The best way to learn how to write in a discipline—or for any new audience or context—is to study examples of good writing. If you want to emulate good Yale writers, view Model Papers from various disciplines. You should also ask your professors for examples of good writing, and encourage them to send these to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, the suggestions below can help you with writing in any field.
These suggestions combine specific techniques for planning, organizing, and revising your texts with advice about the habits that distinguish experienced from beginning writers. Although they’re written with academic papers in mind, nearly all of these suggestions will also enhance your creative writing and the essays you write for fellowship and graduate school applications.
Begin writing before you’re ready to write a draft. Even students who know about the importance of revising still sometimes wait to write until they have the text planned out in their heads. Instead, use writing throughout the process of working on a text to discover and deepen your ideas. For instance, as soon as you get the assignment: jot down notes about what interests you and what concerns you have. Write while you’re doing the reading and initial research: how does this reading differ from others you’ve looked at? Let yourself write about your beginning ideas without trying to make it sound like an introduction or a real paper. All of these practices harness the power of writing to discover and will allow you to develop richer, more complex ideas.
Get feedback on work in progress. Ask professors or teaching fellows to give feedback on drafts or on an initial thesis/introduction; they can give you the most guided suggestions about how to succeed on an assignment. But don’t just depend on them: see one of the Residential College Writing Tutors, drop by the Writing Partners, or get a friend or roommate to talk to you about what you’ve done so far. Even readers who don’t know the material can help by reporting where your writing is most and least clear, and by giving you a chance to talk about your progress. All professional writers get feedback before publication, often from several different readers.
Make sure your thesis has news in it. A thesis should not be confused with a topic, which represents only the subject area of an essay. Inexperienced writers often make claims that represent superficial interpretations of the relevant evidence. As a result, they use their sources only to illustrate ideas that most informed readers would find uncontroversial. Experienced writers, by contrast, develop what are known as arguable claims—ideas that an intelligent person, looking at the same evidence, might disagree with. One effective way to ensure that your thesis is arguable is to address the counterargument briefly in your essay.
Add analysis and reflection to your sources. If it’s worth quoting, it’s worth discussing. Never assume that your evidence can speak for itself—if it can, why would we read your essay rather than just go to the original source? Always add commentary to ensure that we know which parts of the evidence are most important and how it fits into your larger argument. When working with written evidence, it’s good to observe the rule of two: the writer should supply at least two words of analysis for every word of a citation, and usually more.
Emulate good writing. With your advisor’s help, identify texts that exemplify the best writing in your field. Read these texts to understand how they work, what techniques the writers use for analyzing evidence, paraphrasing theory, representing counter-arguments, even sentence-level techniques such as introducing a quotation with a leading term. Then try to incorporate these strategies into your writing. You can extend this emulation to any text you admire, remembering that some techniques may seem out of place in a particular writing context.