At this time of year, students are receiving back papers from professors with various forms of the same advice: “Please get help for your writing.”
Well, if your campus has a fine writing centre, then you can pretty easily do that. Or if you have a favourite professor who is willing to go over your work sentence by sentence, then you’ll advance quickly.
Many students, however, don’t have access to excellent tutors. And even if you do, most improvement has to come from you consulting guidebooks and learning from them. So here are some basic suggestions:
For correctness—everything from punctuation to footnotes to page set-up to capitalization: The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). You can buy a big hardcover edition or you can subscribe online annually. You can also buy a much cheaper version: Kate Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Ms. Turabian was the dissertation secretary for years at The University of Chicago, and her book is a reduction of the CMOS. (These are books to keep handy for reference.)
To be sure, if you’re majoring in the social sciences, you might want to learn the American Psychological Association (APA) style instead. And if you’re in Biblical studies, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) style. But Chicago style is the most widely used style in North American formal writing, so that’s why we default to it.
(And, as a Chicago alum who abominates all things crimson, here is a rude gesture toward the needless and eccentric “Harvard style.”)
For improving your style: For becoming a more fluent and lucid writer (what most of us mean by “style”), read William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style. This is a little book that packs a big punch. It’s a little dated by now, of course, but every page has advice that will make you a better writer. (Read this book a few pages at a time, picking one thing to work on. Then read it again in a year or so, and pick new ones.)
For thinking through a writing project in the most efficient way, read Sanford Kaye, Writing under Pressure. You will write everything from emails to multi-volume encyclopedias better because of this strategic way of approaching any writing opportunity. (It’s a very good book to read over the Christmas break or over the summer.)
And for a treatment of research generally—a book that you can read all the way through or just pick a chapter from time to time for consultation—get Wayne C. Booth, et al., The Craft of Research.
No one is just naturally a “good writer.” Some people like writing more than others, yes, but some of those people aren’t good writers! Other people find writing hard, and yet some of those people become excellent writers. We all learn by reading good writing, paying attention to why it seems so good, and then by consulting guides like these to improve our skills. So now you know—or, at least, you could!