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Learn from a senior: Talk to a librarian!

by Max Schulman

An excellent staff of research librarians offers just one of the many opportunities Harvard students don’t take full advantage of. In my four years here I met with a librarian only once, to help me find sources for my thesis research. That forty-minute meeting saved me countless hours of muddling through online portals and search interfaces. I would have done myself an even bigger favor by making use of this excellent resource early and often in my Harvard career. A Harvard librarian can give you advice on how to find and evaluate sources for your topic, how to organize your citations, and whom to ask if you need more guidance. Each department has its own library liaison or research contact who can give you advice specific to your discipline, by email or in person.

Harvard’s library collections and online resources present unparalleled research prospects for nearly any paper topic, but it’s not always clear how best to access this wealth of information. HOLLIS, JSTOR, ProQuest—all this can be confusing if you’re not an expert. Harvard librarians are, and they can answer your questions and point you in the right direction. Whether you’re starting research for a senior thesis or an Expos paper, save yourself some time and trouble. Talk to a librarian.


Tear Down This Wall!

by Max Schulman

I spend most of my time at the Writing Center giving advice on a paper’s structure or clarity of ideas rather than simply proofreading. But if there are persistent stylistic or grammatical errors in a student’s work, I’ll usually point out an example after my more substantive comments.

And of these easily fixed technical and aesthetic issues, the one I see more often than anything else is the dreaded Wall of Text. It often shows up a page or two after the introduction, as the writer dispenses with background information and launches into a series of massive body paragraphs a page and a half in length. It’s great to have long, complex ideas; it’s not so great to unload them in uninterrupted torrents of verbiage.

 What do I do to get rid of This Wall of Text?

 Have someone else read it.

The benefit of having someone else read and critique your work is that it forces you to explain your ideas to someone not immersed in the ideas and subject matter that you’ve had filling your head for so long. This ideal of the intelligent layman reader may be something of an illusion in college courses where your professors write syllabi and assign paper topics. But it’s nevertheless helpful to keep in mind that you’re writing for a reader, not for yourself. And no reader, no matter how enthusiastic and well versed they may be in your subject, will be excited to see page-length blocks of unbroken text.

 Break up your paragraphs.

Paragraph breaks exist for a reason. They help readers keep track of the main points and logical flow of an argument. They can mark the introduction of new ideas or new sections in a paper. A paragraph’s topic sentence naturally draws the reader’s eye and is a great tool to connect your ideas and relate detailed points back to your main thesis. This helps the reader understand your work as a coherent, well-constructed paper rather than an unconnected series of sentences.

 Don’t limit your arguments to a single paragraph, especially if the paragraphs are getting long.

Some student writers seem to think that even the largest and most complicated argument should be fully contained in one paragraph. This is how they end up with gigantic blocks of text stretching from page to page, glazing over eyeballs and scaring off readers. This is an impulse to avoid: you shouldn’t be afraid to partition a point into its constituent sections if necessary. If you create effective transitions with your topic sentences, it will actually make it easier for the reader to follow the thread of your argument once it’s been broken up into more manageable chunks. When your paragraphs start to stretch towards a (double-spaced) page in length, it’s usually a sign that you should check them for natural subdivisions or places where they could be split.

As with anything in writing, these rules are not unbreakable. Some ideas do require more explanation than others and you shouldn’t forcibly split up a paragraph that doesn’t have a natural breakpoint. But more often than not, as a tutor, when I see a Wall of Text I’ll start reaching for my pen to scribble “TOO LONG—BREAK IT UP!”

Vintage Post: The “Lens” Essay

If you are taking Expos this term, you may be writing a “lens” essay right about now. Check out this helpful post from our archives.

Building Bridges Between Your Paragraphs

by Kenneth Mai

Your essay doesn’t flow. Add some transitions.

Those words – along with comments such as “Needs better transitions,” “Where’s the transition?,” or simply “TRANSITION!!!” – plague many a paper that may perhaps otherwise be brilliant.

See, it’s like this. Pretend that the many ideas you’re churning out within a paper are islands in the ocean. (That’s a metaphor! Sometimes metaphors work nicely in papers! ) Some islands are bigger than others. Some are closer to each other, whilst some may seem to be drifting off far away from all the others. Similarly, some ideas are smaller bits a cohesive whole, while others require a bit more effort to reel in. Your task is to  gather these islands into a sort of kingdom that you rule. But in order  to make sure that you have full control over everything, you need to connect the islands to each other. Now, it’s fine that each island isn’t directly connected to every other island, especially when they’re far enough away from each other to not really be related at all. But ultimately you want all the islands connected to make up a unified whole. So what do you do?

You build bridges!

In the context of writing a paper, these bridges are your transitions. You have two ideas that are related— islands that are close enough that you can build a bridge between them—but ultimately distinct. In order to help your readers across that gulf, then, you need to put in a transition.

But what exactly is a transition? Is it one of the sequential words – “first,” “second,” “finally,” etc. – that were the gold standard of midde school writing? Well…perhaps. But you have many more options now.    The kind of transition you use depends on the relationship that you’re trying to build between two ideas, and those relationships can be quite complex.  Transitions can be as short as a word or a couple of words to something as long as a sentence or even an entire paragraph. What’s important isn’t so much the shape of the transition as the underlying connection that is being made.

Here are a few useful types of transitions to keep in mind.

  1. Sequential Transitions: Here, we’re not talking so much about “first, second, third.” Rather, this kind of transition points more towards the ideas that logically follow each other. Words such as “therefore” or “then,”  or phrases like “This indicates that…”, show a relationship between the ideas.  These transitions are used when one idea is the premise on which the next idea depends or when the second idea comes as a deduction from the first.
    Examples: Thus, Therefore, Then; It follows that, This indicates that, This implies that; From this we can see that, What this means is that…
  2. Comparative Transitions: Sometimes, it’s not so much that one idea is derivative of another, but rather that they share some sort of property. This is especially useful when the relationship between the two ideas isn’t obvious. This type of transition is useful in comparative essays (for obvious reasons) but also instrumental when you are using analogies to make a point about some sort of topic (such as talking about islands to make a point about transitions!)
    Examples: Like, Also, Similarly; Just as, In the same vein; This idea can also be seen in…, A similar phenomenon is found in …
  3. Contrastive Transitions: There are times when you’re neither describing premise-conclusion relationships nor looking at similarities, but instead focusing on contrasts: “This author says this, but that author says that.” “This appears to be the case, but in reality, it’s something else.” These transitions are useful not only in compare-and-contrast essays, but also whenever you’re trying to debunk a claim or to show another side of an issue. These words can also help you to move on to an entirely different issue.
    Examples: But, Though, However, Nevertheless/Nonetheless; Then again, On the other hand, At the same time; This ignores, It’s not…but rather, The difference between…and…is that…
  4. Summing Up Transitions: You’ve established an idea and thrown lots of brilliant evidence our way. Now what? In order to make sure your readers won’t miss important information, it’s a good idea provide the quick and dirty version of the ideas you just laid out before introducing your big, final insight.
    Examples: Essentially, Basically, Ultimately; In short, In other words, That is to say; This boils down to, The main point is…

Ultimately, the goal of these tools is to bring a sense of cohesion to your paper by showing the logical progression of your thoughts; they’re signposts telling your reader which bridge to cross and what the two islands linked by that bridge have to do with each other. These signposts ought to be everywhere within your paper, moving your reader between phrases and sentences in addition to paragraphs or larger chunks. Sometimes multiple signposts are needed to guide a reader across the bridge, because of the complex relationship of those two ideas. The primary goal to keep in mind, though, is to make sure your reader has a smooth trip. That’s how you make your paper flow.

In my next post, I’ll offer some examples of transitional sentences and paragraphs.

“Do you know what a reverse outline is?”

By Daniel Gross

When you’re struggling to move forward in a paper, you can always move in reverse. Let’s say you have a draft, but you’re stuck. You’re not sure if the reader can follow each step of your argument. Now could be the time to swing by the Writing Center. But another option is a reverse outline, which is basically what it sounds like––an outline that comes after you’ve drafted an essay.

A reverse outline isn’t written on a separate sheet of paper. Instead, it’s scribbled in the margins of the draft. You write down the key points of your essay next to each paragraph. As you do, you start to see how the argument builds and shifts. It can be a versatile tool to illuminate your thesis, tighten your structure, and make things flow faster than Niagara. Let’s look more closely at what a reverse outline can do for you.

How is a reverse outline different from a regular outline?

Regular outlines are written before essays begin. “I. Introduction and thesis,” you might write, continuing: “II. Contextualize my topic.” Let’s pretend you’re arguing that the United Nations should protect the Arctic giraffe from dangerous oil drilling. Your outlined third paragraph might illustrate the problem you’re addressing by trying to show that the Arctic giraffe is in danger of extinction. Alternately, the third paragraph could show that the UN has a legal mandate to protect endangered species in general (which implies that you’ll later argue that the Arctic giraffe, as an endangered species, also merits protection).

One problem with this sort of outline is that it suggests that your ideas will be fixed before you start writing. But your essay structure can and should shift as you figure out what you’re really saying, which is why some writers don’t find outlines helpful.  If you don’t outline before you write, you’ll still need to figure out if your structure is working. Is the reader following me? Is my structure logical? Does the essay flow?

That’s why we need reverse outlines.

How do I do a reverse outline?

Let’s pretend that based on my regular outline, I write the following three paragraphs after an introduction.

[2] In 1980, the United Nations intervened to protect the Hawaiian camel. Hawaiian camels had long been threatened by intensive pineapple harvests. When the local farmer collective introduced a plan to double their cultivated land, scientists argued that the plan would seriously affect local camel populations. The UN, responding to this news, suspended pineapple expansion through 2020.

[3] The Arctic giraffe lives along the temperate sea coast of Greenland. Thanks to their long necks, they thrive in the shallow waters of the continental shelf. Their heads, adorned with blue fur, rest just above the water to catch migrating fish which swim by.

[4] In the past 5 years, Arctic giraffe populations have fallen drastically. A June 2005 Nature paper,  “Where have all the Arctic giraffes gone?,” raised a note of alarm in the scientific community. Its authors argued that oil drilling was to blame. Because drills produced destructive sound waves in the waters off Greenland, giraffes were adapting their behaviors by lifting their heads fully out of the water. Because these giraffes became significantly more conspicuous to passing fish, the scientists argued, these giraffes lost their main source of food.

Now I have my basic ideas down on paper, and I want to see if they make sense. Time for a reverse outline. We start with paragraph 2. What’s it about? It seems to give us a historical example in which the UN intervened, perhaps as a comparison to the case of the Arctic giraffe. We’ll assume that the introduction and its thesis told us the essay’s central claim––that the UN should protect Arctic giraffe species. With this in mind, we might scribble the following into the margin:

Illustrates historical case of UN species protection

For paragraph 3, we might try:

Introduces background of Arctic giraffe

For paragraph 4, we could write:

Shows that oil drilling may cause population loss

Now that we know the structure of these early paragraphs, we can re-examine the essay for clarity. First, we might ask: does a reader understand why it’s important that we know about the Hawaiian camel? The answer is probably not. Using the note we wrote––illustrates historical case of UN species intervention––we might write a topic sentence that makes the paragraph’s function more obvious, like: “The United Nations has historically protected species endangered by human behavior.” Now readers will understand that the paragraph is establishing precedent for the present case of the Arctic giraffe.

The function of paragraph 3 is more obvious, since it offers general information that relates to the species of interest. A different question is relevant, however: is this the best location for the paragraph? For instance, if this became paragraph 2, readers could be certain that the entire essay focuses on Arctic giraffes. But we’d also notice that the paragraph about Hawaiian camels wouldn’t make sense. As such, we might need to move the paragraph on Hawaiian camels to later in the essay. (Another question that we might want to address: does the reader know why background is important? If not, that might be worth mentioning).

Paragraph 4, finally, shifts the reader’s attention to the particular threat of oil drilling. It seems to lead up to the central claim that the UN should intervene to protect the Arctic giraffe. But does the reader realize the importance of this point? Because the entire argument hinges on the link between drilling and shrinking giraffe populations, we might want to highlight the point. A new topic sentence to start off paragraph 4 could address this, for instance: “Clear evidence has emerged that humans may be harming giraffe populations.” This makes the problem obvious and allows the following paragraph to address it.

What else can I do with a reverse outline?

A reverse outline for a complete essay has other advantages. Perhaps you notice that one paragraph doesn’t make sense in the context of its neighboring paragraphs. This tells you that the paragraph can be eliminated, or needs to be rewritten. Or perhaps two paragraphs have the same function in your reverse outline. Then you could differentiate the two to make sure you aren’t repetitive.

Or you might realize that your thesis and introduction don’t capture the breadth and shape of the essay that follows. Now that you see this, you can revise your opening lines to fit the essay you’re actually writing. In cases like this, you can see the real value of reverse outlines. Not only can they clarify points within paragraphs, they can provide the insights you need to clarify the very core of your argument.

If you won’t do it for the sake of your paper, do it for the Arctic giraffes.

Daniel Gross ’13 is an English concentrator and a public radio enthusiast.

What To Do When You Don't Have A Prompt

One of the most challenging processes in college writing is coming up with a question around which to frame an essay. Often, professors will write up an explicit prompt that students are expected to address—in which case most of the work is done for you. But, other times, especially in the humanities, students are expected to create a unique analytic question to frame their writing. Here’s some advice for how to deal with prompts in the humanities that look like this:

1.      Write a crtitical analysis of one or more thinkers we’ve studied in this class.

2.      Write a 5-7 page paper on  a topic from the first half of the course.

These open-ended questions can leave students feeling like they have no clue where to start. Here I have listed some analytic questions intended to help you use the texts you study in class to find an interesting and contentious paper topic.

What do I think about the texts I’ve encountered?

  • Was the text inspiring, challenging, illuminating, disenchanting, convoluted, radical, reactionary?
  • Did this text change me? If it did, why? If it did not, why not?
  • Did this text remind me of other texts I’ve encountered? Or was it wholly disparate?

What is the context of the text I’ve encountered?

  • In what language was the text originally configured?
  • When was the text created?
  • How does the text make sense of the world? What is its ideology?
  • Who is present in the text? Who is absent? What perspectives are included/excluded?
  • Who is the audience? Who is addressed? Who is not addressed?

What is the author’s role?

  • Does the author work within the confines of language? Does the author destroy language? Does the author reinvent language?
  • Does the author know that the world is round?
  • Is the author clear or tricky? Cynical or optimistic? Dry or elaborate? Serious or ironic? Is the author all of these things at once?
  • Is the author more important than the reader? Is the author less imporant than the reader? Who is resposible for the impact of the text? Who is the artist: the writer or the reader?

What should I write about?

  • How does this text envision Truth, God, Religion, Ethics, Evil, Goodness, Sex, Sexuality, Freedom, Power, Hope, the Future, the Past, the Present, Race, Gender, Class, Poverty, Wealth, Capitalism, War, Peace, Death, Self-consciousness?
  • What are the merits of the text? What are the drawbacks?
  • Do I agree with the secondary literature?
  • How does this text interact with the status quo?
  • Is this text still relevant today?

Is my introduction clear?

  • Do I indicate the texts with which I am working?
  • Do I describe my topic?
  • Do I clearly state the astute observation I am making?
  • Do I clearly state why it is that my astute observation is relevant and relevatory?

Happy thinking and writing!

Writing on the Interwebz — "When You Need that Extra Push"

by Sara Mills

Since the dawn of time students everywhere have had to write things. Most of the time, you begin your paper with phrases like “since the dawn of time,” feel a sense of purpose and self-satisfaction, then realize that there has to be something else after that first sentence. It is usually at this point that you go out for a snack, take a nap, or just stare at your computer in confusion. Why won’t your paper just write itself? And then at that point you remember that you can go on Facebook or watch endless YouTube videos of kittens playing with babies. It is only then, after about four hours have gone by, that you realize that all you have to say for your paper is that you have written a vague introduction. And no one likes a vague introduction.

 “Write or Die” provides a terrifying solution to this problem. As its name suggests in very blunt terms, “Write or Die” is a website that literally scares you into writing. There is a word count meter in the lower right hand corner and a time clock that ticks down in the lower left. Write, it seems to whisper to you. Or die.

I decided that I would try out the site by writing this column. I set my goal at 500 words in ten minutes, and then I was prompted to select what kind of “consequences” I wanted. The options were gentle, normal, kamikaze, and electric shock. I wasn’t able to select the electric shock option—it seemed one had to have special privileges to be electrically shocked into writing. I settled on mere kamikaze, and then selected “evil” as my grace period, which means that I would have very little time to pause and think before I died. 

The site then took me to a page where I could begin writing. I noticed a little disclaimer in the lower right hand corner (under the word count meter) that kindly suggested that I copy and paste anything I should write into a word document so that I wouldn’t lose my work. I shrugged it off, confused about why I would need to back up my work; however, as I paused my writing to think, the screen suddenly turned progressively deeper shades of red and the words I’d written slowly started to disappear. It was as if they were being eaten. My jaw dropped and I felt a cold sweat start to work its way across my body. I began writing furiously, my fingers pounding at the keys. I soon realized that it didn’t quite matter either to the site or to me whether I wrote my column or simply typed in random song lyrics, as long as I was writing something. Then, at the end of the ten minutes, the redness suddenly disappeared. I was free.

What did students do before websites like “Write or Die”? Did they just pressure themselves? Ask their friends to stand over their shoulders with a timer and an eraser? I found myself scrambling to write just about anything so that this website would stop bullying me. Was I really writing anything of use? I suppose the real beauty of this site is that it forces you to write—and writing something is better than writing nothing at all. While you write, your mind makes connections. Every thought, every sentence leads to a new idea. That’s why the first draft of any paper is so important. It is often at the end of your draft that you find an idea worth arguing; it is through the process of getting your thoughts down on paper that you arrive to a final claim. It’s like the verbal equivalent of having an ideas conference at the Writing Center (though the latter is thankfully without penalty of death).

Not everyone can handle this sort of pressure. But at the very least, even if you don’t achieve your word count, Dr. Wicked lets you print out a badge. And everyone likes a badge. So check it out here:

Happy writing!

Sara Mills ‘11 is the head tutor at the Writing Center and concentrates in Classics.

Beyond Expos

by Daniel Gross

Expository Writing is a new type of class for many freshmen entering Harvard. In high school, most of us wrote standard 5-paragraph essays in English and Social Studies, but few took an intensive class dedicated solely to the practice and process of argumentative writing. Understandably, when we arrive on campus, some ask: “What do these essays that we’re supposed to write look like? Where can I find argumentative writing in the real world? When will I use this again?”

 You can’t get around expository writing. Not because it’s required, but because it comes in all kinds of disguises. If you open a newspaper (Google News, these days) you’ll find Expos staring you in the face. We can learn something about how to craft academic arguments – and why we might want to – if we take a look at the well-written editorial below.  We might even think of it as Expos-in-disguise, because it has plenty in common with academic arguments: it’s concise, it builds on itself, it guides the reader the entire way, and it offers legitimate counterarguments.

Knowing how to formulate and take apart these kinds of arguments can help you well outside of your freshman requirements. And that just might make your Expos class a blessing, in its own disguise. Here’s “Advantages for the Advantaged,” an opinion piece written for the Harvard Crimson by Adrienne Lee.

The Harvard campus today is a far cry from what it was 50 or even 20 years ago. With an increasingly diverse student body, a robust financial aid program, the withdrawal of official recognition for final clubs, and a randomized housing system, the College has taken numerous steps to stop privileging the rich and well-connected above other students.

A notable exception to the general trend is Harvard’s relative inertia with regard to giving legacy students preference during the admissions process. Providing an admissions boost to applicants who have a close relative who attended Harvard is, in effect, affirmative action for individuals who already enjoy many advantages—a practice that should be officially discontinued.

While Harvard has traditionally been reticent about the specifics that go into admissions decisions, Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 stated in a 2003 Wall Street Journal article that legacy status is used as a “tie-breaker between comparable candidates” during the admissions process.

Displaying favoritism toward students because of their lineage rather than individual accomplishments or academic achievement runs contrary to the meritocratic values that the College ought to promote. Despite the diversification of Harvard’s alumni pool in recent years, legacy preference still overwhelmingly favors white applicants from wealthy backgrounds, whose relatives have historically enjoyed an edge in admission to the College.

Proponents of legacy admissions point to the utilitarian benefits of admitting the children of alumni. It is said that legacies are more likely to matriculate if accepted, thereby augmenting a school’s yield. Alumni are also thought to be more generous in donating their money, and perhaps their time, to their alma mater if they think those contributions will increase the chances of a son or daughter getting in.

These concerns largely ignore the preponderance of other factors that lead students to choose schools and alumni to give to them. Some students choose to attend Harvard because their parents went there, but many other students choose based on the College’s unrivaled financial aid package or because the Harvard name is attractive enough by itself. Likewise, alumni donate and involve themselves with their alma mater for a wide variety of reasons—perhaps because they believe in Harvard’s mission and core values or because their time at the College was a formative experience in their lives.

Harvard’s really big donors, the ones who underwrite research funds and other initiatives at the College, will likely continue to donate for philanthropic reasons, regardless of legacy preference. Alumni of all economic backgrounds should be encouraged to give back based on the principle of supporting an institution that generally enriches the lives of many students, rather than on the principle that there will be a direct payback for their contributions.

Even if Harvard stops giving legacy preference tomorrow, plenty of highly-qualified legacy applicants will continue to be admitted to the College. Being a child of a Harvard graduate already confers many advantages: The zip code one lives in, the type of school one attends, and the type of academic and college preparation enrichment that one has access to may all directly or indirectly relate to where one’s parents went to school. There is no need to confer an additional advantage to those whom the circumstances of birth have already endowed with plenty.

Leaving out our own opinions on the issue, we can still learn a lot about how to put together a convincing argument by reading this editorial.  In other words, let’s read it like it’s an Expos paper.

So what values do editorials and academic essays share?  Or, to frame the question another way: what does a bespectacled professor reading student papers have in common with a coffee-drinking commuter going through the morning paper? Both:

1. Like what’s easy.

2. Don’t believe everything they hear.

3. Care… a little.


That means two things: say it quickly, and say it simply.  Adrienne gets to her thesis early in the essay, and explicitly – there isn’t a lot of padding to obscure the argument:

Providing an admissions boost to applicants who have a close relative who attended Harvard is, in effect, affirmative action for individuals who already enjoy many advantages – a practice that should be officially discontinued.

Put even more simply: Adrienne thinks legacy admissions should stop.  Similarly, look how easily we can sum up the claim in Paragraph 3: favoritism isn’t meritocratic.  She mentions more precisely why it’s unfair later – because those who benefit from favoritism are often well-off and white – but the important thing is we never lose sight of what her argument is. 

Obvious and explicit claims allow the reader to spend effort thinking about the ideas instead of digging a buried argument out of your words.  It’s hard to lose sight of three or four words.

It costs the Crimson money if Adrienne wastes her words.  An extra word, sentence, or paragraph is space another article lost – and little chunks of time that hundreds of undergrad readers wasted.  Not only that, if you don’t like the article – if it’s imprecise, boring, or too long – you’ll just skip it.

Assume both of these are true of your essays, too.  Redundant words just aren’t worth the extra ink and paper.  And even though a professor won’t toss your paper aside, you’ll know if she wants to.  It’s written in the big fat letter on top.  So make it easy.


The only way to convince a skeptic is to play their game.  Be skeptical of yourself.  If you see a gap in your reasoning, addressing it can strengthen, rather than weaken, your argument. On the other hand, pretending it’s not there will probably undermine your argument.  Notice how much time Adrienne spends on potential objections to her argument (paragraphs 4, 5, and 6).  There are a few main counterarguments here – which (if left ignored) could undermine her argument, but instead (as written) help her.

Here are the ideas she’s disputing:

1. Legacies are more likely than non-legacies to accept admission.

2. Legacy admissions encourage alumni to donate more money.

Adrienne doesn’t buy either of these arguments, and she gives a detailed explanation of why.  First of all, she argues that admitted applicants choose a college for a variety of factors, including financial aid and prestige.  She reasons that if we take into account these factors, the first claim is weakened.  Meanwhile, she also argues that other factors lead alumni to donate, including personal values and appreciation for their educational experiences.  That, in turn, questions the second claim. Finally, she adds an ethical argument to her refutation of the second claim.  She writes: “Alumni of all economic backgrounds should be encouraged to give back based on the principle of supporting an institution that generally enriches the lives of many students, rather than on the principle that there will be a direct paycheck for their contributions.”  Not only are legacy admissions relatively ineffective – as she states above – they’re also not really right.

Adrienne ends her piece with a look at the bigger picture, with another counterargument embedded: ending legacy admissions won’t eliminate a bunch of highly qualified applicants, like some people might think.  It’ll just give advantages to the already advantaged.  This, too, is an argument of principle – and a final plea for why the policy of legacy admissions should end.

Counterarguments don’t always have to be a side-note – in this editorial, they make up just about half of the text.  That may not be typical in your discipline.  But disputing other people’s arguments is a great way to conclude, as Adrienne does – and they’re also a great way to clarify and express your own thesis.  So be skeptical of yourself.


We already know that professors and commuters don’t have a lifetime to read what’s in front of them.  Earlier I said brevity and simplicity are important.  But there’s more to it than that.  How are you going to make your paper worth reading?  

Adrienne makes her piece relevant to her audience.  The current state of Harvard (her introduction) brings her readers, who are mostly Harvard students, into the picture.  She doesn’t have to work too hard in this sense.  Naturally, the topic of admissions into elite schools will interest students who recently experienced that process (though it also forces her to be cautious not to alienate her audience).

Finally, adding an ethical dimension helps to justify why she’s writing at all.  Legacy admissions are going on right under our noses – if it’s unfair, shouldn’t we do something to stop it?

If you’ve got your nose in a newspaper on the T to work, or if you’re a professor spending a Friday night grading papers, you’ve got plenty on your mind.  That’s why it’s crucial that readers figure out why an argument matters.  Make them care.

Daniel Gross ‘13 tutors at the Writing Center.

A Psych Major's Guide to Asking for Extensions

by Zoë Morrison

It’s midterm season. You have a paper due at 8pm on Thursday, but before that you’ve got to get through an exam, attend a meeting you can’t reschedule, and email some vaguely insightful comments on the readings to your TFs before both of your sections— wait a second, is that section presentation you signed up for this week?!

In “Oh S#@!” moments like these, don’t spend your time combing through eBay for a Time-Turner, tempting though that may be. Instead, give yourself a break and ask for an extension on that paper! Follow our handy tips after the jump, and you’ll be one step closer to sanity (and to a better, more thoughtful paper).

Have No Fear

There is nothing to be ashamed of when asking for an extension. Remember that your TFs are hard working students too; they’ve been in your shoes and know what it’s like to be bogged down with work. The worst that can happen is that your TF says no to your request, so it’s worth a try to lighten your load[1]. Whatever your situation, asking for an extension is always better than plagiarism. An extension is not a cop out; your TF will appreciate your honesty and understand that you want to do a better job on your paper than the current deadline allows. Taking an academic shortcut such as recycling an old paper is never a viable solution to a tight deadline and will result in sanctions from the Ad Board—usually a year-long required withdrawal from the College.

Consult the Syllabus

Before composing any email, check your syllabus and/or section handouts to see if they mention a policy on extensions. Most syllabi outline a late policy and will specify whether or not you need to get an extension OK’d by your professor in addition to your TF. Read course handouts thoroughly so that if you have any questions about the assignment, you can address them straight away in your request. This shouldn’t take longer than a couple minutes, and will save you from wasting valuable time later on. Then, follow whatever guidelines are laid out and contact the appropriate people—you’ll get points for following protocol.

Know Thy TF

You’ll want to tailor your request to your TF’s personality. Some TFs are casual while some are quite formal, some will be extremely flexible and others might need some buttering up. However, even if your TF is informal, always be respectful and if in doubt, err on the side of formality, especially if you are communicating directly with a professor! In any case, ask your classmates or check section handouts to remind yourself of your TF’s attitude towards extensions and of his or her e-mail checking habits, and write with your audience in mind—it might not be worth it to ask for an extension the night before if your TF has a “24 hour” rule regarding emails.

Power in Numbers: The Communal Request

Ideally, you will have noticed the impracticality of your due date a week or two in advance, in which case you will likely be able to gather the troops and ask for a course-wide extension along with some of your classmates by voicing your concern to your respective TFs or directly to your professor. In fact, it’s generally a good idea to sit down towards the beginning of the semester and go through all your syllabi, adding due dates to your calendar so that you can see in advance which weeks look particularly gruesome.

The Two-Day Rule

Unfortunately, the need for an extension is rarely discovered so far in advance. Email your TF as soon as you realize you need extra time, but at the very latest send your email two days before the deadline. This will show that you haven’t waited until the very last minute to start thinking about the assignment. This is not to say that asking for an extension the night before is entirely futile, but you will have a better chance if your TF is under the impression that you’ve given the paper more than a day’s consideration.

Honesty (and Quality) is the Best Policy

When it comes to the meat and potatoes of your request, be honest about your reasons for needing an extension. Don’t claim that you’ve suddenly fallen sick if you haven’t—you will likely be required to produce a doctor’s note, and that could lead to trouble. If you did get sick or have a family emergency, by all means say so, but do not cry wolf if it’s not true, and be prepared to back up your claims. On that note, don’t go into too much detail about your personal issues either—your TF doesn’t want to hear about your indigestion. And complete honesty is probably not the best policy if you want an extension in order to go to that awesome themed party on Thursday night. In such a case, I’d have to recommend sacrificing the party for the paper.

Do tell your TF if a lot of work snuck up on you or if you’re suffering from writer’s block[2], and do emphasize your desire to put a good faith effort into your assignment. After all, the main reason you want an extension is to get a better grade on your paper than you would if you wrote it too quickly or turned it in late. Emphasize your desire for quality—that you want your paper to properly reflect all the interesting things you’ve been learning in class—and your TF will appreciate your good intentions.

Follow Through

Make sure to agree upon a new deadline, and to respect it. If your TF seems the generous type, leaving it up to him or her to set a new deadline could be fruitful. If, however, you think you can reasonably get it done by a certain date, go ahead and suggest it in your original email—your TF will see that you are thinking rationally about it. If you really need as much time as you can get and are feeling bold, try the “door in the face” technique, one of psychologist Robert Cialdini’s[3] famous methods of persuasion: ask for a longer extension than you actually expect to get, and then negotiate it down. Chances are that your TF will be willing to grant you an extension that is sizable enough to meet your needs, but that he or she perceives as much smaller and more reasonable compared to your initial request (use this technique only if you’re on good terms with your TF). Once you’re clear on the new deadline, use your newly granted time as best you can, and hand in the paper on time.

[1] If these tips somehow fail to produce an extension, check out our article on the Nuclear Option for tips on writing a paper under a time-crunch.

[2] If writer’s block is your problem, sign up for a conference or come to drop-in hours at the Writing Center and we’ll do our best to help you get the ideas flowing again.

[3] Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984.

Zoë Morrison ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in Psychology.

Grammar: Actions (Part 1)

by Alex McLeese

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” — William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.2

“Action is eloquence.” — William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 3.21


During the writing of this post, mistakes were made. At times, the words were chosen poorly. Activity was eschewed in favor of a creeping passivity. And when this post was finally published, even interested readers were made to doze off at their desks. We can only hope that, by the end of the post, they will have been taught a valuable lesson.

Now, wake up! What were those mistakes, and, most importantly, who made them? Look again at the previous paragraph. Can you find even one mention of a subject that is doing something? No! Who made the mistakes? Who chose the words poorly? Who eschewed activity? Who made readers doze off? Who might teach them a lesson? Well, I did, of course! Like a politician who might likewise admit only that “mistakes were made”—the kind of thing George Orwell hated about political language—I was trying to avoid being held accountable for my errors by omitting any mention of myself.


You might have heard of the active and passive voices from one of those teachers (praise them) who still cover grammar thoroughly. But the issue is less about a fine point of grammar than about effective style. If you write in the active voice more often, your readers will benefit immensely.

William Zinsser is the author of the best-selling book On Writing Well, now in its seventh edition. E. B. White turned his professor William Strunk’s book The Elements of Style into the single most famous American book on writing prose. If you don’t believe me, trust them:

“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.”2

 “Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive…The habitual use of the active voice…makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.3


So just what is this active voice? The following explanation, with a sample sentence adapted for this blog, comes from Joseph Williams’ excellent book Style.

“When you write in the active voice, you typically put:

  1. A character in the subject as the agent of an action.
  2. The goal or receiver of an action in a direct object.

Subject/character/agent         verb/action                 object/goal

                  I                               wrote                      the Expos paper.

Passive voice differs in three ways:

  1. The subject names the goal of the action.
  2. A form of be precedes a verb in its past participle form.
  3. The agent of the action is in a by-phrase or dropped.

Subject/goal                be        +         verb/action     prepositional phrase/character/agent

The Expos paper         was                  written              [by me].”4

 While writing in the active voice is usually best, there are some exceptions. Williams encourages writers to use the passive voice when the agent of an action is self-evident, when it creates a shorter subject, and when it makes a sequence of subjects more coherent.5

 Now that you know what the active voice is, go ahead and correct the first paragraph of this post, and make use of it in your papers!

1Joseph M. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 7th ed. (New York: Longman, 2003), 33.

2William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 7th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 67.

3William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 18.

4Williams, 61.

5Ibid., 75.

Alex McLeese ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in History.