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Shira Lurie is in the first year of her PhD in Early American History at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on popular political dissent in the early American republic. You can find her on Twitter @shirby9 and her blog Shirby’s Dream World.


No matter what field you’re in, grad school will at some point demand a piece of writing from you. Kelly has provided an excellent “taxonomy," from dissertations to emails, that makes clear that the ability to write well is important to grad school success. With this in mind, I am offering a follow-up to Kelly’s post with some tips for improving your writing. Many of these are things we’ve learned in grade school, but have forgotten over time. Consider the following as a quick refresher of some basic tools to sharpen your writing.  

1. The Passive Voice

This is a common writing problem that is often poorly explained. The passive voice occurs when a sentence obscures the actor. For instance, “The bill was signed into law” is an example of the passive voice because we are unsure who did the signing. A better sentence reads, “President Obama signed the bill into law.” Often “to be” verbs (was, is, are) indicate that a sentence contains the passive voice. Do a quick search for those terms when editing to catch any that may have escaped your notice. Fix the problem by clarifying the actor (President Obama) and removing the “to be” verb (was).

2. Semicolons 

The most misunderstood punctuation mark since the Oxford comma. A semicolon is often used to separate two distinct but related clauses. It is the middle ground between a period and a comma, marking a pause shorter than the former but longer than the latter (easy to remember since a semicolon is a combination of those two symbols). For example, “Most of the test subjects responded well to treatment; however, a minority experienced debilitating side effects.” These two clauses are complete, yet closely linked in meaning. Semicolons can also be used to separate complex lists. For instance, “The conference attendees included lawyers from New York and Boston; Native Americans from the Creek, Ottawa, and Shawnee tribes; and professors from the University of Chicago and Brown.”

3. Cliches

As common as dirt, cliches are overused expressions. Ridding your writing of cliches will kill two birds with one stone by adding both clarity and originality to your work. Sure, it's easier said than done, but writers often use cliches as a shortcut and it shows. When tempted to employ one, think carefully about what you are trying to say and phrase it clearly. By avoiding cliches, the meaning you are trying to convey will become crystal clear. I know what you’re thinking ... I should practice what I preach.

4. RRRRRRRRun-on Sentencessssssssssss

These are sentences that are too long. They often occur when a writer is trying to cram many ideas into one sentence. For example, “Horse racing in colonial Virginia enabled the planter elite to showcase their wealth by making extravagant wagers and arriving in fancy attire that would make their neighbors jealous and heighten their own prestige and power.” Run-on sentences are easy to spot—just look for any sentences that go on and on (usually over three lines). Fix your run-on sentences by either eliminating redundant words (like very, really, many) or splitting them up into more than one sentence: “Horse racing in colonial Virginia enabled the planter elite to showcase their wealth. They would arrive to the races in fancy attire and make extravagant wagers. These displays heightened their prestige and power by demonstrating that they had more money than their neighbors.” When writing, try to limit each sentence to just one idea. Concision is the key to clarity.


Here’s a guide to some common problems:

1. It’s is NOT a possessive apostrophe—only use it’s as a contraction for it and is.

Ex. The dog loves its ball. It’s his favorite toy.

2. “That” does not follow a comma; “which” does.

Ex. It is important that you wash your hands before preparing food. Our hands often have bacteria on them, which can cause illness and the spread of infections.

3. Numbers with fewer than three syllables should be written in words.

Ex. The bill cost twenty dollars, which was nothing in comparison to the 652 million dollar lottery ticket he cashed the previous day.

4. If the answer is “she,” use “who;” if the answer is “her,” use “whom.”

Ex. Who wrote the letter? She did. To whom is it addressed? Her sister.

We would love to hear your suggestions for better writing in the comments section! Bonus points to whoever uses a semicolon correctly!

[Image by Flickr user Jeffrey James Pacres and used under Creative Commons licensing]

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