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Academic Skills

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Academic Skills

Revising the Whole Paper

Revising Argument, Organization, and Voice

Revision begins by considering the global level of your essay:

  • topic, thesis, and organization
  • the voice you have used to present your ideas
    • Formal tone
    • Use of “I” or first-person singular
    • Use of "you" or second-person
    • Gender-neutral language
    • Active voice
    • Verb tense

Revising Topic, Thesis and Organization

Take a break after you have written your first draft to see and judge the essay as a stranger would.

Print your draft; reading a hard copy of your paper is better than looking at partial views on your computer screen. Digital editing can encourage tinkering rather than addressing global, structural concerns.

First, re-read the assignment instructions and consider the following questions:

  • What is that you were asked to do?
  • Have you fulfilled all of the requirements?
  • Why did you make the choices that you made?

Your reader must be able to identify your focused topic and argument from the introduction. Read your introduction slowly and carefully.

  • Highlight or underline your focused topic, research question, and thesis.
    • Is the topic focused and narrow?
    • Is the thesis of your essay clear, and is it stated precisely?
  • Read the conclusion to ensure it presents a clear, consistent, cohesive message. Frequently, our ideas are clearer as we near the conclusion, so the argument may be more refined in this paragraph. Consider necessary revisions to your introduction based on your conclusion.
  • In one or two sentences, summarize your argument and its purpose. Use this summary to assess the coherence and clarity of your message throughout your paper.

Reverse Outlines

Create a reverse outline from your rough draft by highlighting the main idea in each of your paragraphs. Read over the highlighted sentences. The first sentence should be your thesis. Each subsequent sentence should relate to the thesis and should be presented in logical order.

Use the reverse outline to assess your whole draft.

  • Have you provided sufficient and accurate evidence for each sentence in the reverse outline?
  • Have you explained how each sentence in the reverse outline supports the thesis?
  • Is your essay clearly and logically organized?
  • Are there any gaps or irrelevant ideas that need to be addressed?
  • Have you used transitions to show the relations between the major points you are making?

Ask "So what?"

“So what?” is shorthand for “why is this idea important to understand?” or “what are the implications of this argument?”

  • Ask “so what?” of your essay to assess your argument. Consider how to strengthen your thesis by explaining its significance to the topic or field of study. Use the Thesis Checklist for help.
  • Ask "so what?" at the end of each paragraph. This can help you to see if you are supporting your thesis or simply listing information without making connections. This can also hope you to determine if a sentence or a paragraph is off topic. These two words, "so what?" help you to stay on track in your essay.

Revising Voice

Voice refers to each writer’s recognizable and unique style and tone. Your aim is to revise your voice so that it is consistent in tone and level of formality and conforms to the expectations of university. Generally, assume you are writing for an informed scholarly audience composed of your classmates and your instructor.

Understand the conventions of scholarly discourse and strive to meet them:

  • Formal tone
  • Use of “I” or first-person singular
  • Use of "you" or second-person
  • Gender-neutral language
  • Active voice
  • Verb tense

Level of Formality

An essay needs a formal tone. This means avoiding slang, clichés, and lazy language.  This does not mean you have to write in a fancy, ornamental, wordy way.  Be clear and to the point. Use simple language, as it is the easiest to read.

The Use of “I”

The use "I" (first-person singular) in essays depends on the academic discipline and on the type of assignment. Check with your instructor if you are unsure about the use of “I”.

“I” identifies you as the driving force behind the organization and progression of your paper. The use of “I” helps to convince your reader that you believe strongly in your argument. For example:

“I argue X is mistaken because…”

“X’s view is....However, I will argue that ….”

First-person statements that use “I” should be used in moderation; you shouldn’t start every sentence with “I think” or “I feel.” The use of “I” is preferable to expressions such as “the author of the present paper” or “the current writer.”

The Use of “you”

Avoid the use of "you," which literally means the reader of the essay. It's rare in academic writing to address one's reader. Moreover, students sometimes use "you" when they are generalizing; in that case, use "one" instead. For example:

    "It's rare in academic writing to address one's reader" rather than

    "It's rare in academic writing to address your reader."

Gender-Neutral Language

In order to reduce gender bias in writing, avoid the use of male pronouns (‘he’ or ‘his’) as generic terms to apply to both sexes. For example, it is unacceptable to write, “an effective teacher provides clear feedback to his students” because it uses a gendered pronoun (he) to refer a subject (effective teacher) who could be either male or female.

There is disagreement, however, over whether the pronoun “they” can be used to describe a singular subject. Some disciplines support the use of what is known as an epicene, or gender-neutral, “they” as a singular pronoun. If using the epicene they, one could re-write the sentence above as “an effective teacher provides clear feedback to their students.”

However, not all disciplines support the usage of the epicene they, deeming it too informal or ungrammatical; it is wise to consult disciplinary conventions regarding the use of gender pronouns. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA style) argues that “they” can only be used as a singular pronoun to describe a transgender individual.

Writers who wish to adhere to formal conventions for pronoun reference may wish to make the antecedent plural so the pronoun agrees in number. For example, a write could revise the sentence above to make the subject (effective teacher) plural (effective teachers): Effective teachers provide clear feedback to their students.

Active/Passive Voice

Most instructors agree that students should maintain the active voice in their essays and labs except in circumstances where the passive is more effective. The active voice is less wordy and indirect, but it also forces clearer thinking: the writer must name a subject and say what that subject is doing. The passive voice, on the other hand, allows the actor or doer in a sentence to remain invisible.

Learn how to identify and edit passive voice.

The Historical Present

Instructors generally agree that students should use the “historical present” when describing events in a work of literature (or a film) or when discussing what authors or scholars say about a topic or issue, even when the work of literature is from the past or uses the past tense itself, or the authors and scholars are dead.

Examples of historical present:

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom is a uniformly comedic figure.

Kyi argues that “democracy is the political system through which an empowerment of the people occurs.”

It is considered more accurate to use the present tense in these circumstances because the arguments put forward by scholars, and the characters presented and scenes depicted by novelists, poets, and dramatists continue to live in the present whenever anyone reads them. An added benefit is that many find the use of the historical present tense makes for a more lively style and a stronger voice.