Archive for February 24th, 2010

As much as I enjoy telling students what not to do, I find that they tend to perform better on class assignments when I carefully tell them what to do.  Because of this, I would like to follow up my recent post on how not to write with a detailed description of what good writing looks like.  Thankfully, Henry at Crooked Timber has taken on this task so that I don’t have to and, as a result, has produced an interesting take on what good writing in political science consists of.  Of course, I don’t teach classes in political science but this document could be tailored to a sociology class rather easily.  An excerpt (not coincidentally the advice that has large benefits for readers but that I find difficult as a “naturally good” writer):


This is perhaps the most commonly neglected element of structured writing. It concerns the paragraphs into which your prose is organized. Each paragraph should focus on one main point. The point of each paragraph should build on that in the previous paragraph, and create the foundations of the next. Each paragraph should be a necessary part of the overall structure of your essay.

I find that a useful mental exercise is to boil down the arguments of each paragraph, one after the other, into single sentences. Then, put all these sentences together into a consecutive narrative, looking to see whether each sentence can be made to flow naturally from the sentence previous to it, and into the sentence following. This will highlight any major structural problems. If you are not able to boil down each of the paragraphs into a single sentence summary (however simplistic), then the offending paragraphs most likely need to be rewritten more clearly. If there are gaps or non-sequiturs when you put the one sentence summaries together, then the meso-structure of your essay needs to be re-organized, by cutting and pasting paragraphs, or by introducing new paragraphs to fill the gaps, or deleting old paragraphs that detract from the flow of your argument.

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