Tips on Writing Reports and Papers

This page is an adaptation of Sonoma State University geographer Brian Baker's page.  I’ve added other common student writing errors.

9/3 Do not use cover sheets in my curse... I mean, course.

Spelling, Grammar & Punctuation

9/3 It's = it is -- only used as a contraction. Its is the possessive form (e.g., "its mapping program," where its refers to an agency). Any time you use it's, see if substituting "it is" makes sense. If not, use its.

9/3 Their = a possessive pronoun.  As such, it shows possession (e.g., "their cuisine," which means you are referring to someone's, maybe the Italians' cuisine).  Any time you use their, see if substituting would require the use of an apostrophe.  It should.

9/3 "There" is not a possessive pronoun.  It does not show possession or ownership.  "There" is not a contraction.  It does not mean "they are."

9/3 They're = a contraction of "they are."  Do not contract "they are" and you will avoid making this mistake.

9/3 The plural of "country" is countries.
9/3 The possessive form of "country" is country's.
9/3 The possessive form of "countries" is countries'.

9/3 Use apostrophes to indicate possession.

You should always insert a comma between a city and state: Thibodaux, Louisiana.

9/3 “verity” means “truth”.  If you misspell “variety” Spell-check might insert “verity” in its place and change the meaning of your sentence. 

9/3 A spell check tool would not catch the common errors mentioned above.  The lesson here is that you must proofread your writing before submitting it.

9/3 Capitalizing: We are not writing in German.  Do not capitalize all nouns. Capitalize only proper nouns, i.e., names of specific things -- the European Union is one object, but geographic information systems and biology aren't, so don't use initial capitals.

Capitalize the word “grandmother” only if you are using I as a name: Grandmother Jones. 

Do not capitalize “grandmother” if you are using it as a common noun: My grandmother can bench press 500 lbs.

9/3 “Bay Area” is the name of a place.  Capitalize it.

9/3 You should not capitalize cardinal directions (east, west…) unless they occur as the first word in a sentence, or a part of a proper noun (East Biggs)

Word Use

9/3 Affect is a verb; effect is almost always a noun (e.g., "the effects of timber harvesting").  Effect is often used when affect should be.  For example, you should write, "The location of coal deposits affected the diffusion of industrialization."  Don't use effect as a verb except in the sense of "brought about" or "created", e.g., "His new personality was effected by Prozac."

9/3 Thank you, Heidi Ogle.

9/3 Invigorate your writing by regularly referring to a dictionary or thesaurus.  Most of you have a thesaurus included among your word processing program's tools.  Use it!  Repeated use of relatively few words makes for boring papers.

9/3 Many of you confuse “then” and “than”. “Then” refers to time or sequence.  “We read many articles then we actually looked at landscapes.Than” is used for comparison.  “We liked field trips more than we liked reading articles.”  Spell-check will not correct this error.


9/3 Long, complex sentences: Break these into two or more simpler sentences. Long sentences are difficult for readers to follow. Newspapers are some of the worst offenders, by the way!

9/3 Often a period is more appropriate than a comma. If you have written a sentence that includes 3 or more commas, and does not include a list of items, you should break it down into two or more sentences.

9/3 Avoid passive voice whenever possible.  Example of passive: "The coal deposits were exploited by incipient industrialists."  Active substitute: "Incipient industrialists exploited coal deposits."

9/3 There is (are, was, were)...: Reword sentences beginning with "there is" or “there are” whenever possible. This construction is distracting and boring. Example: "There are many different landscapes in France like bocage, forested uplands, elite, coastal fringes ..."  Substitute "France includes diverse landscapes like bocage, forested uplands, elite, coastal fringes ..."

9/3 Do not write in a conversational style.  If you want to have a conversation, come to office hours and we will converse.

9/3 Do not use clichés.

9/3 Do not include lengthy quotations.  I want to read your words.

9/3 Organize your responses to the readings in paragraphs, not a single block of text.  Often your answer to a single “question to consider” can comprise a complete paragraph.


Keys to Concision

9/3 Eliminate “in order” from your papers.  For example, “In order to describe the landscape…”.  Just write “To describe the landscape…” 

9/3 Often you can eliminate the direct article of a noun without creating an awkward or ungrammatical sentence.   “To describe the landscape…”  “To describe landscape…”

9/3 Use one verb instead of two.  “give indication”?  Why not simply “indicate”?

9/3 “His personal belief on how the subject should be taught is that you need to start slow and build it up.”

Cut, cut and when in doubt cut some more.

9/3 “this point in time”  = now

9/3 “at one time used to be” = was

9/3 “be able to” = can

9/3 “for the purpose of” = to