MIT: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
ACADEX: MIT Center for Academic Excellence

Effective Writing: The Basics - Planning and Writing

Here are some basic pointers that can help you to write more effectively.

1. Even on essays, university instructors expect students to use and properly cite the sources of their research.

While the simplest assignments are usually based on the reading materials listed in the class syllabus, many also require students to research outside sources. This can be both invigorating and challenging.

Relying solely on Internet acquired materials for your research, can be helpful, but it can also be a challenge to authenticate the sources of the materials. For example, websites like Wikipedia are open source sites and the information contained can be very unreliable; therefore, to verify information from those sources prior to using.

Of all of the possible, non-Internet based sources for information, the MIT Libraries and even the Public Libraries are tops in effective research sources. Librarians in general can be helpful to students who are searching for reliable information and most are also savvy about the Internet. Librarians can assist you at many levels of your writing process and can even help you to locate sources you haven't considered.

See also the Academic Integrity handbook section on Avoiding Plagiarism: Cite Your Source.

2. No matter how simple, how sophisticated, or how specialized the paper you are supposed to write, there are five essentials that can help your writing.

Knowing how to use these skills and how to properly cite your research sources when using them will help you remain clear and convincing in your written accounts and arguments.

The five essential skills are:

A. Summarizing

Summarizing is the skill of shortening the content of an article, a chapter, a book, etc., without losing essential material. A summarization can use the same language used by the original author, but in abbreviated form. When summarizing, remember to cite your source in either footnotes or endnotes in your paper.

B. Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is putting material you read when you are doing your research into your on words. Paraphrasing and to summarizing enable you to comprehend and recall material you read when you are writing your papers and taking your tests. Like summarized material, paraphrased material should be properly documented and cited in footnotes and endnotes.

C. Outlining

The most effective written materials follow logically constructed outlines in order to effectively present the material discussed. This is especially true of papers that are using numerous research sources. In writing a paper, you should be able to summarize, paraphrase, and outline (logically present) the central arguments in the source materials and use that information when writing the assigned papers.

D. Comparing and Contrasting

This is important when the assignment asks you to look at and differentiate between arguments presented by more than one research source on a subject. There are two important things to remember about comparing and contrasting. First, your job is to summarize, paraphrase, and outline the arguments presented by each resource document or presentation. Second, when more than one resource is being discussed, you must present the materials as accurately as possible and with as little evaluation as possible.

For example, if several people speak up on a debate topic, the writer should be able to discuss when people agree and disagree with each other. The writer's point of view isn't important to the comparing and contrasting process.

E. Critiquing

Writers are often expected to not only objectively present the arguments that several authors' present in their articles, books, presentations, etc. but are often asked to present their opinions on the materials being analyzed. It is important to remember that critiques in papers should be offered after the writer has fully described what the people whose works are being analyzed have to say on the subject.

The best way to differentiate between comparing, contrasting, and critiquing is to think about the difference between a report versus a review. For example, a book or movie report is a description of the material or story content in a book or film. On the other hand, a book or movie review is what the reviewer thinks about the book or film.

See also the Academic Integrity handbook section on Academic Writing, which includes advice on Avoiding Plagiarism, Quoting, Paraphrasing, Choosing to Quote or Paraphrase, Summarizing, and the Importance of Good Note Taking.

3. It should be fairly simple to speak with your instructors, TA's, librarians, or others to find out what format you should follow when writing your paper.

In most cases, your professors and recitation instructors will be most knowledgeable about what they expect on the essays, descriptive papers, term papers, lab reports, and theses. Don't hesitate to ask them for examples of work that fit within their expectations. Librarians can suggest texts that can help with format and structure questions.