Jeffry C. Davis: Ten Ways to Improve Your Paper

Some suggestions on how to improve your paper…even after you think it is already perfect.


1. Write a creative but relevant title that suggests what the paper is about.

2. Make sure you begin your paper with an effective phatic device—a sentence that grabs the reader’s attention—such as a rhetorical question, a provocative quote, a shocking statement, a pithy aphorism, a witty saying, or something engaging.

3. Make sure your thesis is strategically placed within the first page or two, usually at the end of an early paragraph, and also make sure it is restricted (realistically it addresses an issue that can be proven adequately within the space of the paper), unified (that it primarily focuses on one main idea), and precise (it steers away from vague or misleading language).

4. Be sure that each of your paragraphs is well developed, possessing a topic sentence (usually placed at the beginning of each paragraph, though not always) that directs the content with unity, and transitions that enhance the coherence. Keep in mind that in academic writing, short paragraphs are rare. If you are going to err, err on the side of developing too much (via examples, quotations, facts, or explanation), rather than too little. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that development equals redundancy. Development is expansion of thought toward clarity, whereas redundancy is repetition of thought toward boredom.

5. As a rule of thumb, avoid dropping a quotation into a paragraph without following it up with interpretive commentary. Don’t assume that things are obvious to the reader, even if they are to you. Quotations deserve your reflection and connection to the argument.

6. Go back through your paper and circle all of the verbs of being (is, was, were…). Next, try to replace them with more vibrant verbs that express your thoughts more vividly to the reader. (Remember, a strong verb seldom needs an adverb.)

7. Go back through your paper and circle all of the nouns that are abstract or less than precise. Next, try to replace them with more concrete nouns. (Remember, a strong noun is less likely to require an adjective.)

8. Look for places in your paper where you make a generalization or assert your opinion. Do you follow with specific support? Is the reader given enough reason to agree with your perspective? If not, even a sentence can greatly improve things.

9. Conclusions are tricky, and there is no formula for bringing a close to your essay. Keep these things in mind: a) you don’t want to raise new issues or concerns that will not be resolved; and b) you don’t want to leave the reader hanging with unanswered questions. Sometimes it is best to write three different conclusions, and then choose the best one.

10. How do you know when you should stop writing an essay? When your thesis has been properly supported and a potential reader is convinced that your assertions have been sufficiently proven with textual evidence and rational explanation. Page length is no guarantee that a writer has done this. A thoughtful peer evaluator is the best help here.

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