Tips for Writing Well

The following was originally a letter from Dr. Paloutzian to his Psychology of Religion students, but it contains wisdom for all writers and so is printed here.



In the craft of writing, several factors must be taken into account and several sensitivities must be developed so that the final version of the paper communicates what you, the author, intend to communicate in a sharp, tight, yet elegant way. These are listed in no particular order of importance.

1. Keep your audience in mind; know exactly the knowledge level and scope of interest of those who will read your paper. Speak with the appropriate level of technical language while, at the same time, keeping the line of argument clear and simple. In other words, be only as technical as you need to be, no more. Trying to use hyper-technical language, when it is not needed in order to communicate clearly, detracts from rather than adds to the force of your communication.

2. Know precisely the conclusions that you want to state. These are the thoughts that you intend to place inside the reader's mind. State them. These points become the question(s) for the line-of-argument that drives the paper. If you don't know what this is, then don't write. You have nothing to say.

3. Make sure your paper has a clearly identifiable beginning, middle, and end. The beginning should be short, paragraphs rather than pages. In this space, the discussion should go from the sweeping and global to the specific concern of this paper.

4. If your paper requires examples, make them vivid and varied.

5. Picture portions of your argument like a funnel, wide on the top, narrowing on the bottom, and write it that way. Structure your argument to move from the macro (general statements), to the medium, to the more micro (the specific issues addressed).

6. Use transitional sections whose purpose is to state the questions that come out of the "lead" material that precedes it, make them explicit, and then point the reader's attention to how they are going to be answered in what follows.

7. Use transitional paragraphs to form a bridge between the discussion preceding it and that which follows. This helps to integrate portions of the material together and reminds the reader that the answers to the questions driving the paper are based on a synthesis of a broad array of material, not on isolated sets of studies in separate compartments. Learning how to synthesize such material and integrate it around a question and write the argument down clearly—these are among the most important skills you can learn how to perform.

8. Use transitional sentences to link the preceding discussion to a new discussion of very different material that follows. Make it smooth, make it smooth. When in doubt, smooth it out.

9. Keep a sense of rhythm, of flow in your language. Reading your words should be easy and pleasurable, not hard and stiff.

10. Say plainly what you mean, no more, no less. As a rule of thumb, use short words instead of long ones, and use one word in place of several. For example, never say "due to the fact that," say "because." Instead of saying "they interpreted their findings to mean that...," say "they concluded." There should be no unnecessary words, no words that do no work. Keep it sharp, tight, crisp. You get the point.

11. Know your material thoroughly. Each word and each study cited is there because it does a piece of work. If it doesn’t, then cut it; it’s clutter.

12. Don't say "Second" unless you have first said "First." And Never Never Never say "Lastly" (or "Firstly").

13. With respect to style, remember (lovingly): APA all the way.

14. Finally, remember Paloutz's rule-of-writing: For every vision, there is an equal and opposite revision.

Good luck learning the craft of writing.

Dr. P.