If my calculations are correct, you probably got your midterm research paper back a couple weeks ago, and it was covered with red pen marks. With only four short weeks left before your final paper is due, you’re wondering how you can improve your writing to boost your grade for this last assignment. Below, I have listed some of the most common mistakes you should look out for while editing your paper. This is a lengthy post, with no pictures, but I promise it will be helpful for you art history students out there.
1. Using “WH” words outside of a question
Who, what, where, when, why, and how. In everyday conversation we say things like “that is where I bought my watch” or “this is how you tie a shoe.”
However, in a formal paper, “wh” words should only be used when posing a question. So, if this was a formal paper, that last sentence would be a mistake. I could rephrase it as “…words should only be used if posing a question.” I don’t bother making that edit here on the blog because I want to have a conversational tone, but I would never (knowingly) submit a paper with that mistake. Rewriting your sentences can seem tricky at first, but you’ll figure out a way to rephrase. Instead of saying, “We do not know who painted the still life,” say, “The artist of this still life is unknown.” Here’s an example from one of my papers:
Mosaic art thrived even further in the Byzantine Empire where Constantine passed a law exempting mosaicists from taxation.
Mosaic art thrived even further in the Byzantine Empire because of Constantine’s law exempting mosaicists from taxation.
(Honestly, this isn’t even the best sentence because the last half reads a little awkward. I could have simply exchanged “where” for “because” and the sentence would have read fine.)
2. Ubiquitous “they” or “it”
Research papers are rooted in fact, so you want to be sure that you are getting that fact across correctly. Phrases like “it is said” or “they believed” leave things too open ended. Who says this? Who believes this? Art historians? The culture? The artist? Even if you feel like you are being redundant, clarification is always better. Let’s look at an example:
As Christian celebrations moved from the catacombs to newly built churches, they aimed to decorate their interiors with art that exuded permanence.
In this sentence, “they” would be referring to “Christian celebrations” which makes no sense because “celebrations” cannot aim to do anything. I probably thought I was referring to Christians as a whole, but even that is false because not every Christian had a say in church décor. Here is the correction:
As Christian celebrations moved from the catacombs to newly built churches, the church leaders aimed to decorate their interiors with art that exuded permanence.
Now we know the specific decision makers behind church decorations.
Here’s an example where “they” is ok:
Christian artists shared iconography between Christ and the emperor so that the people would recognize his sovereignty. With the strong tie of church and state in Byzantium, some emperors even requested this similarity so they could identify with Christ, creating a parallel between human and divine rulers.
“They” is being used in the same sentence as “some emperors” so we already know the specific group in question without having to reiterate it so closely.
3. Sentence Variation
In trying to correct the previous edit, it is easy to fall into repetitive sentences. You do not want to start every sentence with the same word, be it the artist’s name, or more commonly the word “the.” Here’s an excerpt from my first research paper:
The vertical depiction most accurately resembles an antelope and typically has a small body, large head, and long horns. The males are usually attributed with the pierced mane like the male in this set. The lace-work mane is not for decoration alone, but also has symbolic purposes. The zigzag pattern represents both the running pattern of the roan antelope, and the path of the sun between the solstices. As a whole, the male figure represents the sun. The female figure is associated with the earth. The dancers wear raffia coverings in reference to water. The unification of these three symbols conveys the three factors necessary for fertility in both human reproduction and crop growth. The human reproduction aspect is represented in the presence of the child on the female’s back. The Chi Wara performance reflects the importance of cooperation between male and female forces. The “male” sun is believed to fertilize the “female” earth through man’s act of farming.
Every sentence (except for one) in this paragraph starts with “the.” Here’s how I fixed it:
The vertical depiction most accurately resembles an antelope and typically has a small body, large head, and long horns. Males in the Segou style are usually carved with a pierced mane like the male in this set. A lace-work mane is not merely decorative, but also has symbolic purposes. The zigzag pattern represents both the running pattern of the roan antelope, and the path of the sun between the solstices. As a whole, the male figure represents the sun, while the female figure represents the earth. During rituals, the dancers wear raffia coverings in reference to water. The unification of these symbols for sun, earth, and water conveys the three elements necessary for fertility in both human reproduction and crop growth. Human reproduction is represented by the presence of the child on the female’s back. The Chi Wara performance reflects the importance of cooperation between male and female forces. The “male” sun is believed to fertilize the “female” earth through man’s act of farming.
It’s still not perfect, and I would definitely write it differently now, but 5 sentences starting with “the” is a huge improvement from 10 sentences. Making these changes can be frustrating, but creative rewording will help improve your variations. If the artist’s name is your issue, start by changing up your noun/pronoun. Instead of “Caravaggio did…Caravaggio believed…Caravaggio painted,” try “Caravaggio did… He believed… the artist painted.” Then mix up your sentences more so they don’t have the same cadence and length every time.
4. Word Choice
My biggest pitfall was always word choice. In trying to sound educated, or even in just trying to add variety, I often used superfluous words which only complicated my sentences. (Superfluous being a word that in itself is superfluous.) If there is a simpler way to get your point across, use it. I also used colloquial phrasing, which is ok in something like a blog, but not in a formal paper. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of error I can find with a simple ctrl+f in my papers, so I don’t have an example for you. But, I am sure that there are plenty of websites with examples and corrections for syntax and diction.
5. Expand on Subject-Specific Terms
After doing loads and loads of research, it can be hard to remember that your reader does not have all the background information that you have now. If you introduce a term or concept that is not general knowledge, be sure to take the time to define it and explain its relevance. You don’t need to delve into a whole new thesis, but give just enough clarification so that your reader does not feel left out or confused. For example, in my research paper on Indonesian shadow puppets, I referred to the puppeteers (dalangs) by male pronouns for the whole essay, and even mentioned that it was a profession passed down from father to son. But, I then quoted a female dalang, which took my professor off guard. In my second paper, I spared a single sentence to explain that with the recent growth of performance art schools, the profession was becoming more accessible for woman. I didn’t digress into the details of the whole article I had read about these new schools, but I did give enough background to account for my sudden pronoun change.
6. Create a Plan of Action
So you’ve written your paper and you are ready to edit, but you don’t know how to catch all your mistakes. Everyone has a different technique, but until you learn your best system, here are some suggestions:
· Read through multiple times – focus on one kind of edit for each read through
· Read slowly and out loud so that you can catch mistakes that your mind skips over
· Read the essay sentence by sentence – backwards (this will help you feel the rhythm of your sentences and to check that each sentence is a complete idea on its own)
· Be sure that every paragraph relates to your thesis and is building towards a conclusion (even if your conclusion is that your original thesis was wrong)
· If you don’t understand your professor’s edits (double prepositions – what are THOSE?!) take the time to look them up and read several examples until you are sure you know what to look for in your writing
Did you know that “Xth century” is “Xth-century” when used as an adjective?
As in: In the 16th century, paintings were generally . . . vs. 16th-century paintings generally featured. . .