I just finished teaching an undergraduate class called Academic Writing at Tsinghua. One semester, pass/fail, about 10 students. The last assignment was list six things you’ve learned. Combining the answers, I came up with this:
1. Don’t tell readers what they already know. This came up a lot when I discussed how to write a personal statement. “Your university has an excellent program in X” — no, don’t say that.
2. To make your writing moving, focus on your own thoughts and emotions. Moving = evoking emotion. Evoking emotion was enormously important, I said.
3. Use simple words and sentences (don’t show off). As one student put it, “Received the blames from one class, changed all my GRE words into understandable words.”
4. Give examples.
5. Avoid boasting (say “I like X”, don’t say “I am good at X”).
6. Do not write about things that are “too big”.
7. Have clear connections between sentences. We spent several classes on the various ways adjacent sentences can be related.
8. Say things that are honest and true. In contrast to what you think your reader wants to hear. A friend asked for advice on her personal statement for a graduate school application. She sent me a revised version. I thought the unrevised more honest version was better.
9. Begin with something interesting.
I asked which of these lessons they already knew. The consensus answer was #1 (don’t tell readers what they already know) and #4 (give examples). Their personal statements flagrantly violated #1. One student said they had learned it, yes, but needed to be reminded.
1. Copy someone’s writing you admire.
2. Imagine your audience. Are they busy? Curious?
3. Write as you speak.
4. Revise after a period of time. Like a month.
Another of Jon’s lessons was use punctuation sparingly. An editor told him, “Using an exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”