College involves a lot of writing for almost every major. While developing your writing can be a lifelong journey, here are some basic suggestions and strategies you can use to elevate it right away.

Avoid puffed-up language and negative phrasing.

Prefer plain words.

  • Not this: We would anticipate being able to optimize the engine design from an emissions point of view.
  • But this: We can improve the engine design to reduce emissions.

“Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”

  • Negative: Vote for not more than one candidate.
  • Positive:  Vote for one candidate only.

Understand eloquent, flowery, and floofy language.

Eloquent writing, by nature, makes an argument easy to read. In a creative context, eloquent writing leaps off the pages, appealing to all the mental senses to conjure a vivid picture that immerses the reader in what the author has to say. In a more scholarly context, say, a research paper, eloquent writing guides the reader by the hand through a series of potentially esoteric subjects. It allows the reader to focus on the argument the author is making rather than getting lost in complicated jargon. There is rarely a writing situation that cannot benefit from eloquent writing; eloquent writing elevates.

Flowery writing shares some attributes with eloquent writing. It too can conjure mental pictures, it too can appeal to the senses, it too can immerse the reader, albeit not as effectively. Flowery writing is pretty for the sake of being pretty, and it doesn’t necessarily elevate an argument; it can actually obscure the point the author is trying to get across. However, there is certainly a time and place for flowery writing, especially when a bit of obscurity is desired: poems and prophecies are some good examples.

Then there is the type of writing sometimes referred to as “floofy.” In contrast to eloquent and flowery writing, floofy writing has almost no substance at all. Floofy writing dances around an argument without ever really touching it. It’s a tempting method to stretch out a paper in order to hit a page limit, but beware: floofy writing turns the reader in circles, round and round, searching desperately for order, for a guiding argument to follow, until he has read through three pages and is more confused than when he started. Usually, underneath all that floof is a single idea that could be described in just a few sentences.

Use a thesaurus.

When you’re writing a paper, in addition to having all your library research, PDFs, and word documents open on your computer, it’s also a good idea to have a dictionary and a thesaurus open in a separate webpage. I prefer using Google and because they tend to work most efficiently for me, but most online dictionaries will also suffice. Or serve. Or suit. 

Many a research quote begins something like, “The author says…” Why not use “states”? Or “claims”? Or “expresses”? There are so many words with which we can color our writing – take advantage of them! While remaining concise is important, using synonyms allows you to avoid needless repetition in your writing. 

Be sure to use a thesaurus carefully (or attentively or thoughtfully) because certain synonyms might not fit the context of your paper – which is why, right next to your thesaurus tab, you should also have a dictionary tab open. While a thesaurus can give you a list of words that all have roughly the same meaning, it can’t give you the individual connotation of each word. Make sure to choose words that not only add variety to your writing but are also appropriate for your content. Or subject. Or text. 

Take the Writer's Diet test.

Helen Sword is a former Professor of Humanities at the University of Auckland and creator of the Writers Diet Test that "identifies some of the sentence-level grammatical features that most frequently weigh down academic prose."

To use the test, simply copy and paste 100-1,000 words from your paper into the text box. This feedback tool will show if your writing is "fit or flabby."

For further information on how to improve your sentences, visit the Writers Diet website.