writing handout

Submitted by Martha M. Umphrey

MM Umphrey



Some basic style rules for good writing



1.  Avoid passive verbs unless you want to use them for rhetorical effect.  Better yet:  enliven your writing with interesting, not just clear, verbs.  For example, “enliven.”


2.  Be sure that any quotation used both supports and forwards the point you mean to illustrate.  Try to avoid quotations that offer only general claims or summaries of another author’s point.


e.g., “ The lack of in-depth jury polls and [its]  susceptibility to persuasive closing arguments make a jury’s decision anything [but] unbiased.  Burns concludes his piece by saying, “Some lawyers, judgets, and commentators agree that the Received View fails to do justice to what occurs in the trial courtroom.”


3.  Be sure you mean what you say – don’t combine two ideas.


            e.g., “Under both direct and cross-examination, the flaws in the Received Theory become more apparent.”  Are the flaws under examination?  No.  A critical set of words has been left out.  Better:  “Flaw s in the Received Theory become more apparent if we analyze the dynamics of direct and cross-examination during the trial.”


4.  Do not begin sentences with “However.”  Better:  “Yet.”


5.  Do not use “this” followed immediately by a verb; specify what “this” you mean to describe by using a real noun.  Otherwise you introduce unnecessary ambiguity.  This bugs me.  I mean the “this”s – or maybe I mean the ambiguity.


6.  Try to use gender-appropriate language.  Switch back and forth between “he” and “she” unless you specifically mean one or the other.


7.  Avoid personification unless you intend to spin out a metaphor. 


            e.g., “This view argues …” – can a view argue?  No; a person argues.


8.  Watch placement of periods/commas/quotation marks.


            e.g., “blah blah blah blah” (Burns, p. 10).

            e.g., “blah blah blah blah,” says Burns.

            e.g., “BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH!” Burns whoops.


9.  Avoid dangling prepositions, which I will make fun of.  Whoops!  … of which I will make fun.


10.  In fact, try to avoid using too many prepositions, period.  Substitute adjectives, or take them out in favor of parenthetical phrases.  This strategy will help prevent wordiness.


            e.g., “The land of nod” becomes “Nod’s land”

            e.g., “Burns discusses many of the aspects of the Received View of the trial” becomes “Burns discusses many aspects of the Received View.”


11.  Avoid adjectives such as “interesting,” “sort of,” “a kind of,” “certain kinds of” – they are all very vague.


12.  Use “such as” rather than “like” unless you are making a comparison.


            e.g., “introducing evidence, like direct testimony, into the courtroom” becomes “introducing evidence such as direct testimony into the courtroom”


13.  Don’t overuse commas, because they can interrupt, the flow of reading, too much.


14.  Make sure subjects and verbs match:  either singular or plural.


15.  Don’t begin papers with stand-alone quotations.


16.  Avoid boring repetitions of the same idea.  They are boring.


17.  Make sure your verb tenses match.


18.  Avoid reification; that is, imagining that an abstract thing can do some act in the world.  For example:  “Law reasons that ….”; but law can’t by itself reason; only legal actors can.



Others?  Add here from my comments on your papers.