Writing Tips
How to Become a Better Writer
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Geography

Reading better
Education no doubt can be suggested in the classroom; but education happens in the library.
~~ From Prof. John V. Fleming's article, "
Libraries, the Princeton campus's unknown repository of sexiness

Truly excellent writing cannot be mastered by memorizing lists of rules. It is the result of understanding the richness of the language and the nuances of expression. This is gained through reading well-written prose. Unfortunately, many magazines, most newspapers, and most college textbooks are not good models for formal writing.

Make time to read a variety of good, well-written books. It is not expensive: visit your local library. If a busy schedule prevents you from reading the classics, subscribe to a good magazine, such as Smithsonian, Harper's, or Atlantic Monthly.

As "Dear Abby" has written, "Those who do not read are no better off than those who cannot read."

In order to free up some time for reading (and other forms of personal enjoyment and development), consider killing your television. (Or at least disabling it sometimes.)

Having fun

Words can be fun! The more one knows about words, the better one's writing and speaking will be. A series of "reforms" in public education - combined with the numbing effect of television - have resulted in a generation of young people who know half as many words as their grandparents did. Recovery can be fun, though. Scrabble, crossword puzzles, and the newspaper jumble are good places to start.

The web site Wordsmith.Org provides several ways to have fun with words, including a daily vocabulary e-mail and a highly addictive anagram server. Playing with anagrams builds critical thinking and vocabulary. Some fun examples from the site:

Visit the page and anagram your own name!

Listening to your writing

Once you have written an essay, read it aloud. Read it to a mirror, to a house mate, or to your pet. This will expose certain awkward constructions that you might miss when reading silently. Better yet, have somebody else read the work aloud to you, because as the writer you might read what you intended to write, rather than what you actually wrote.

This method only works to the extent that your ear is "tuned" to good writing. Keep in mind that what is acceptable in spoken English is not necessarily good written form.

Consider these tips for building your vocabulary, courtesy of the Scripps Howard News Service:

When writing, always choose the simple word you are sure you know over the fancy word you think you know, or check a dictionary carefully to be sure you are using the word properly.

Word Processing

If you are using a word processor, learn how to use it to its fullest advantage. A word processor is not a glorified typewriter; modern programs include a variety of features that can actually help you improve your writing. These include outlining (see above), grammar checking, and tools to assess the grade level (complexity) of your writing style. Formatting features such as single- versus double-spacing, bullet lists, headings, and pagination can make your work easier to read and more professional-looking.

Word processing programs allow the user to format titles properly (italics, not underlining), to present chemical notation properly (CO2, not CO2), and to present exponents properly (km2, not km2).

Most word processors include on-line help and tutorials. Information services at Bridgewater provides students with free training in Microsoft Word.


Please double-space your papers, even if you write them by hand. This gives whoever is reading the paper an opportunity to make corrections or suggestions. Extended quotes, bullet lists, and bibliographies should be single-spaced.

More Help

The Writing Handbook is an online resource provided by the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin. It provides detailed guidance on the use of several of the major style formats, including APA, MLA, and Chicago. I am currently looking for online resources for the special format used by AAG. Meanwhile, I encourage my students to use any style, as long as it is used consistently. Of the styles listed in the Writing Handbook, the APA style is closest to AAG.
Grammar Lady Dr. Mary Bruder, who writes a newspaper column about good grammar, also maintains a web site. I especially recommend her "tips" page, which lists pairs of commonly confused words, such as adverse and averse, prostate and prostrate, and many others.

Grammar Hotline. You can call 1-800-279-9708 (Mon.- Fri.. 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time) to ask questions about grammar.

To check the usage of a specific word or phrase, see Paul Brians' Common Errors in English page.

Return to my Not-the-13th-Grade page.
Any questions? Contact me at jhayesboh@bridgew.edu.
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Bridgewater State College
Revised: January 20, 2005