would I file it under?" If, using the example of the Republican Primary, you wrote down an observation about John McCain's views on health care, you might list it under the general category of "Health care policy." As you go through your notes, try to reuse categories whenever possible. Your goal is to reduce your notes to no more than a page of category listings.
Now examine your category headings. Do any seem repetitive? Do any go together? "McCain's expenditure on ads" and "Bush's expenditure on ads," while not exactly repetitive, could easily combine into a more general category like "Candidates' expenditures on ads." Also, keep an eye out for categories that no longer seem to relate to your argument. Individual pieces of information that at first seemed important can begin to appear irrelevant when grouped into a general category.
Now it's time to generalize again. Examine all your categories and look for common themes. Go through each category and ask yourself, "If I were to place this piece of information in a file cabinet, what would I label that cabinet?" Again, try to reuse labels as often as possible: "Health Care," "Foreign Policy," and "Immigration" can all be contained under "Policy Initiatives." Make these larger categories as general as possible so that there are no more than three or four for a 7-10 page paper.
With your notes grouped into generalized categories, the process of ordering them should be easier. To begin, look at your most general categories. With your thesis in mind, try to find a way that the labels might be arranged in a sentence or two that supports your argument. Let's say your thesis is that financial resources played the most important role in the 1999 Republican Primary. Your four most general categories are "Policy Initiatives," "Financial Resources," "Voters' Concerns," and "Voters' Loyalty." You might come up with the following sentence: ÒAlthough McCain's policy initiatives were closest to the voters' concerns, Bush's financial resources won the voters' loyalty.Ó This sentence should reveal the order of your most general categories. You will begin with an examination of McCain's and Bush's views on important issues and compare them to the voters' top concerns. Then you'll look at both candidates' financial resources and show how Bush could win voters' loyalty through effective use of his resources, despite his less popular policy ideas.
With your most general categories in order, you now must order the smaller categories. To do so, arrange each smaller category into a sentence or two that will support the more general sentence you've just devised. Under the category of "Financial Resources," for instance, you might have the smaller categories of "Ad Expenditure," "Campaign Contributions" and "Fundraising." A sentence that supports your general argument might read: "Bush's early emphasis on fundraising led to greater campaign contributions, allowing him to have a greater ad expenditure than McCain."
The final step of the outlining process is to repeat this procedure on the smallest level, with the original notes that you took for your essay. To order what probably was an unwieldy and disorganized set of information at the beginning of this process, you need now only think of a sentence or two to support your general argument. Under the category "Fundraising," for example, you might have quotes about each candidate's estimation of its importance, statistics about the amount of time each candidate spent fundraising, and an idea about how the importance of fundraising never can be overestimated. Sentences to support your general argument might read: "No candidate has ever raised too much money [your idea]. While both McCain and Bush acknowledged the importance of fundraising [your quotes], the numbers clearly point to Bush as the superior fundraiser [your statistics]." The arrangement of your ideas, quotes, and statistics now should come naturally.
Putting It All Together
With these sentences, you have essentially constructed an outline for your essay. The most general ideas, which you organized in your first sentence, constitute the essay's sections. They follow the order in which you placed them in your sentence. The order of the smaller categories within each larger category (determined by your secondary sentences) indicates the order of the paragraphs within each section. Finally, your last set of sentences about your specific notes should show the order of the sentences within each paragraph. An outline for the essay about the 1999 Republican Primary (showing only the sections worked out here) would look something like this:
I. POLICY INITIATIVES
II. VOTERS' CONCERNS
III. FINANCIAL RESOURCES
a. Original Idea
b. McCain Quote/Bush Quote
c. McCain Statistics/Bush Statistics
B. Campaign Contributions
C. Ad Expenditure
IV. VOTERS' LOYALTY
Copyright 2000, David Kornhaber, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Tips on Grammar, Punctuation and Style
Commas and semi-colons. If the rules you learned about commas and semi-colons don't mean much to you, forget them and try this: Read one of your sentences aloud and see where you would naturally pause, where you would draw a breath. If it's a short pause, like that just was, you probably need a comma. If it's a longer pause, but not quite a full stop (for which you'd need a period), you probably need a semi-colon; remember that whatever follows a semi-colon must be able to stand on its own, as a full sentence, like this one.
If you don't want your reader to pause, there shouldn't be a comma, there, because as, this demonstrates it's very difficult to figure, out, what you're saying when your punctuation, makes the sentence unreadable.
Your sentences shouldn't leave your reader hyperventilating from the constant shallow breaths that over-punctuation requires. Nor should they be gasping for breath at the end of a long, unpunctuated sentence. (Consider yourself responsible for your readers' cardiovascular health.)
Check your dashes and hyphens. When you're setting off a clause—this one is a good example—use the longer dash, called an m-dash. (You can indicate this dash with two hyphens—like this—if you don't have an m-dash function on your computer.) Be sure that the parts of the sentence that precede and follow the dashes would make sense even if you removed the dashes and the words they bracket. (In the example above, the sentence is readable with or without the clause inside the dashes.)
You can also use the m-dash in place of a colon if you want to emphasize more dramatically the words that follow: "The mantlepiece was lined with photographs of people she loved—her mother, her grandmother, a favorite aunt." Or you can use it to add a surprising element into a sentence: "Her family's photographs were displayed on the mantlepiece; there were pictures of parents, grandparents, and siblings—and of Muffin, a Yorkshire terrier." Whereas the m-dash is used to set off parts of a sentence, hyphens are used to join words together: broken-hearted, two-thirds, sister-in-law.
Always identify abbreviations before you use them, unless you feel reasonably confident that the average intelligent reader would be able to identify the acronym—like when the acronym is more commonly used than the words it stands for. (It would be odd to write out all the words for ESP, NATO, CEO, or AIDS.) Keep in mind the audience for the particular essay you're writing, though; readers who are specialists in a particular discipline may not want or need to have terms spelled out for them.
Try to avoid split infinitives. This is no longer a hard and fast rule, and occasionally keeping an infinitive together in a sentence can introduce more awkwardness than the split, but usually the split is ungraceful. (Imagine: To be or to not be.)
Make sure all your referents are clear. When you say "This theory" or "that point" or, simply, "it," is it clear which theory or point you're referring to? When you use "he" or "she" or "these critics," will your reader have to pause to figure out who all these people are?
There's more to say about this. We often throw in a "this" when we're not entirely sure exactly what we want to draw our readers' attention to, especially when we're making a complex argument with many different elements. Sometimes vagueness in our language can be a symptom of muddled thinking. So ask yourself, what does this "this" refer to? What words would I replace it with? If you're not easily able to answer, you need to go back and work out your ideas in that section. (Readers will never understand what you mean when you don't know yourself. When you notice vague referents, or other apparently minor problems, take the opportunity to ask yourself if there might be any larger problem lurking beneath your surface error.)
Never use "that" when you're referring to a person: "The first man that walked on the moon." "The author that she was referring to." These are people, not objects—it's insulting to call them "that." Use who or whom: "The first man who walked on the moon." "The author to whom she was referring." Are you using "that" because you're shaky on the who/whom thing? See below. (And while you're at it, consider whether you're twisting your sentences around to avoid any other grammatical points you're uncertain of. If so, take control! Liberate yourself! Learn the rules once and for all so you can write freely, instead of skulking around trying not to break the rules—or breaking them without realizing it. Try starting a text file in which you list the rules you tend to forget, and keep it open when you write. You can look rules up in any style manual, or come to the Writing Center.)
Who is what doing what to whom? That's the question you need to ask yourself if you're uncertain which word to use. The one that does the action (the subject) is who. The one that gets something done to it (the object) is whom.
Avoid passive voice. It tends to sap energy and power from your prose. It's usually better to say "Einstein's theory" than "the theory that was formulated by Einstein."
Italics and underlines. You can use one or the other but never both. They mean the same thing—underlining used to be a copy-editing mark to tell printers to set certain words in italic type. Underlining italics meant the editor wanted the words taken out of italics. So underlining your already- italicized phrase is, in effect, like using a double negative.
Be sure all of your sentences have parallel construction. This sentence doesn't have it: "Re- reading my first draft, I notice it's trite, repetitive, and with no thesis." This sentence does: "Re- reading my first draft, I notice that it's trite and repetitive, and that it has no thesis." Or you could say: "Re-reading my first draft, I notice it's trite, repetitive, and lacking in a thesis." In the two examples with parallel construction, you could take out any of the words in the list and still have the sentence make sense.
Copyright 1999, Kim Cooper, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
[Please note: This material is reprinted from the Website of the Writing Center at Harvard University: www.fas.harvard.edu/wricntr/documents. Please consult this source for additional information about each section of a scholarly essay, and much more.]]