Category Archives: writing tips

Three wrong ways to introduce a citation

Suppose you are researching how the novel To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed when it first was published.  You find the July 13, 1960, review by Herbert Mitgang in The New York Times. In the review you find words worth citing.  How do you introduce the citation?  Let’s look at some examples, returning to the image of the hamburger and bun.

[First, you introduce your source, the top bun of the hamburger:]  The New York Times reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird when the book came out.  [Second, you introduce the citation, the hamburger:]  It says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  [Third, you give your opinion why this citation is significant, the bottom bun of the hamburger:]  The Times writer singles out both the novel’s writer and its message.

Now, let’s leave out the bracketed information:  The New York Times reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird when the book came out.  It says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  The Times writer singles out both the novel’s writer and its message.

What’s wrong?  Several things.  First, did The New York Times review Mockingbird or did a person?  If it was a person, the name of that person should be identified.  Second, can you, the research paper writer, identify the date when the review was published?  If so, including that specific information increases the credibility of your source.  And third, since a pronoun needs to have an antecedent, what is the antecedent to “It,” the first word of the second sentence?  There is none.

Better:  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  Mitgang says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

Suppose we keep the “better” citation with one change:  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  Here it is.  Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

Here what is?  The last noun in the previous sentence is “novel.”  Yet “Here it is” does not refer to the novel.  “Here it is” refers to the review.  “Here it is” is a poor transition from the upper bun of the hamburger to the hamburger itself.

Let’s try again with another change.  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  The quote is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

The word “The” before the word “quote” indicates a particular quotation.  Yet no particular quotation is mentioned in the previous sentence.  “The quote” refers back to nothing.  An improvement would be, “A quote from that review” but even that improvement is not as good as naming the person doing the quoting.

When you are introducing a direct quote,

  • Introduce the quotation with the name of the person or organization responsible for the quote. For example, The US Congress passed an act which says, “. . .”
  • Identify additional details to put the quote in context. Such details could be a date, a place, or the context (a war, an election, a first novel, after the passage of 30 years).
  • Don’t use “It says” unless “it” has been identified and “it” identifies who is responsible for the quote. Even then, your writing is better if you remove the pronoun “it” and use the noun.
  • Don’t use “The quote is” unless you have already identified the quote in some way. Even then, use more specific language, usually naming the source of the quote, for a better transition.

How to write narrative essays

Narrative essays are short stories, real or imagined.  Like novels, they follow a pattern of beginning, middle, and end, or in academic terms, inciting event, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

But how do you begin?  This is the question I am asked more than any other by my students.  My answer is the same as for an expository or persuasive essay.  You begin with a written plan.

I have students write the word “beginning” near the top of the page, “middle” about a third of the way down, and “end” a bit up from the bottom (on notebook paper or on a blank page on the computer—it doesn’t matter).

Next to “beginning” I have students write “setting” and draw a sideways V like this:  <.  Extending from the top arm of the <, I ask students to write the place where the story takes place.  Next to the bottom arm of the <, I ask students to write the time of day/season or some other words to indicate when the story is taking place.  For example, these words could be “the first day of middle school,” or “when I broke five ribs.”  I ask students to start by identifying the setting because this is what readers look for when they start to read a narrative.  They want to know if they are reading about the French Revolution or life on Mars one thousand years into the future.  Knowing the setting orients readers.  It should be noted in the first paragraph or two of a narrative.

Continuing under “beginning,” I ask students to identify in a column the characters who will be in the story.  Sometimes this means names and sometimes this means positions or relationships such as “the doctor” or “the hit-and-run driver.”  Next to each character, name the character’s role such as protagonist, antagonist, foil, mentor, sage, trouble-maker or any roles that make sense.  Also list character traits and emotions to emphasize for each important character.

Readers want to identify and get in the head of the most important character, the focal character.  They want to emotionally feel what that character feels.  So decide who that character is.  Usually, it is the protagonist.

Identify the theme you want to show.  In other kinds of essays, the “theme” is called the main idea or the thesis.  In narratives you should be able to state the theme in a sentence such as “Doing something hard in public takes courage” or “Dogs can be exasperating.”  The theme is what you want to emphasize in your narrative.

In a column under “middle,” list the events or incidents that will happen in the story in the sequence in which they will happen.  Usually, this sequence is chronological order.  Any other kind of sequence such as jumping back and forth in time will make your narrative difficult to follow.  I find using bullets is a good way to list, especially if you are using a computer that allows you to cut and paste to reorder information.

You want the “middle” to be long enough so you can identify details to use—maybe 15 lines.  If the “middle” is too short, you haven’t thought your plot through enough.  If it is longer than 15 lines, you need to cut back.  A good finished narrative length is about three pages of text, double spaced, in 12-point type (1000 words).  Many teachers won’t read more unless your writing is exceptional.

Under “end,” write “climax.”  Identify what happens at the climax.  This is where the theme is most evident, where you do that thing in public that is so hard or where that exasperating dog forces you to take action.  At the climax, readers should feel strong emotion.  So should you as you write and reread your climax.

If you have introduced details left unexplained, do that quickly.  Then write your ending.  What is most important is that the ending is satisfying to the reader.  Satisfying is not the same as positive.  Not all endings are happy.  Even when the ending doesn’t turn out as the protagonist hopes, that character still comes away a different person, someone who has grown through the experience.  Make sure your protagonist shows growth and that growth is connected to your theme.

Applying to college? Use this 14-point checklist before submitting your essays

Checklist for college application essays

  • Identify when you need to submit your essay.   Write the due date on a Post-it Note and paste it to each application.  Write the dates on your calendars. 
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to write your essay or to submit it.  Internet service conks out.  You get sick.  Submitting early gives admission people more time to consider your application.  It also shows you are organized and punctual.
  • Understand the prompts.  Read and reread them until you are sure what is required of you.
  • Choose topics or incidents that are personal, that only you can write about.  The admissions people want to learn about you, not some generic high school senior.
  • Use specific verbs.  Your main verbs (not helping verbs) should be vivid.  Avoid these verbs as main verbs:  be, have, do, go, make, take, come, get, and see.  Replace them with specific verbs.
  • Write beginnings, middles and ends.  Treat these short essays as narratives and apply the characteristics of narratives.
  • Use details.  Use direct quotes.  Use colors, smells, sounds and textures.  Use names, dates, and places—not “my friend” but “my friend, Jenny.”
  • Vary your vocabulary, sentence structure, sentence openings.   Check the words you start sentences with.  Vary them.  Check the lengths of your sentences.  Check the kinds of sentences you use.  Vary them.  Check your vocabulary.  If you needlessly repeat words, vary them.
  • Revise, revise, revise.  Okay writing becomes great by rewriting.  Walk away from your essay and then come back an hour later, or better yet, three days later.
  • Read your essay aloud.  You will hear mistakes that you don’t see.
  • If something sounds odd, search for a grammar mistake.  Common grammar mistakes are run-on sentences, unintentional fragments, lack of parallel structure, improper use of pronouns, redundancy, lack of subject-verb agreement, and verb tense problems.
  • Be concise.  Good writing is short writing.  Every word and every sentence should be needed. 
  • Use proper postage and ask the Post Office clerk to stamp the date on the stamps.  If you post online, ask for confirmation.
  • Now move on to the next application. 

The application process can be arduous.  If you feel stressed, then exercise, sleep more and work on a distracting hobby.  Millions of adults have survived their senior years, and you will too.

Is it okay to use “I” in student writing?

Never use “I” in essays.

Never start a sentence with “because.”

Paragraphs must have at least five sentences.

Never start a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “so.”

“Were you taught these rules in school, as I was?  If so, it might surprise you that many teachers no longer enforce them or even support them.  Let’s look at one of these rules, “Never use I,” to see why the consensus is changing.

Using “I” can eliminate the passive voice.  Without “I,” you might need to use the passive voice (another no-no) as in “The essay was written by this writer.”  Isn’t “I wrote the essay” clearer? 

Using “I” can shorten your writing.  Concise writing is usually clearer and preferred.

Using “I” can eliminate awkward referrals to yourself.   I have read interviews by a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer who refers to himself in his books not as “I” but as “this interviewer” or “this writer.”  He seems to go out of his way not to use “I.”  He is trying to make himself inconspicuous in the text. Wouldn’t the word “I” do that better than “this interviewer”?

Using “I” can give your writing the authority of a witness, of a primary source.  If you are part of a group you are writing about, then you should be up-front about that.  Not using “I” can seem disingenuous. And if you were there to see and hear what happened, doesn’t that make your writing more believable?

However, writing “I think” is rarely justified.  If you are the writer, then obviously the thoughts are yours.  Since “I think” can sometimes mean “I am not absolutely sure,” using “I think” can undermine the strength of your writing. This is especially true if you add “I think” after making a statement. “Yes, officer, I saw the red car rear end the blue car. I think.”

Some teachers or editors follow the old rules religiously, so students should ask about using “I” before composing.  Or when appropriate, check a style book.  Use an up-to-date one though.  The rules of English, like all languages in use, change.

How to incorporate direct quotations into text

Incorporating direct quotes into their own writing can be difficult for students.  They may not have read the kind of writing—academic, scientific—which routinely uses direct quotes, so they are unfamiliar with this type writing.  And they may not have been taught it explicitly—with lessons, examples, and practice.

If so, where should a teacher begin to teach how to incorporate quotations?

One way is with the image of a hamburger in a bun.  The hamburger stands for the direct quote, and the top and bottom buns stand for the “before” and “after” information that is also needed.

The top part of the bun is where you introduce the direct quote by explaining who the quote comes from and why the quote is worth quoting.  

For example, suppose you write about democracy, and you want to quote Abraham Lincoln’s definition.  You could introduce your quote by writing, “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy in his Gettysburg Address as. . .”

The hamburger part of the image is the direct quote itself: “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”  You don’t need to quote a whole sentence—just the part which meets your needs.  You might need to rewrite your introductory information to make it work grammatically with your quote.  You don’t introduce the quotation by saying, “It says,” or “Here it is,” or “The quote is.”

For example, you don’t say, “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy.  He said, ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’”  This example is not good because the writer does not transition into Lincoln’s quote.  A better way is, “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy.  He said democracy is ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’”  Even better is using the word “as” to replace “He said democracy is.”  One word instead of four.

The bottom part of the bun is your understanding of the quote and why you consider it relevant.  A good example is “This definition is deceptively simple yet eloquent.”

The finished quotation is “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy in his Gettysburg Address as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’  This definition is deceptively simple yet eloquent.”

To recap:

  • To use a direct quotation, you must put it in context by identifying who made the direct quote and why it is relevant in the context you are using it.
  • The transition from your introductory information to the quotation must use correct grammar.
  • Sometimes words of the direct quote must be left out or changed slightly (for example, from singular to plural, from one verb tense to another, from one pronoun to another).
  • Any change in the direct quote must be shown either with ellipses or with brackets.
  • If several changes must be made, paraphrasing might be a better alternative.