Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of
paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
Suppose you have never believed that you are a good writer, and you seriously doubt that you can improve your style. Or suppose you have a draft ready but you just don’t find it highly readable or interesting, and you know you must make it clearer and livelier somehow. Or suppose you are tempted to fall back on the idea that grades given to papers are purely subjective, having little foundation in anything but your picky old professor’s pet peeves. If you find yourself huddling anywhere beneath this umbrella, then this chapter is for you.
Many student writers oversimplify the issue of style, defining it by the yardstick of whether their professor “likes” the way something is written. But let’s be honest here: a good paper grader’s subjectivity is guided by professional experience and concern for quality rather than by whim or personal taste. The frustrated professor who writes “Get your commas right!” or “Where is your grammar?” is clearly commenting on non-subjective problems of mechanics and grammar in your paper. That same professor may also write “Unclear” or “What?” or “Too many passives”—an indication that style is about more than correct grammar and perfect mechanics. A grammatically sound, well-punctuated sentence might be utterly unclear, while a sentence might be written clearly but without following basic grammatical principles. As writing teachers will tell you, the best stylists don’t compose by following static rules of grammar; they are readers, thinkers, revisers, tinkerers—they see their writing as a craft, retreating to rules only to find sound pathways to revision.
This chapter is devoted to helping you improve your style. You will find discussion of the basics of grammar, topic sentences, paragraphs, using word lists, lessons on the stylistic conventions of technical writing, and links to websites with helpful stylistic exercises. Amidst these discussions, you should also detect a tonal undercurrent of style as creativity, style as grace. In a nutshell, this chapter helps you revise your work with an eye for correctness, clarity, and elegance—the key to improving your style.
For tutorials on grammar and improving your style, I highly recommend the lessons and exercises at the following addresses: