The Importance of Writing Well:

A Justification and How-to Guide


Paige Johnson Tan



A Justification


Good writing and critical thinking are the two most important skills with which you can leave a liberal arts education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW).  The ins-and-outs of Chinese politics or decision-making theory may not last beyond the final exam in this class (alas!), but solid writing and strong analysis will serve you well for the rest of your life.  This handout deals with the importance of writing well.


The ability to represent yourself well on paper will help you secure a job after you leave UNCW, as you will be more attentive to the importance of the quality of the presentation of your written work (like a resume and cover letter).  How you write says a lot about you as a person, and recruiters know this.  It is not just what is on the paper that distinguishes one resume from another in a competitive job market.   Presentation, clarity, and professionalism can help distinguish you from the pack.  Further, in the workplace, good writers are highly prized (because so few people can write well).  Writing well, thus, opens the door to advancement in almost any field you might choose in the future. 


For these reasons, assignments in this course are designed to help you improve your writing.  Therefore, we will spend time in class on activities, such as proofreading and answering sample essay questions, to help you write better.  I will also invest my time in commenting extensively on the written assignments I receive.  I look at commenting on papers as a chance to "talk" to you about your assignment.  I do not see my comments as criticism in a vacuum.  We can all (I include myself) improve our writing.  I hope that you will use my comments to improve your subsequent assignments.  I will note particular problems in your writing and expect to see problems in areas identified in my comments improved.


A How-to Guide


There are differences between a research paper, a memo, and an answer on an essay exam; however, they all share certain common features.  They go somewhere; they argue something; they have a direction.  Additionally, outlining the main points before beginning to write can drastically improve the final product. 


The Title

The title of your paper should suggest not just the topic of the paper but also the thrust of the argument, if possible.  An essay of longer than three pages should probably have a title, or covering, page.  This should include, at a minimum, the title of the paper, your name, the course name and number, my name, and date of submission.


The Opening

A good paper should have an opening that is interesting to the reader. Is there something intriguing that you can use to grab your reader’s attention and focus it on the question to be considered?


The Thesis and Outline of Argument—Still in the Introductory Section

After the opening, the paper should have a thesis statement which succinctly encapsulates the main argument of the essay (this may be a how or why answer, a policy recommendation, or an opinion). 


Importantly, after the thesis statement, the paper should then tell the reader how the author intends to demonstrate his or her argument or justify the opinion or recommendation asserted.  This is important, and it is a step that many budding authors forget.  This step prepares the reader for the structure of the essay to follow.


The Body

In the body of the paper, the author should make points in support of the thesis.  It is important after each point to link back to the thesis and tell the reader why you have told her the foregoing.  This helps to discipline you.  If you cannot figure out how a point relates to your thesis, chances are your reader will not be able to either.  You might need to re-think. 


In addition to linking back to your thesis, try to provide the reader with transition sentences to connect the flow of ideas in the body of the essay.  Transition sentences do not have to be included in the first draft you write, but they should be there in the final product.  Go back and write them in later. 


Lastly, in a longer paper, consider section headings to keep your points analytically distinct.  This is a great service to the reader (though some professors do not care for them, so check).  Again, section headings help to discipline you, the writer, as you will only be able to talk about relevant information that fits under the heading you have given.


The Conclusion

Generally, no new information (in the sense of “data”) should be presented in the conclusion.  Rather, the conclusion should re-state the thesis and show the reader how it has been demonstrated by what came in the body of the paper.  Sometimes, authors use the conclusion to consider "big issues" presented by the problem under consideration. 



Political Science papers typically use both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include government documents, political party statements, and political leaders' speeches.  Using primary source information (data that has not been pre-digested by another analyst) can really enrich your paper and help you produce stronger work.  Secondary sources include journal articles, newspaper pieces, and books.  Books and journal articles should form the bulk of sources for your research for a paper in Political Science.  For some very current topics, newspaper articles and government websites may be your strongest sources.  Be sure to be a critical consumer of all the sources on which you rely.  Just because something is on the web or in a book does not make it "the truth."  Please note that Wikipedia is not a valid source.  Do not cite Wikipedia, Geocities, About or similar sources.


Finally, do not let the sources you find drive the content of your paper. Just because you found something while doing your research does not mean it should be included in the final paper.  Use only what you need to make your argument (to demonstrate your thesis).


Check my webpage on "Good Sources" to find further suggestions.



Knowing your audience is a critical issue because the level of the audience helps to determine the types of information you need to include in your paper to get your points across to the reader.  Keep in mind that you are not writing papers for an audience of one, the professor.  Your paper should be geared toward the interested and intelligent layperson (by layperson, I mean someone who is not a political scientist).  Also, do not assume that your reader has read any particular reading that was assigned to you.  You must introduce readings to which you make reference such that the interested and intelligent layperson can follow along with your argument.  In this vein, be sure to put quotations in context for your reader.


Where to Get Help

Common Problems

Please be aware of the following in order to proofread your papers effectively.  Each problem below begins with an abbreviation.  These abbreviations, if found on your returned essays, should refer you back to the writing well handout and to the problem indicated.


1) S-V.  Subject-verb agreement. Subjects and verbs must agree in number.  Make sure you use a plural verb form with a plural subject and a singular verb form with a singular subject.  (They do, and she does.)

2) PRO.  Pronouns must agree in number with the noun to which they are referring.  Check!  When referring to a country, government, or a political party, the proper pronoun is “it,” not “they.”  This applies even to the United States (which was often referred to as “they” before the Civil War).  British usage on pronouns varies slightly.  Please follow US practice.

3) LIST.  Lists should be made up of parallel parts of speech: answering, doodling, and crying (all “-ing” verb forms); pen, pencil, crayon (all nouns).

4) X CONT.  Try not to use contractions in formal writing.  Its=belonging to it (not “it’s,” which means it is).

5) E/AFFECT.  Effect is a noun.  Affect is a verb (exception: to effect change).

6) TENSE.  Verb tenses should be consistent within paragraphs. Do not jump from present to past and back again. 

7) VARY.  Vary sentence structure and word choice. Do not use all subject-verb-direct object sentences. Sometimes begin sentences with prepositional phrases or adverbs of time to change things.  Try to avoid using the same word repeatedly. The thesaurus is your friend! has a free online thesaurus.

8) END PREP.  Try not to end a sentence with a preposition (to, with, from, at, etc.)

9) COMMA.  As you read your paper aloud (and you should!), notice where your voice pauses. That is a candidate location for a comma.  Commas are often helpful after introductory phrases using prepositions (After taking office, she), infinitives (To improve the class, I), and gerunds (Using the computer for the first time, Dave).

10) ABA.  Watch sweeping generalizations.  Can you support what you are asserting?  ABA stands for argument by assertion.  ABA means that you are putting something forward without demonstrating it in a logical, persuasive fashion to your reader.

11) ACRONYM.  Define acronyms the first time you use them.  University of North Carolina, Wilmington (UNCW).  Define even obvious acronyms (UN, IMF).

12) PARA.  Paragraphs that run on too long suggest poor organization.  Make sure your paragraphs are tight and focused on a specific point.

13) M-D.  The “em-dash” (--) has become increasingly common as a way of setting apart subordinate clauses and phrases.  Use it correctly.  It is made up of two hyphens/dashes, not one.

14) POSS.  Watch out for possessives.  Use the "of the" test.  If you could put "of the" between two words, you probably need an apostrophe.  The students' answers (the answers of the students). 

15) HYPHEN.  When making adjectives out of a series of words, use hyphens (less-than-stellar performance, high-flying candidate).

16) CLQ.  Avoid being overly colloquial when writing (I just felt, f*%# this assignment).

17) CANNOT.  Cannot is one word!

18) ADDRESS.  Set off persons being addressed with commas (Please, Sir, may I have another?).

19) ITAL.  Italicize foreign words and phrases.

20) WR #.  Write out numbers under 10 unless to do so would be awkward.  Starting a sentence with a number means you have to write it out.

21) US$.  When writing out amounts of money in the millions and billions of dollars, the correct form is US$# million/billion.  When figures are presented in a currency other than US dollars, a contemporary conversion to US dollars or another international benchmark currency should be provided.

22) LONG Q.  Quotations of longer than forty words should be set apart from the normal text by being single-spaced and double-indented.  Double indentation means one indentation to the left and one to the right (In Word, use format, paragraph).  If you follow this format, quotation marks are unnecessary.

23) Q in Q.  Quotation marks inside a quotation work as follows.  "Start of quotation 'Q in Q' rest of quotation."

24) RUN ON and INCOMP.  Two variants of the same issue: ungrammatical sentences.  Run-on sentences (RUN ON) have too many subjects and verbs without proper use of conjunctions.  Incomplete sentences (INCOMP) are missing either a subject or a verb; often these are fragments beginning with "which" or "because" and should actually be part of the preceding sentence.

25) NJWeb.  Not just a website address.  See information on footnoting below.

26) WC. If you find WC on your returned paper, something is wrong with the word(s) you have chosen.  Perhaps the meaning is not as you intended or you have not used the right language for the field.

27) COMMA APP.  Use a comma or commas to set off an appositive, a noun or phrase that re-names a noun.  Dr. Tan, a professor at the local university, will be attending the gathering.

28) S-CIRCLE. A claim or fact that should be attributed in a footnote.

Student Affairs has produced another list of paper do's and don'ts that you should take a look at:

A great site from a professor at Washington State University:  When in doubt about something, check this  helpful list of common errors of English usage.



Academic honesty means correctly citing the work of others when you borrow words or ideas.  That means citing all ideas that are not original to you.  In this class, students are required to learn the American Political Science Association's (APSA) standard of citation.  Please see this webpage from Texas A&M University on the APSA rules for APSA citations.  The full APSA style manual is available at


For this class and others, please keep in mind the following:

1) You have to provide enough information in your citation to enable the reader to evaluate the source (a website address is not good enough).  That means at a minimum author, title, source, and date must be included. 

2) You must provide the reader with enough information to find the resource for him or herself. 

3) Whatever form of notes you choose in future, be perfectly consistent and proofread to catch errors in presentation. 

4) Note that no matter what mix of capitals and small letters an author uses in his or her title, we always use correct title case to refer to these works in our notes and bibliography. 

5) Parenthetical notes should always be inside the sentence to which they refer.  Quotations should be closed before the note information.  Degrassi argues "The sky is blue" (Schoenfeld 1987, 45).

6) Parenthetical notes should never have web addresses in them.


Additionally, all formal writing which required research should be accompanied by a “Works Cited” page.  Typically, “Works Cited” pages include only those works specifically referenced in the paper. 


Last Thoughts

On presentation of your work, use a standard-size font (11 preferred) and standard one-inch margins.


Also, In order to improve your writing, you need to be a critical reader first.  Read newspapers, magazines, and books. Ask yourself whether the authors write well.  Note sentence constructions and vocabulary that are interesting to you.  Try to apply creatively the things you like in your own writing.  Over a lifetime, this exercise can help to make you a better writer.



Revised December 13, 2012.

Author: Paige Tan,

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