Write well

Writing to Learn, Learning to Write

Despite what anyone might have told you, WRITING IS HARD. It’s laborious, frustrating, detail-oriented, and can only be learned by doing more and more of it. However, the good news is that because writing is not a innate, natural gift granted to a select few, we can all learn to write and to write better.

Your ability to communicate effectively in written form comprises a large portion of your success in the class. You are expected to put together engaged and well-written assignments. All written assignments (including blogs and digital writing assignments) should be professional and well-organized, make a clear and compelling argument, contain a thesis statement, use textual evidence and exposition, and include both in-text parenthetical citations and a works cited list (following MLA format).

MLA Format: All assignments must use Modern Language Association format. Sources:

Penn’s Writing Center

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Writing Resources

Some things to get you started

For every assignment you write, create an original title. This title should be descriptive of your argument, and should not be the name of the text you’re writing on or the title of the assignment

  • i.e.: “Final Paper,” “Blog Post 1,” and “History of Sexuality” are not your titles—they were created by your professor and Michel Foucault. Create your own.

When mentioning a text for the first time, use the author’s full name and the full title of the work. This will help orient your reader and avoid confusion. Even when referring to course readings, you are writing for a public audience who has not necessarily read the texts you reference or been part of our class discussions. Help them understand what you’re talking about. Examples:

  • Vague/confusing: The article says that gender, sexuality and race were defined through one another in 1890s U.S. law and medicine. (which article? by whom?)
  • Clear: In “Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body,” Siobhan Somerville argues that gender, sexuality, and race were defined through one another in 1890s U.S. law and medicine.

Avoid universalizing claims such as “women throughout history have done X”, “people think X”, “people of color are always described as X”, “the gay community thinks X,” and “we all know that…”. Not only are these statements false, they are impossible to defend, and make your argument weaker.

  • Stick with historically and culturally specific, detailed statements and arguments that you are able to support with textual evidence—i.e.: “In the novel Set This House in Order, author Matt Ruff demonstrates that in 20th century U.S. literature, gender and disability are co-constitutive of one another in the following ways: X, Y, Z.”

Related to #2, DO NOT claim things about “society.” “Society” is not an actor. “Society” does not do things, think things, or believe things. Pick another subject that is more specific and contextual. If you’re referring to a group of people, say which group. If you’re referring to a social/political institution or discourse, name it. In other words, WHO are you referring to?

  • Incorrect: “American society thinks feminist ideas are bad”
  • Better: “Dominant U.S. media (or medical, academic, educational, legal, military, religious, etc.) discourses often portray feminism as outdated, irrelevant, or unnecessary”

Avoid colloquial language and clichés when you write—they are distracting and read as unprofessional. The exception to this is when you are directly quoting someone.

An argument is crucial. An argument, otherwise known as a thesis statement, is what a paper should defend. Arguments should be creative, textually grounded, and defendable (this is what differentiates them from opinions). This means that an argument should be a claim that a reader is capable of disagreeing with—for instance, “Text X is a good book”, “Author Y is the worst author ever”, “sexuality is irrelevant,” and “gender is important” are not arguments because they are not claiming something that one would disagree with or be able to prove/disprove in this class. An argument means that you have a stake in what you are claiming and you genuinely care about convincing your reader of your point, which you demonstrate by using specific textual evidence (not your opinions).

  • An opinion: “Sexuality is a private matter” (or “sexuality is a public matter”)
  • An argument: “U.S. immigration policies have used sexuality as a way to regulate citizenship over the course of the 20th century and, conversely, immigration law has been a key site for the regulation of sexuality. This can be seen in the following three laws: X, Y, and Z.”

Please define all your terms, even terms that you might use in everyday language. Part of what scholarly work does is try to de-naturalize and historicize terms and concepts that have become taken for granted. Following this tradition, you should define what you mean by each new term (i.e.: social construction, hegemony, power, nation, etc.). This also enables you to head off some potential mis-readings, as you are telling your reader exactly which definition YOU are using and thus which definition your argument pertains to.

Follow all formatting guidelines listed on your syllabus about margins, spacing, font, and citations. These are basically free points–you may as well grab them.

Revise, revise, revise. Great papers are made (not born), and are never first drafts. Your first draft is merely the raw material for your multiple, subsequent revisions. It is in the revisions that the labor (and success) of writing happens.  PROOFREADING IS NOT REVISING. Proofreading involves spellchecking (double-check your computer’s version of this), grammar checking, and quotation checking. In contrast, revision involves reorganizing the paper, shifting sections around to make sure your argument flows, making sure your argument is defended, and rethinking how you might use your sources. Revision creates a different paper; proofreading merely cleans up the old draft. Both are necessary.

Peer-reviewed scholarly sources v. others: Check out this video on what constitutes a peer-reviewed scholarly source. As it explains, websites are not considered scholarly sources. While you may cite and analyze websites, films, and other media in this course—indeed, these can be extremely useful and exciting texts—these forms of media are distinct from scholarly sources.

Common Writing Mistakes

Collapsing sex, gender, and sexuality

  • “Female”, “woman”, and “feminine” are not interchangeable. Not all women are female, not all females are feminine, and not all feminine people are women. The same goes for “male,” “man,” and “masculine.”
  • “Intersex” is a sex category, not a gender or sexuality category. “Transgender” is a gender category. “Queer” is a sexuality category (although some also use it as a gender category).
  • For more on this, revisit the notes you took on the second day of class.

Mixed tenses

  • Make sure your verb tenses are consistent. If you are describing a historical event, all your verbs should be in past tense. If you are describing someone’s argument or text, use present tense, regardless of when the text was written. (e.g.: “In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud introduces the death drive, and argues for its centrality in sexual life.”)

Subject/verb agreement

  • Pair singular nouns with singular verbs, and plural nouns with plural verbs.

Dangling modifiers and misplaced participles

  • Make sure your modifying phrase agrees with your subject.
  • Incorrect (dangling modifier): I opened the door in my pajamas. (the door was wearing your pajamas?)
  • Correct: I was wearing my pajamas when I opened the door.
  • Incorrect (misplaced participle): Being weather-damaged and badly infested with termites, I was able to buy the house at a low price. (You were weather-damaged and infested? That sounds terrible!)
  • Correct: Because the house was weather-damaged and badly infested with termites, I was able to buy it at a low price.

The “build off of” problem

  • You don’t “build off of” things—you “build on” them

Informality/unprofessional writing

  • Different realms of life come with different language conventions and styles. Professional writing should look and sound different than the writing you may do on IM, Facebook, or Twitter.
  • Incorrect: It’s real cool that Butler goes thru an explanation of gender performativity—I mean, I never understood it before. LOL!

Past tense confusion

  • The past tense is formed with “to have”, not “of”.
  • Incorrect: I should of proofread my paper.
  • Correct: I should have proofread my paper.

Last note: writing is a skill to be honed over many years. Everyone can improve their writing abilities. While writing can seem difficult, it is important to keep in mind that the ability to communicate effectively in written form is one of the most important skills you will ever learn, and will be useful in any type of career, any field, and most everyday situations (in other words, it is not just authors and academics who need to learn to write well). Happy writing!

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