A Blog of Writing Resources from The University of Scranton's Writing Center

Category: General Writing Tips (Page 2 of 4)

Commas and Colons and Semicolons, Oh My!

By Danielle DePasquale


In an effort to craft properly paced sentences, it can be tricky deciding which punctuation marks to use. We use periods, question marks, and exclamation marks in our writing without hesitation, as we are aware of the grammatical implications and emphasis they contribute. But, when it comes to commas, colons, and semicolons, we are often unsure. So, what is the difference between using a comma, colon, and semicolon? Over the past few years, this has been a frequently asked question during writing center appointments. While these marks are close in proximity on the keyboard and similar in appearance, each have a different role when formulating sentences. Let’s start with commas. Commas serve many purposes, but they most commonly function as pauses within a sentence. When writing, I often read my sentences aloud and put commas where I naturally take breaks when reading. Ultimately, their use or omission is up to the discretion of the writer. However, as in most principles, I advise against over or under use. I also wanted to make a quick mention of the Oxford comma, as this is another FAQ. When listing items or ideas, some may choose to use the Oxford comma, which is the last comma in the list. However, it is a more of a style choice. My recommendation is that if you choose to use the Oxford comma, just ensure that it is placed in the correct part of the sentence. The next debate is the use of a colon versus a semicolon. To put it simply, colons are used to introduce as statement. I like to think of a colon as an equal sign, as it precedes the announcement of an idea or quotation. In contrast, a semicolon connects two separate sentences that are related. The trick with using a semicolon is to ensure that each idea on either side of the semicolon reads as a full sentence. For more information, I provided a link with some examples of correct and incorrect uses of each punctuation mark in the hopes of making the differences clearer. Using such punctuation accurately will only enhance one’s writing sophistication and clarity.

When to Use a Semicolon vs Colon, Comma, and Em Dash (; : , —)


Rough Drafts

by Josh Vituszynski

I spent this past intercession on just about the last thing any right-minded student would want to do over break. I wrote an 80 page paper. You might ask, why did I imprison myself to the harsh confines of Microsoft Word during what should have been a month of freedom? Because I am working on a research project, and I spent the fall semester not only brainstorming, but also second guessing myself and my ideas. I continually hesitated to put words on the page because I was worried that I would not be able to handle writing a paper of such a large length. Going into the winter break, I knew I had to get a first draft together before the spring semester began. So, I decided to stop ruminating over my writing abilities and committed myself to writing what I needed to write. I decided that I needed to stop worrying so much about whether I was happy with the initial product. After all, who is totally happy with a first draft? If writing a paper is like shooting darts, and that final draft is the bullseye, then the first draft is target practice. Sure, it might be humbling to take those first few shots and nearly miss the target entirely, but most people cannot experience the gratification of hitting that tiny mark in the middle of the target without taking those first missed shots. Thus, over break, I swallowed my pride and wrote away. Some sections of the project seemed likes bullseyes from the get-go. Others, not so much. Nonetheless, I am far closer to a finished product with this current draft, rough patches and all. From this experience, I learned that writing requires the humility to dive in and work away, knowing that failure, setbacks, and struggle are ahead, but that these are all part of the uneven road toward what will eventually become a product worthy of pride.

All the Citation Resources You Need in One Place

Resources for APA (American Psychological Association) Format:

APA Quick Guide

The OWL at Purdue

Video Tutorials on creating APA Citations 

Video Tutorial on Page Set-up in MS Word

APA Student Checklist

Student & Professional Sample Papers:

  1. Sample Papers from APA Style 
  2. Sample Papers from The OWL at Purdue

Downloadable Template: 

  1. APA Downloadable Template for MS Word without Text
  2. APA Downloadable Template for MS Word with Sample Text 

Resources for MLA (Modern Language Association) Format:

MLA Quick Guide

The OWL at Purdue

Video Tutorials on MLA Citations

Interactive Practice Building MLA Citations

Student & Professional Sample Papers:

  1. Sample Papers from MLA Style 
  2. Sample Papers from The OWL at Purdue

Downloadable Template:

  1. MLA Downloadable Template for MS Word

Resources for Chicago Manual of Style:

Chicago Quick Guide

The OWL at Purdue

Sample Paper

AMA Style (American Medical Association):

University of Washington Resource

The OWL at Purdue

Sample Paper



Did You Know That There’s an Online Tool for Passive Voice?

Did you know that there’s a  free online “To-Be” verb analyzer?

If you copy and paste small chunks of your final paper into this online tool, it will identify any sentences written in Passive Voice so you can find those instances quickly and correct them by adjusting the subject of your sentence. It’s a great tool to find passive sentences. However, you still need to fix each individual sentence.  Check it out here!


Multilingual Writing

By Steph Vasquez

Once, when I was doing my history homework, I was listening to music in Spanish. At the same time, my mother came over to me to ask me something in Spanish, and I responded her in Spanish, while still doing my notes. When I looked down, I realized that my notes, which had started in English, ended up being written in Spanish. When I tried getting back to doing my notes, my brain froze when I tried getting back into writing in English. Multilingual writing can be a bit difficult, especially when it comes to American English academic writing standards.

If you are like me, you probably can’t do work in silence. I like listening to music when I am doing my work. It keeps me on track, and I feel that it helps me work quicker. However, as I speak multiple languages, I also like to listen to music in multiple languages. This is where things can get tricky. In order to keep myself on track when writing, I have a rule when it comes to music: either the music is in the same language, or the music does not have any lyrics. Instrumental music has been a big help in making sure that I am focused on what I am writing.

Another thing I do is that I speak out loud as I am writing. I look very weird when doing it, but this helps me to stay focused and also make sure that I am following proper writing conventions. Usually, you write the way you speak (but beware of informal language and slang!), so speaking out loud as you are writing will help you to pick up on any awkward phrasing. Microsoft Word has a read loud feature in which it will read out any desired section to you.

My very last tip as a multilingual writer is to go to someone else! If you have been writing a paper for a while, your eyes are going to be very tired, and so will your brain. Have someone, preferably someone who has never seen your paper, read it over and give you feedback on it. A fresh pair of eyes sometimes works wonders. And remember, the Writing Center is always here to be that fresh pair of eyes!


Other writing tips are available here.

Using Strong Verbs

The best way to engage your reader is by crafting sentences with compelling action verbs. However,  it’s much easier to use dull, passive forms of “to-be” when talking  talking about ideas or abstract concepts.  When you finish your first draft, it helps to highlight all of the instances  of “is”, “are”, “were”, and “was”,  and maybe even “have”, “has” and “had” to see how frequently you depend on these verbs. Then you can explore possible alternatives.

Here’s a a worksheet of strong action verbs organized by genre.

How to Write About Literature

There’s certain conventions that you need to know when analyzing a short story or comparing literary works by the same author. For example, you need to know how to write the title: is it in quotes? Is it italicized? Are you using a long quote or  a short quote when inserting the text? Do you know how to cite it? Are you writing an analysis opposed to a plot summary? Do you know what tense to use when describing actions that occurred in the work?  There’s a lot of rules!

Here’s the Golden Rules When Writing About Literature:

  • Don’t summarize, but analyze. Your instructor has read the text and doesn’t need a detailed recap. They are more interested in how you can interpret the text. What do you think is significant about the text?
  • Read the text closely.  Annotate as you read in order to  identify a unique a theme or a idea. We have a digital worksheet to walk you through that process here.
  • Have a strong thesis. Check out our resources for thesis statements here.
  • Know the literary terminology and use it effectively.  Here’s a quick list of terms, definitions, and samples.
  • Use the present tense when describing actions in the piece.
  • Use the present tense when describing what the author does.
  • Remember that the narrator is different from the author.
  • Write the author’s name correctly. When you reference the author, write their first and last name the very first time you reference them. Use only the last name when referring to the author later in your paper.
  • Use direct quotes from the text. Generally, it’s better to use the quotes than to paraphrase  so your reader can see the exact text.
  • You must provide an explanation of each quote you provide. What is the significance of the quote? How does it support your thesis? Why did you include it? What does it do/say/indicate?
  • Make sure you cite your quotes correctly by using in-text citations. Check out this quick guide. If you have multiple works by the same author, you’ll need to include some extra information.
  • Indicate titles correctly. Titles of larger works or containers (like books, plays, anthologies) are italicized. Shorter works within containers (like chapters, poems, short stories) have “quotes” around them.
  • Use strong verbs. Let’s avoid “is”, “are”, “has”, “does”, and maybe even move away from “says” and “states”. Check out the list of strong verbs for literary essays here.
  • Use good sources. If you have to use other sources, use the databases in the library, not google.  Check out these databases first.
  • Use your professor’s office hours. Once you have a rough draft, go to your professor’s office hours and see if you’re on the right track. Don’t skip this step. Professors may look for different qualities in papers, and you need to know what they expect from you. For example, I once had an English professor that wanted my paper to contain most of the lecture notes. I later had a English professor that did not what me to use any of the ideas discussed in class. Instead, he wanted my own original ideas about the text. Those are very different expectations!
  • Beware of the internet. I know students will browse the internet as a way to get their own ideas flowing. No Fear Shakespeare, GoodReads, and SparkNotes offer chapter-by-chapter interpretations of classical works. That doesn’t mean they are high quality, but they usually have a brief, easy-to-read format, which draws students to them in their brainstorming process. Don’t do it! But, if you can’t resist this temptation, then keep track of each source you read and remember to cite it correctly if you use that idea or a very similar idea anywhere in your paper.

Here’s a detailed handout with examples of  how to use these rules.

It’s one of my personal favorites. It  provides excellent examples of summary and analysis paragraphs.  It also gives you examples of strong thesis statements for literary papers, and it demonstrates a variety of in-text citations with MLA format. I strongly recommend you check it out before you write your next English paper.


Other Tools and Resources:

Student Sample Essays Student Sample Essay Paragraph-by-Paragraph 

Student Sample Paper in MLA format

Student Sample Essays  on Poetry Analysis Student Sample Paper
Upper Level Student Sample Essays A Compilation of Student Sample Papers  from the 200-400 Level Literature Courses
Graphic Organizer for Literary Analysis Multiple Graphic Organizers

A Quick Tool for Building Your Vocabulary and Eliminating Redundancy

We all have our favorite phrases and “go-to” words.  I often find myself repeating these words multiple times in a single paragraph:

Thought Reversals: “however,” “although,”

Thought Extensions: “also”, “and it states”

Interpreting Statements: “so”, “this means that”

On my first draft, the repetition doesn’t matter, but when I start revising, I have to rethink each of those sentences so that I’m not redundant—I want to show that I can articulate my thoughts in a variety of ways to keep my reader engaged.

I’ve found that most college freshmen struggle with building their vocabulary and minimizing the usage of their “go-to” words and phrases.  Your vocabulary will grow naturally as you read and become familiar with expressions in your discipline.

However, if the paper is due tomorrow, you may not have that sort of time.  You need some tools to expedite that process.

One my favorite tools to eliminate redundancy is https://www.wordhippo.com/. 

Here’s why  . . .

  1. You can pull up synonyms, antonyms, definitions, examples of usage, and the most common forms of usage by searching for a single keyword.
  2. The synonym search works well: it’s broken down by the possible definitions of the original word, and it generates several synonyms on each search.
  3. You can search for both words and phrases, though it works better with just words.
  4. Everything is hyperlinked! If you find a new word that’s a synonym, you can click on it to check the definition so that you’re using the new word correctly in your context.
  5. If you want to use a word that’s unfamiliar to you,  you can click to have the word pronounced correctly for you.
  6. There’s a “See Also” section that further explains how to use the word in grammatically correct formations.
  7. Are you taking a poetry writing class? Or maybe you want to embellish a paper with some poetics? This site will generate rhymes for your words and phrases, too.

However,  this website is ultimately just a machine pulling up prewritten data—keep that in mind.  That means it doesn’t give you the connotations for the specific keyword (so if you are replacing a negatively charged word like “stuffy,” you may accidently insert a positively charged word like “cozy”. ) It also doesn’t say if the synonym has any slight differences from the original word on the landing page, and that could lead to using words that don’t express exactly what you mean.  Last, it doesn’t work well with field-specific vocabulary.

Still, I’d recommend this resource for eliminating word-choice redundancy, and you’ll find that as you search for more and more words, you’ll acquire more and more words.


Transition Words and Phrases

It’s time to abandon the simple “First” , “Second”,  “Finally,” and  “In conclusion” transition words from high school. It’s no longer acceptable to have “and” twice in a single sentence or “also” twice in the same paragraph. You instead need words, phrases, and constructions that not only transition your thoughts, but that reflect the relationships between your ideas.  Listed below is my favorite list of transitions sorted by the relationships they express.

The Best Quick List of Transitions and Conjunctions Sorted by Type

This next list is another one of my favorites. It’s less colorful, but significantly more extensive. It also includes more academic transitions,  and it has longer transitional phrases. It’s three full pages of transitions by type.  Just be sure to look up sample constructions–not all of these words can just be inserted into a sentence. For example “embark” is used very differently in a sentence than “commencing with”

The Best Extensive List with Some Uncommon Transitions Sorted by Purpose

This next resource is a chart of common transitions in the “word” form and in the “phrase” form with examples of how to use them effectively in sentence constructions. All of these words are included in the previous two worksheets, but  this particular resource  is useful if you need to convert a one-word transition into a phrase to emphasize a point. Sometimes writers use full phrases to transition between larger ideas (or paragraphs) and single word transitions to move between little ideas (like individual pieces of evidence).  It doesn’t provide a lot of examples, but it shows how to use each in a sentence correctly with punctuation, which is beneficial.

Samples of Word Transitions Converted to Phrase Transitions with Examples 


Using Quotes

by Owen Stanczak

To select quotes, it is important to first understand what it is that you are talking about. Trying to select quotes without a strong central thesis often leads to a jumble of unrelated segments from the text or texts you are using for support.

The first step is to think carefully and clearly about the point you are trying to make. What is your claim? Why did you choose that claim? Was there something about the text that led you to your conclusion? What specifically about the text relates to the claim you are making?

Once you have established your claim, begin thinking about which parts of the text that you are using relate to specific parts of your claim. Thinking about this will allow you to pinpoint areas where you may find the most relevant quotes. I always try to remember specific sentences or phrases that stood out to me while reading.

Once you find quotes that fit your claim, begin to organize them. You can do this by writing them down, or using sticky notes. Use a system to organize them, whether by topic, or by order which they will appear in your paper. Using different colored sticky notes to differentiate topics, and numbering each sticky note in the order in which the quote will appear in your paper is one effective method.

Once you have chosen and organized your quotes, you can easily incorporate them into your paper. Just make sure to introduce and explain your quotes when they appear in the paper and you’re all set!


 Introducing and Analyzing Quotes

How to Build  Complex Paragraphs with Quotes

Integrating Quotes Correctly to Avoid Plagiarism 


« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2024 Scranton Writes

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑