Category Archives: writing tips

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.

How to begin a novel

Q:  How should a good novel begin, according to writing experts today?

  1. With backstory
  2. With an inciting event

A:  b.  With an inciting event, with action of some kind to grab the reader into the story.  Two hundred, one hundred, even fifty years ago this wasn’t the way writers started novels.  But times have changed, and so have readers who expect writers to grab them into their stories in the opening paragraphs.

Q:  If that’s true, then how should a novel introduce backstory?

  1.  By getting the story underway, pausing to fill in background details, and then resuming the forward action of the story.
  2. By weaving background details into a story as needed without ever pausing.

A:  b.  By weaving background details into a story as they are needed, without stopping or even slowing down the forward action, is the recommended way to include backstory today.

And yet,

This past week I read a novel which received high praise from a news source I respect.  As I turned from page 3 to page 4 to page 13 to page 24, I thought, C’mon, c’mon. When is this story going to take off?  It did around page 35, or so I thought for a couple of pages.  But I was wrong.  The scene described there turned out to be more backstory.  It wasn’t until about page 70 that the action really started.

70 unnecessary pages.  Or at least 70 pages which could have been reduced to two or three pages and tucked into the forward action part of the novel.  If not for the four-star review, I would have stopped reading by page 10. 

Q:  So how did this novel get published with such a laborious beginning?

A:  The author is an established writer with several best sellers, some of which have been turned into TV miniseries.  Editors are reluctant to ask such a writer to cut 35 pages, no matter how slowly they move the novel along.

Q:  What can we learn from this?

  1.  If you are a best-selling author, anything goes.
  2. Even if you are a best-selling author, some reviewers will pan your book if it has a slow, wordy start.
  3. Listen to writing experts and start with an inciting event until you become a best-selling author.

A:  a.  Yes.  b.  Yes.  I went online and found reviewers who liked the book and others who said it could have been improved by eliminating several dozen pages at the beginning.  c.  Yes.  Jump right in if you want to hook your readers.

Rules Hemingway wrote by

Did you watch the new PBS documentary on Ernest Hemingway which premiered on Monday?  If so, you heard Hemingway say “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing” came from the Kansas City Star stylebook. He reported for the Star 1917 to 1918.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.Here are some of those rules:

  • Use short sentences.
  • Use short first paragraphs.
  • Use vigorous English.  [Use active verbs.]
  • Be positive, not negative.
  • Never use old slang.  Slang, to be enjoyable, must be fresh.
  • Watch your sequence of tenses.  [Be consistent.]
  • Don’t split verbs.  [Put adverbs before a verb phrase.]
  • Be careful of the word “also.”  “Also” modifies the word it follows, not the word it precedes.
  • Be careful of the word “only.”  “He only had $10” means that he alone had $10.  “He had only $10” means $10 was all the cash he had.
  • Don’t split infinitives.
  • Avoid using adjectives, especially extravagant ones.
  • Use “none is,” not “none are.”
  • Animals should be referred to with the neuter gender unless the animal is a pet with a name.
  • Break into a long direct quote early in the quote to identify the speaker.
  • Avoid expressions from a foreign language.
  • Collective nouns take singular verbs.

Nine tips I’ve learned from teaching the writing parts of the SAT and ACT

  1. A rewritten phrase or clause with the word “being” in it is almost always wrong. Perplexed student writing
  2. Shorter versions of rewritten grammar are usually the correct answers.  If in doubt, choose the shortest or second shortest answer.
  3. Hard to spot run-on sentences often have a comma in the middle of the sentence followed by a subject pronoun.   The comma needs to be  a period, or a semicolon.  Or you need to put a coordinating conjunction after the comma.
  4. If you have one dash, you need two dashes unless the sentence ends where the second dash would be.
  5. In lists or series, the important words must be the same part of speech such as all nouns, all verbs, all infinitives, or all gerunds.
  6. “It’s” means it is. “Its” means something belongs to it.  Its’ is not a word.
  7. “They’re” means they are. “Their” means something belongs to them.  “There” means over there or that something exists.  All three begin with “the.”  Thier is not a word.
  8. Commas come before coordinating conjunctions, not after unless what follows the conjunction is nonessential information.
  9. Third person singular verbs (the kind you use with “he,” “she,” or “it” as the subject) in the present tense end in an “s.”