Dr. Byrne's tips for improved writing

The issues listed below are ones that plague many students' writing. Certainly it is not exhaustive. Rather, it is "inspired" by the comments that I have written ad nauseam in students' papers. Some of them are "d'oh!" mistakes or "duh!" comments but that doesn't prevent the mistakes from creeping into papers written late into the night.... Nonetheless, an essential part of a mature writing style is to make conscious decisions about the words, punctuation and stylistic methods used in a piece of writing rather than letting the writing "just happen on its own."

The list can serve as a guide to help students improve their writing and become more sophisticated writers. These are helpful guidelines, not steadfast rules and, as such, following them or not will depend on the particular context of a particular writing situation (and perhaps, the professor reading the paper! Some of the issues might be pet-peeves of mine more than widely agreed-on writing problems.) 

Other websites with helpful writing tips are here: link 1, link 2, link 3, link 4, link 5.

To improve one's writing skills, I highly recommend the book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams. This book helped me improve my writing skills immensely when I was in college. Some of the more important lessons from this text are included in the list below.


Word use

1. Affect and effect have distinctly different meanings. The most common mistake is using one instead of the other. In most cases, think of this rule: affect = verb; effect= noun. Which word should you use given the sentence context? (However in certain cases, affect can be used as a noun and effect as a verb. If you're not sure which to use, check out the list of definitions for each: affect, effect.)

2. Its = possessive (something belongs to it); it's = a contraction of "it is" or "it has." Which is correct for your sentence?

3. Their = possessive (something belongs to them); there = a location (among other meanings); they're = a contraction of "they are." Using the wrong form is a common mistake especially when writing fast (certainly one I've made!) but when editing it's important to make sure you use the correct form. Use of the wrong one is glaringly obvious to a reader!

4. Your = possessive; you're = contraction of "you are." Which one is correct for your sentence?

5. Avoid the use of the catch-all, abused word get and its many forms. In its place, use a more mature word with a more specific meaning that clearly conveys the meaning you intend for your sentence. For example, instead of "I got a good grade," write "I received a good grade." In colloquial, everyday writing and speaking, the use of "get" is fine. In formal writing however, your higher level of sophistication will be conveyed to the reader if you use more precise and meaningful language.

6. Use and usage are often used interchangeably but often in ways that are awkward. Often, it seems that "usage" is used in place of "use" when "use" should be used (say wha?). Is this because usage sounds more formal, mature or "smarter"? It may but it is often wrong to use usage when use will do. When in doubt use "use" because it is more likely to be correct, except in the few cases when it would be incorrect because the meaning of "usage" is needed. When is that? See here for a simple list.

7. Avoid the use of the same word (or forms of a word) within a sentence and within adjacent sentences. In other words, variety of word usage is the spice of good writing. For this purpose, the thesaurus function in Word (or *gasp!* a bound, hard-copy thesaurus) is very helpful; a mature writer uses one often.

8. Several guidelines are relevant for the use of numbers in a sentence:

    A) spell out the word for numbers from one through ten (in scientific writing, e.g., when discussing data, it is becoming more common to use numerals for all number;

    B) use numerals for numbers over ten (11, 45) and specific numbers (such as dollar values);

    C) spell out all numbers when they are the first word in sentence;

    D) large numbers (i.e., tens of thousands and larger) can be written as words or as the numeral followed by the needed word (millions, billions, etc.; e.g., 100 million).

9. Use one meaningful, "25 cent" word to replace a series of words (that may constitute the definition of the word that replaces them) and thus reduce unnecessary wordiness in your writing. This is one way to make your writing more efficient; also see #16 below.

10. When using pronouns, make sure that is clear from the sentence context what noun the pronoun is referring to. If it is not clear, revise the order of the words or replace the pronoun with the specific noun that you're referring to.

11. Be precise! Use a word that means exactly what you intend the meaning of your point to be and nothing else. So if a word has multiple meanings and it is not exactly clear which meaning you intend, consider using another word. If you're unsure about what a word really means (but hey, it sounds smart, don't use the word--or better yet, look it up in an online dictionary).


12. Take care to not abuse the comma. Because there are many ways to properly (and improperly) use commas, I take advantage here of the powers of the internet to link to other websites that have already laid out nice guidelines for their use (and I thank the creators of these websites for their efforts): link 1, link 2, link 3.

13. Here's a specific comma problem that I have seen more and more: placing a comma between the subject and the verb. I don't know where this is coming from but it is a clear abuse of the comma and should not be done.

14. For sentence construction, colons have one main function that most students need to worry about. A colon is used to indicate that a list of items will be presented after it. Usually the words before the colon describe the list. Many students make the mistake of using a semi-colon where a colon should be used and vice-versa. See the next issue to clarify how each of these should be used correctly (in most instances).

15. A semi-colon is primarily used to separate two complete but closely related independent clauses. (An independent clause is a group of words that can stand alone as a sentence by itself). In many instances, you can check to see if the semi-colon is being used correctly by replacing it with a conjunction (and, but, etc.); if the conjunction sounds correct than the use of a semi-colon is appropriate. Semi-colons are also used to separate items in a complex list such as when the list contains phrases that need commas (as in number six above).

16. On apostrophes: Don't use one in plural words. Do use one in possessive words. 'Nuff said.

17. More on apostrophes: the special case of numbers, most often years. It should be the 1980s (plural) not the 1980's (unless the years are possessing something). (This is a common mistake even in published books and papers. I used to make this mistake a lot myself, but I've become more conscious of it and so can you!)

Sentence structure

18. A run-on sentence needs words and/or punctuation to turn it into a compound sentence or separate sentences.

19. Turn sentence fragments (which are groups of words that don't make a complete sentence) into complete sentences with a clear subject and verb. A common mistake is including one word that turns a sentence into a fragment; examples of such words are: although, since, because, and since. Check to see if you can delete such a word to turn a fragment into a sentence. For example, this is a sentence fragment: "Although Dr. Byrne made us work hard in class." It can be transformed into a full sentence in two ways: 1. "Dr. Byrne made us work hard in class." 2. "Although Dr. Byrne made us work hard in class, we learned a lot."

20. Where appropriate, turn a passive sentence into an active one. For example, the sentence "My rough draft was read by Dr. Byrne." is passive; the sentence "Dr. Byrne read my rough draft." is active. More on active vs. passive sentence construction can be read here (again, thanks to the creators of these webpages): link 1, link 2. (Note that sometimes passive sentence construction is OK as a stylistic choice. It all depends on the context.)

21. In most cases, avoid the use of "there" as the subject of a sentence; instead the main focus of your sentence should be the person, place or thing that you want to focus on. For example, change the sentence "There are many ways to write a sentence" into this passive one which is better "A sentence can be written in many ways." or this active one which is even better: "I can write a sentence in many ways."

22. Avoid the use of unnecessary, filler phrases that increase the length and wordiness of a sentence without giving additional meaning or information. Examples of such phrases are: in order to, due to the fact that.

23. Another way to reduce unnecessary wordiness in a sentence is to use the fewest number of words as possible to convey the same meaning. This is one way to make your writing more efficient; also see numbers seven and 16 above. Additional tips about how to reduce wordiness are here: link 1, link 2.

Paragraph construction

24. Think of each paragraph as a mini, independent essay; each one should tell its own story. Does the particular paragraph in question accomplish this?

25. Start (most) paragraphs with a general topic sentence that presents a general premise or idea. The sentences in the rest of the paragraph should lend support to this topic/premise/idea. The sentences should be arranged in a logical order that tells a story; see #18 above.

26. While the length of paragraphs in a paper can vary from short to very long, the length of each paragraph is important to consider explicitly because length and paragraph breaks help indicate the organization and flow of ideas in a paper. If your paragraphs are not the proper length in relation to the ideas they contain, your reader may have a harder time understanding your ideas. Most students write paragraphs that are too long. For each long paragraph in your paper, ask and answer for yourself: How many distinct themes/ideas are included in this paragraph? Does each idea deserve its own paragraph? Where and how can each long paragraph be broken up into several smaller paragraphs?


27. For a paper's overall conceptual structure, a "zoom-in, zoom-out style" is an appropriate default. In this style, the paper begins with a very broad topic. Through the introduction, the focus is narrowed to a more specific thesis or question (the process of zooming in) that the body of the paper explores. At the end, the paper zooms back out to the very broad topic to reach a conclusion about how the narrow focus of the paper relates to the more general topic. (This also helps bring the paper full circle; also see # 28.)

28. It's generally satisfying to the reader when a paper is "brought full circle." In other words, a paper's conclusion is strengthened when an idea or theme present in the paper's introduction is mentioned explicitly in the conclusion. For example, if a specific person, word or quote is mentioned in the beginning of the paper, how can this person, word or quote be referenced at the end of the paper? Tying the ideas together helps create a sense of closure, which makes for highly satisfying read!

29. To improve the flow of ideas from sentence to sentence, begin a sentence with an idea (subject) that is the same or relatively similar to the idea(s) at the end of the previous, adjacent sentence. This can often be accomplished by rearranging ideas in a sentence through the use of introductory clauses placed at the beginning of the sentence. It takes some critical thinking to become proficient at this stylistic trick, but integrating it into your writing will go a long way toward communicating to the reader that you have strong writing skills. Most importantly, with nice transitions among sentences, the writing should be easier and more enjoyable to read and understand!

30. To strengthen the relationships and transitions between sentences, use the following words or phrases as appropriate for the argument being made: however, thus, therefore, as such, as a result, in contrast, similarly. 

31. In research papers, avoid the use of "you" as a subject. This can be accomplished by avoiding reference to a person altogether or using the generic "one" as a subject. It's a subtle but important stylistic trend to help keep scientific writing impersonal. 

32. Vary the length and structure of sentences in your paper. In other words, don't have all sentences be very short or very long and don't have them all begin and end in the same way. Variety helps make the writing interesting to the reader; when all the sentences are similar, the paper can start to sound "monotone" and thus boring.

Citations and reference list

(This part is not based on any specific reference style but follows a general style used in many (biology and ecology) peer-reviewed publications and the format that I ask my students to use.)

33. Citations should be placed within parentheses in the text and contain (with particular cases listed here in parentheses) the following information: the first author's last name (always), a second author's last name (for references with only two authors), "et al." (for papers with three or more authors), and the year of the publication. Note that the punctuation mark for the sentence goes AFTER the parentheses. When more than one reference is cited at a location in the text, they should be listed chronologically with the oldest paper first. The exception to this "rule" is when the author of a references is used as the subject in a sentence (e.g., "In that study, Byrne (2006) found that..."); in this case, only the year is placed in parentheses immediately following the referenced author. For examples of how to properly cite references, have a look at one of my published papers: pdf.

34. All direct (word-for-word) quotations need quotation marks around them and a citation that also indicates the page numbers from which the quote came.

35. All references cited in the paper must be included in a reference list. Do not include any references in the list that were not cited in the paper.

36. References in the reference list should be arranged alphabetically by the first author's last name.

37. The proper formats for different types of references in most biology and ecology journals are as follows (with proper punctuation indicated also):

  • Peer-reviewed journal article: First author's last name, first author's first name or initial (comma) additional authors with first names or initials first and last names second (all separated by commas) (period) year (period) Title of paper (period) Journal title and volume number (colon) Page numbers of the article (period)

  • Book: First author's last name, first author's first name or initial (comma) additional authors with first names or initials first and last names second (all separated by commas) (period) year (period) Title of book (period) Publisher (period) City and country of publisher (period) (Note: If the book is an edited volume, indicate this after the authors' names by including this designation: "eds.")

  • Book chapter: First author's last name, first author's first name or initial (comma) additional authors with first names or initials first and last names second (all separated by commas) (period) year (period) Title of chapter (period) "In" Authors or editors of the book's names (period) Book title (period) Publisher (period) City and country of publisher (period) (Note: If the book is an edited volume, indicate this after the editors' names by including this designation: "eds.")

  • Website: Name of website author/creator (could be a company or organization) (period) Year of creation (if known) (period) Website address "Date viewed:" write out date last viewed (period)


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