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To Quote or Not To Quote?

by Morgan Mallory

Quoting, in a sense, is the easiest part of writing a paper: someone else already did the writing! Deciding what to quote, however, can often be a challenge for writers. Then again, deciding what to paraphrase—what not to quote—is an equally important skill. How do you choose what to quote, what to paraphrase, how it all fits in with your argument? Is there a minimum or maximum number of quotes a good paragraph should have?

There are no hard-and-fast rules about what to quote, when to quote, and how much to quote. However, for the majority of the analytical writing you will do at Harvard, I have designed a few simple guidelines about when to quote. I have based these rules on my experience as a History concentrator, so note that my rules might work better for someone in the humanities than someone in the sciences.


1. Quote what you cannot paraphrase effectively.
For most details you cite in a paper, you should paraphrase (succinctly rephrase it in your own words). Paraphrasing is an essential and often underutilized tool that every writer must embrace. If you can say it just as well yourself, paraphrase! Note that you must still cite everything that you paraphrase. Never waste space with an unnecessary quote.

If you can’t paraphrase it, then quote it. If there are specific words in your source that are essential to your analysis (in other words, something that you “close read” to tease out the meaning; or in history, lines from a primary source that you wish to analyze as evidence), then by all means quote! Or, if you are bringing in the argument of another scholar, it can be good to quote their main argument in their own words before engaging with it.

2. Quote only what you wish to analyze.
A quote should always be analyzed. A quote is evidence for your argument, but never assume your reader (or grader) will understand why the quote is good evidence; you must explain how or why it supports your argument. Never leave a quote dangling. As a rule of thumb, do not end paragraphs with quotes, because this usually means the quote has not been analyzed. Again, assume the meaning of the quote and its relevance is unclear to the reader, even if it seems like the most obvious connection in the world to you.

A note on block quotes: watch out! Do not abuse the block quote. A block quote may only be justified if the entire thing is then analyzed. If a good portion of your block quote is not analysis material, you should narrow it down to the most important parts and quote just those parts.

3. Your voice, not the voices of others.
There is no exact amount of quotes that should be in a body paragraph. The number of quotes varies from paragraph to paragraph, and from discipline to discipline. English papers, for instance, tend to quote more than psychology papers since they are often rooted in analysis of texts. The important thing to remember is that your voice should always be stronger than any other voices represented in your paper. Then, use your words to set up the necessary context (through paraphrasing), to analyze, and to transition from paragraph to paragraph.


The Nuclear Option: How to Write a Paper the Night Before It’s Due

by Sam Berman-Cooper

We’ve all been in this situation. 7pm. Paper due tomorrow at noon. No draft. No outline. No time machine. What do you do, what do you do?

Have no fear! Here are a few Quick Tips you can follow to avert disaster.

1. Ask yourself: Have I done the reading? If your answer is “no” go on to step 2. If you answer is “yes,” ask yourself “what are 4 or 5 interesting facts about the reading? If you cannot produce said facts, you answered incorrectly. You may have “done” the reading, but in practice, you may as well have not. Go on to step 2. If you are confident in your mastery of the necessary reading, ask yourself “do I have a good idea to write about?” If your answer is “no,” go to step 3. If your answer is “yes,” go on to step 4.

2. Accept the fact that you are not going to hand in your paper on time. Accept that this is not the end of the world. Email your TF (or whoever is grading your paper) and tell him/her that your paper will be late and you have no valid excuse. Without notification, he/she will be confused as to where your paper is, and probably more irritated than if you had been upfront about it. Go on to step 3.

3. Go over your readings with a pen or a highlighter. Figuring out an idea to write about should be your first priority as you read. Take your time and think carefully about the authors’ arguments. There is no such thing as a good paper without a good idea. Once you’ve decided what you want to argue, go on to step 4.

4. To quote the immortal Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic. You’ve done the readings and you have an idea. It may be that you can still get a good grade. Even if you can’t, just think how many assignments you are going to do here in four years. One average grade won’t kill you (or your chances of making mad bank).

5. DO NOT plagiarize. Let me repeat that. DO NOT even consider plagiarizing. You will get caught. You will get Ad-Boarded. It will go on your record. You will regret it.

6. Figure out exactly how much time you have between NOW and the time your paper is due. Do not try to work straight through. You will get less and less efficient (and worse and worse at writing) if you refuse to take breaks.

7. Figure out what kind of essay you are writing (lens essay, research paper, etc.) and Check THE WRITING CENTER BLOG for templates. For example, check out Emily’s post for tips on how to write a good lens essay.

8. Quickly create a schedule to accommodate your personal writing process. I like to make very detailed outlines and spend less time drafting and revising. If I have 12 hours to do a close-reading paper (critical analysis of one source or one author), my schedule might look like this:

a. Midnight-1:00am: Use a Writing Center Blog Post to help create a very loose outline – just a vague thesis, ideas for topic sentences, 3- 5 body paragraphs, and possibly a conclusion.

b. 1:00-2:30am: Close-read/re-read relevant parts of the text to find quotes/evidence and flesh out each body paragraph. Add each quote (with its page number/source) to the outline.

c. 2:30-3:00am: Take a break. Get some food, maybe do some jumping jacks. In the short term, 15-20 minutes of exercise is proven to be more effective for waking you up than a 15-20 minute powernap.

d. 3:00-3:45am: Write a thesis statement and introduction. This is the most important part of your essay, so take your time.

e. 3:45-7:00am: SLEEP!!! I cannot stress this part enough. You will have a much clearer mind and work much better and much faster if you get some sleep cycles in.

Check out this page on typical sleep cycles to help you plan your nap. Deep Sleep and REM sleep are particularly important for processing information and feeling alert and energetic when you wake up. If you set your alarm to go off during DEEP SLEEP (stages 3+4) you will probably feel groggy (and not much better at writing) when you wake up. Try to get a least one full cycle (3 hours) and time your naps to not wake up during periods of Deep Sleep.

f. 7:00-7:30am: Shower/eat. Showering will help you wake up, plus it will give you time to think about what you want to say. Don’t go without food. Your mind is a machine, and it needs fuel!

g. 7:30-10:00am: Write your body paragraphs. Follow your outline as closely as possible. This is GO TIME, when the heart of your essay comes to life. You should feel a little pressure at this point, but that’s a good thing – it will make you work faster. As long as your outline includes all the evidence you need, the real work is done. Now you’re just translating bullet points into sentences.

h. 10:00-10:15am: Another break. Stop thinking for a little while. You will feel better.

i. 10:15-11:00am: Write a conclusion and start re-reading/revising. Keep your eyes out for sentences that seem unclear, points that need a little more evidence, spelling and grammar; any problem that can be solved with a quick fix.

j. 11:00-Noon: Final revision. Double-check all your sources and look for carelessly placed words and grammatical errors. Save, print, staple. You have successfully completed an essay in 12 hours. After class, pass out for as long as possible!

Interview with Matthew Kaiser

The Writing Center recently had the opportunity to discuss student writing with Assistant Professor of English Matthew Kaiser. This spring, Professor Kaiser teaches the very popular English 156: Crime and Horror in Victorian Literature as well as the seminar English 90tv: Adventures with Robert Louis Stevenson. Below is a transcript of our conversation.

Q: What is the most common mistake you see in student writing? 

Professor Kaiser (K): I would say that there are several mistakes that students make. The biggest mistake is not a technical one, or even an experience one, something that beginning writers make more often than advanced writers. I think it’s more of a temperamental mistake, and that is, I think a lot of students think of writing as a form of self-expression – and it’s not. It’s more a form of communication. And writing – good writing, at any rate – should be aimed at an audience. The audience should be the primary concern of the writer. The point of the writing is not to tap into the truth of the writer him or herself, and to find some sort of inner sense of intellectual satisfaction that is put in words – it’s actually totally aimed at convincing someone else to change his or her view, and is as a result a service that is aimed at another person. I think when people get stuck in their own heads and they see writing as, you know, about exploring their own psyches and trying to figure out what they themselves really think – that’s where they start to feel locked in, claustrophobic and trapped in their own brains. And so it’s actually a, sort of, selfless temperament, I think – a temperament that is expansive and outward, that results in the best kind of writing.

Q: Related to that, what is one thing you wish to see students do more often in their writing? 

K: In terms of how they might go about writing for an audience?

Q: Yeah. 

K: Well, one exercise I have my students do to help them get outside their own heads and to think of writing as a service that you do for an audience, for someone else, to put the audience before themselves, and their own, sort of, needs to self-express, is I have all my students – and this is an exercise I do in my small seminars – I have all my students write down on a little piece of paper the argument that they’re planning on making in their first paper – you know, the general thesis that they’re planning on sticking with. And, they write it down on a little piece of paper. I tell them to fold up the pieces of paper and put it in a bowl, and then I pass the bowl around and I ask everyone to pick out a piece of paper. They pick it out, and I tell them, “That’s your new thesis.” So, they’re stuck with someone else’s thesis. And, as a result, they have no ego invested whatsoever in that idea; instead, their goal is to serve that idea, and to convince an audience as best they can that that is the right approach to the text or to the assignment question, even if they themselves don’t believe it. And it actually results in some fantastic papers, even though everyone is scared and nervous at first when they receive this foreign thesis, which they’re forced to believe themselves. And it’s great – it actually prepares them for thinking outside their own heads. Essentially, the glory of writing the paper results in doing justice by someone else’s idea instead of one’s own idea. I think it frees students.

So my advice for students who are struggling to come up with a thesis is to put some distance between themselves and the paper. If they feel bold enough, one thing they could do is to argue the exact opposite of what they think the case is, almost as a debater might in a debating exercise. There’s a, sort of, ironic distance that gives you from the ideas, from the text, that is actually an intellectual distance, and an invaluable critical distance, so you can, sort of, force yourself to do that kind of exercise by making arguments that you don’t necessarily believe for the sake of trying to convince an audience.

Q: That’s a very interesting suggestion. We try to in the Writing Center have the tutor articulate the opposite of an argument as a test to see if the student’s actually making an argument, and I think it’s an interesting suggestion to encourage the student to actually argue the opposite as well.

K: Especially if the students are planning to go to law school, or go into advertising; that’s what they’re going to be spending their lives doing – making cases that they don’t necessarily believe in themselves. Because that’s what writing is – it’s rhetoric. It’s the use of language in order to trigger a certain response in a reader. And oftentimes, students don’t even think about their readers. Painful writing is writing that is audience-less.

Q: In the Writing Center we’ve had discussions about how professors have complained to us that they want students to make more original and risky arguments – that students are making arguments that are too safe for the topic – but a lot of the students that come to us feel that these risks don’t often pay off if they try to go a little bit beyond what might be the safe argument. Is there a suggestion you have for a student who might be trying to make a more risky argument or a more original argument to mitigate that risk?

K: Well, that’s a good question. I suppose the best way to avoid making a risky argument that collapses on you is to be incredibly precise about providing evidence. I think the riskier arguments, when they don’t work, are the arguments that fail to provide evidence in support of the risky claims. The risky claims are actually quite exciting to read about. You’re very invested in the student’s counterintuitive impulses. You admire the student for saying something that is superficially or at first blush outrageous or bracingly counterintuitive. But what ends up happening page two, page three, the student isn’t proving the point. It’s sort of risk for the sake of risk. So I would encourage the student to spend time plotting out exactly how that risky argument is going to be made with textual evidence. Textual evidence is something that is not super exciting, from a writer’s perspective, to gather and to plan for, but if you’re making a risky argument, it actually makes the act of finding textual evidence more interesting. That would be my suggestion. When I see student papers that say something that seems outrageous, but which, you’re rooting for as a reader because it’s exciting, I always feel frustrated when the student isn’t able to provide a certain amount of comfort, analytical comfort, in the form of substantiation, by the end.

Q: I’m going to go a little Oprah here on you, but what was your “aha moment” for your own writing?

K: When I realized how writing works, in other words?

Q: Yeah.

K: Well, I think all of us are still trying to figure out writing, since it’s organic and alive, so I don’t think any of us have figured it out totally – that’s why we keep writing is to try to get better and improve. But for me, I suppose, a paradigm-shifting moment in my own writing career occurred – I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when this occurred, but it was a shift in psychology – and I realized, not only, that writing is about the audience, as I mentioned before, not about me, and so stepping outside my own brain was one of the means by which I had that, kind of, “aha moment.” But more importantly, I think, I realized that writing is three dimensional – the composition process, that is, is a three dimensional process. It’s like sculpting. It’s not like running a race. It’s not like moving from point A to point B on a piece of paper, you know, a line between two points. It’s more like sculpting something that requires you to walk around it. There’ s no beginning; there’s no end. You don’t write in a straight line. You don’t write from beginning to end. You write almost like you’re putting a puzzle together, a jigsaw puzzle on the table, you know, one piece here, one piece there. You go from paragraph to paragraph. You erase; you take pieces out. It takes a long time. But once you approach it holistically, an essay like that, and you realize that the momentum of the paper, the linearity, the forward movement, is an illusion that is created, and is not actually, you know, a path that you’re following as a writer. It’s a path you create for a reader, in the same way that if you’re designing a city park, you design the city park from afar, thinking about every angle where the trees are and where the ponds are, where the little, you know, groves are. And of course you place paths throughout the park. But the paths are not the thing from which you design the park; it’s something you add afterwards. Once you realize that, I think writing becomes a completely different creature. It becomes a different experience – a different kind of psychology. It takes a long time to do that, but it’s much more satisfying, and you feel like you’re in control of it. You realize that language and sentences are living things – they’re limber, they’re flexible, they’re endlessly malleable. Language is something that serves you as the designer. It’s not something that we serve, slavishly.

Q: My last question is, do you have any book recommendations on writing in particular that you think would help students who are looking to improve their writing in general?

K: Well, I think the best way to become a good writer is actually not to read how-to manuals about how to write, but instead to read good writing. Read literature, even if the literature is fantastical in nature – it’s not the analytical writing that students are trying to learn how to do, you know, instead, it’s a play or it’s poetry, or a novel – still read it. Because those people are people who are professional manipulators of audiences – they know how to use words in order to create emotional and intellectual effects in the brain of a reader. And so just read good writing, as much as you can, any kind of good writing. That’s my advice.

Five Great Places to Write on Campus

by Jesse Ge

1. Boylston Hall: 2nd Floor

If you like the feel of Ticknor Lounge but are often overwhelmed by the student groups that frequently take over the place, the semi-hidden seating area upstairs can be a great place to get some work done.

Like Ticknor, there are plenty of tables, chairs, and power plugs – making it a perfect place to jot down a few thoughts between classes. Or, if you’re in for the long haul, there are also booths with space for you to sprawl your notes out or work with a friend.

To find this gem, take the main stairwell in Boylston to the 2nd floor and walk past the reception desk – or go up the staircase immediately adjacent to the entrance to Ticknor.

2. Widener: Child Memorial Library

Tucked away on the top level of Widener, the Child Memorial Library is a perfect spot for writers looking to leave all distractions behind.

The carpeted room is bright, surrounded by bookshelves, and monitored by a lone librarian. In this hideout, you won’t even be disturbed by the usual library noises of echoing coughs, scraping chairs, and muffled footsteps. If you really want to get away, there’s a secluded poetry room next door. It might even be more tranquil than the “secret” reading room in Widener…

3. CGIS Knafel – Fisher Family Commons

For those of you who prefer a more bustling setting, the Fisher Family Commons in the CGIS Knafel building may be what you’ve been looking for.

Although lunchtime can be downright hectic in the Commons, it becomes much more manageable later in the afternoon and into the evening. Claim a booth (for the power outlets), or type away at a more informal café-style table. The wall of windows and grassy lawn outside are great to stare at as you ponder your next words.

4. Lamont – Lower Levels

Chances are that you’ve worked in Lamont’s larger rooms upstairs, but if you haven’t given the lower levels a shot, check them out – if only for the chairs.

It’s tough enough to make it through an all-nighter – why subject yourself to hours upon hours on a stiff wooden chair or risk dozing off in one of Lamont’s massive armchairs? Venture down to the lower levels and claim a sleek, ergonomic, breathable, and fully adjustable office chair; your back(side) will thank you!

5. Barker Center Café

Have to write, but just not in the literary mood? Find some company (or inspiration) at the Barker Center Café.

Frequented almost exclusively by humanities concentrators, the Barker Center Café has plenty of sunshine, coffee, snacks, and a solid “writing vibe” to get you going. You’ll probably be sitting next to someone getting his or her essay revised by a TF, or maybe a fellow student also suffering from writer’s block. Perhaps the best part about the Café (warning: shameless plug coming…) is that the Writing Center is right downstairs!

These five locations are, of course, only a few of the many great writing spots on campus. This reading period, if you feel yourself dragging yourself through your usual writing routine, try venturing out to these spots, your house library, a local café, or a graduate school library!

Good luck writing!

How to Critique an Author Who's Smarter Than You

by Emily Hogin

As a Social Studies concentrator, I’m often asked to critique some of Western Civilization’s greatest thinkers. This can be an intimidating assignment, but I’ve found that there is an effective way to do it. Some dos and don’ts after the jump.

Don’t Make It Personal You should assume, since the author has spent more time on this topic than you have, that everything that is included and is not included in the text is a deliberate choice. Thus, you should avoid words that suggest otherwise, like “Marx forgets” or “fails to realize.” Phrases like these can sound like a personal attack on the author and are hard or impossible to prove (how do you demonstrate that someone forgot something?). Instead, use words that respect that everything in the text is a choice, like “omits,” “excludes,” or even “ignores.”

Do Interrogate the Strongest Parts of the Text Especially when you’re working with older texts, it can be tempting to go after the anachronistic parts of the argument (For example, you can often find outright racist or sexist comments in older texts that predate the expansion of rights for people of color and women). But I like to remind myself that these texts have endured for a reason – to this day people continue to find parts of these arguments valuable. I think you can get the most out of a text (and make the most interesting argument about the text) if you first suspend your disbelief and read the texts charitably, then look more closely at the strongest, most enduring parts of the argument.

Do Build Your Argument from a Close Reading If you avoid personal attacks and choose to focus on the strongest parts, you might wonder what’s left to make an argument about. You don’t have to criticize the author: one effective argument you can make is to look at a common criticism of the text (perhaps by reading some secondary sources) and then defend the text from that criticism. But if you do want to criticize the text, I suggest that you look for some tension, ambiguity, or conflict to explore through a close reading. After I read a text, here’s how I would go about developing my argument:

1. Start by making a list of the concepts, themes, or terms that are important to the author’s argument. Good terms to explore are terms that have contested definitions, like “democracy,” “liberty,” “harm,” “rationalization,” or “morality.”

2. Make a table with these words at the top, and re-read the text for moments when these concepts come up. Write out the relevant quotes (with page numbers) under the term. 

3. Once you have a table, look closely at the quotes for each term and ask critical questions: Is the author using this term consistently every time, or does the author use the term to mean different things at different times? Does the author’s use of a term depend on some assumption that the author never identifies? Does the author describe a term as opposed to something it doesn’t necessarily have to be opposed to?

4. Once you have some observations from the close reading table, pick one term and ask yourself how that observation might change or affect your reading/understanding of the text. The consequences you find don’t have to undermine completely the author’s own argument; it’s unlikely (but not impossible) that you’ll be able to do that to an author who’s smarter than you. Instead, you can find some unresolved tension in the argument or something small that casts doubt on a particular sub-argument. This is your thesis.

5. Start writing! At this point you have a thesis (step 4) and the evidence for your thesis from your close reading (step 3). Writing should be the easy part. Good luck!

Interview with David Zarefsky

The Writing Center recently had the opportunity to sit down with David Zarefsky, Visiting Professor of English (Northwestern University). Professor Zarefsky teaches two courses this semester, English 174: The Rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln, and English 175: Great American Speeches and Speakers. Below is the transcript of our interview.

 Q: You just retired from Northwestern?

Professor Zarefsky (Z): That’s right.

Q: And you’re visiting Harvard to help us incorporate rhetoric and public speaking into our curriculum better, right?

Z: Well, to explore whether that’s something that Harvard would like to do, and if so, what are some of the possible ways to do it, and along the way teaching a couple of courses that attempt to illustrate how it might be done.

Q: So my first question is, what is rhetoric?

Z: Well, that’s the hardest question of all, of course. People have struggled with the definition of rhetoric for twenty-five hundred years, and there are all different ways to go about answering it. I think the simple definition that makes sense to me is it’s the study of the ways in which messages influence people, so that what’s fundamental to it is the relationship between a message, a text, a discourse, and audiences who understand it, respond to it, create it – and that’s, sort of, the central concern: the relationship between messages and audiences.

Q: What is the relationship between rhetorical skills and writing skills?

Z: Well, you can think of writing as a subset of rhetoric in that you deploy a certain set of skills when you write, just as you can think of speaking as a subset of rhetoric, or some kinds of visual representation as subsets of rhetoric. So if you see writing as a subset of rhetoric, well, you would say that the skills are rhetorical skills. But we usually think of rhetorical skills as centering around argument and narrative; so they’re skills of presenting a clear argument, presenting claims and the reasons for them, and skills in telling a story, and seeing how things fit together to make an evolving narrative. Now there are all kinds of other writing skills, of course – the skills of poetry, the skills of creative writing  – and those are not foreign to rhetoric, but it’s usually not what we think about centrally when we think about rhetorical skills.

Q: One of the classes you teach is on great American speeches and speakers – what rhetorical themes do you think are uniquely American, or what is the place of rhetoric in American history in particular?

Z: I think the thing that if not unique is at least highlighted about American history is that oratory has played a larger role than it has in the history of some other countries – that, in a sense we were an oral culture before we were a literate culture, and oratory was thought about as the kind of literature of the masses, as opposed to the literature of high culture. So we didn’t start off with the assumption that oratory was somehow a weaker form of literature; we didn’t start off with the assumption that there was something vulgar about oratory. It was the primary means of public discourse from the earliest years of the country, and it continues to play a prominent role – so, I think that makes it a little bit different.

Now there’s also an argument to be made that rhetoric and oratory have an especially large role to play in societies that are created as republics or as democracies, because there’s the need for space in which to deliberate about public matters, and that’s done through public argument and public exchange. In a sense you could say that monarchies or other kinds of societies don’t have the same fundamental need for rhetoric that a republic or a democracy does, and in fact have developed the rhetorical sensitivity more recently for other kinds of reasons. Now, you can push that too far – there’s a long British rhetorical tradition, for instance, that goes back much further than America’s – but there is a certain kind of republican, little-“r”, or democratic, little-“d”, cast to rhetoric and oratory that probably explains why it’s played a larger role in the history of the United States.

 Q: Moving more specifically to writing, in general, what is the most common mistake you see in student writing for your classes?

Z: Well I have to say the student writing I’ve seen in my classes this spring has in general been very good, but where there’ve been mistakes, and, sort of, across all the writing I’ve read, I think the most common mistake is un-clarity about what the argument is that the writer is trying to make, so that it becomes very hard to extract from the paper, what’s the claim here? What’s the thesis that the writing is trying to develop?

And if you can do that, then it’s not clear how the development is proceeding – how the paper adds up to support for the thesis or the claim that’s been advanced.

Q: I’m glad you said that, because that is something we work with specifically in the Writing Center, so that’s a good plug for the Writing Center. What do you wish students would do more often in their writing?

Z: Well, sort of the flip of what I just said – to be clear and to the point, and have a claim that is understandable. I guess the thing that goes beyond that, then, is a claim that is interesting in a way that it states something new or it takes a new point of view on something, or it doesn’t simply repeat what is already known – not that there’s no value in that. But I’d like to see more writing where it’s easy the answer the question, “What’s the news here?” Because that becomes writing that’s not just clear, but compelling – that draws the reader in and makes you want to follow along the way the argument is developed.

Q: And if I could go a little Oprah here – what was your own “aha moment” about your own writing?

Z: I had just an outstanding high school English teacher my junior and senior year, and that’s really when I learned to write in an organized and clear fashion. So the “aha moment,” I don’t know that it was one moment, but it was, you know, having questions raised about what does this really mean, and why is this here, and what’s this saying, and being forced to revise and revise and re-write, and sharpen – to the point where I could begin to compose in such a way that I could see pretty clearly how the thing was playing out: how the argument was developing, how the narrative was all fitting into place. I think that’s really when I had the greatest growth in my ability to do that.

Q: And, lastly, are there any books on rhetoric or on writing that you recommend for people who want to follow up on these ideas?

Z: There are loads of ‘em, and it’s hard to know what to single out. I’ve mentioned argument several times, and it’s partly because my own interest is strongly in the study of argumentation in both writing and oral discourse, and partly because I think writing is so central to argument. There are a number of good books on argument that explain parts of the argument, and how one is put together – I’m reluctant to single out one in particular but I guess that would be the kind of book that I would go look for if I were looking for something that would have practical suggestions about how to improve writing.