Tips from Instructors

Professor Karen Freudenberger

ENVS Professor Karen Freudenberger supports a “professional” writing style to improve clarity and conciseness. Every sentence counts, and should be pertinent to the overarching goals of the paper. Here is what she has to say (these are really useful editing strategies):

While these points are valid for most writing styles, they are particularly relevant to “professional” writing, such as memos, policy briefs, and funding requests. In general with this type of writing, less is better…try to get your points across as succinctly as possible while still giving it the flavor and color needed to keep your reader’s interest. While these points may seem picayune at times, I can only assure you that they really do make a difference. Good writing persuades people to take action, will help you raise money for the causes you hold dear, and will get you hired. The illustrations below are from essays written for this class. (Excerpted from Karen Freudenberger’s ENVS 295 course.)

Use paragraphs effectively to make your argument.

  • Ensure that each paragraph makes a point and that those points are essential to your overall argument.
  • Use a sharp, well-honed introductory sentence to emphasize the point of the paragraph (leading sentence).
  • Try not to mix arguments between paragraphs: keep ideas together that belong together and start a new paragraph if you introduce a new idea.
  • Make sure that the paragraphs are logically ordered to build your case; conclude with a paragraph (or at least a sentence or two if the essay is very short) that sums up your argument.

Look for ways to clarify your sentences; shorter may be better.

  • If you have a sentence that goes on for longer than two lines, reread it carefully…chances are it can be simplified and clarified. (This does NOT mean that all sentences have to be shorter than two lines, but they shouldn’t ramble on unnecessarily.)
  • Pay special attention to strings of prepositional phrases in the same sentence (of …, in…., to…, about….). These sentences are often unwieldy and hard to follow.

Your argument of continuing colonial history by imposing ideas of conservation upon the Malagasy as unacceptable is compelling.” Comment: The argument doesn’t stand out because it is lost in the prepositional phrases. Try “Your argument that imposing conservation on the Malagasy is an unacceptable continuation of colonial history is compelling.

Instead of “biodiversity of the country of Madagascar” consider “Madagascar’s biodiversity.”

  • Get rid of words that don’t play an important role in the sentence:

You create opposing camps to divide into.” Comment : you don’t need “to divide into,” it’s implied already by the opposing camps.

  • Try to find more vibrant expressions to replace one or more weak words. If the weak words are unnecessary, leave them out altogether.

Instead of “While this would make conservation and preserving biodiversity simpler and easier, it is merely not morally just,” try, “While this would make preserving biodiversity easier, it is not morally just.

  • Consider surprising the reader with a short sentence that will pack some punch if you’ve just let off a string of complex sentences. The occasional question can play a similar function.

Try to avoid excess use of “backward sentences” where the reader needs to work back to the subject.

Take care when using semi-colons. You must have complete sentences (subject and verb) both before and after the semi-colon.

  • Incorrect: Combining these two practices will provide food in a sustainable way; ridding the use of slash and burn agriculture and provide some income to be spent on food not grown oneself.

Correct: Combining these two practices will increase food security; farmers will be offered alternatives to slash and burn agriculture as well as off-farm income generating activities.

Using “patterns” and parallel construction in your sentences can make them easier to read and follow.

  • It may seem contradictory, but viewing conservation on a small varying scale as well as a global issue is necessary for complete satisfaction.

Comments : What’s contradictory in this? Viewing conservation (subject) is necessary (verb)…not a strong formulation. “small varying scale” doesn’t make sense.

But, I think the person was making an important point. Was it perhaps “Conservation is a local as well as a global issue.” You might then follow up by saying: “Sometimes the apparently appropriate global response may not make sense when applied at the local level.” And so on…

  • Most of us would fight for their homes and livelihoods as the Malagasy continue to do. Most of us would fight for our homes and livelihoods…
  • You seem to be of a firm mind that the right of the Malagasy to be self deterministic is of greater priority than the protection of the forest of Madagascar along with the wealth of biodiversity living among these forests.

You seem to be of a firm mind that the Malagasy right to self-determination is of higher priority than the protection of forests and the biodiversity they harbor.

  • Colonial history showed a stronger, materialistic, “richer” power taking over the land of a weaker power, which was practicing a spiritual and sustainable way of life, for the sole purpose of its self-betterment.

Colonial history was one of a stronger, richer, materialistic power taking over (for its own betterment) the land of a weaker people who had been practicing a sustainable way of life.

  • The truth of the matter is that we are far more environmentally destructive in the industrialized world than places like rural Madagascar.

We in the industrialized world are far more environmentally destructive than rural people are in Madagascar.

Read your paper aloud. If you find yourself stumbling over a sentence, it probably merits review (and is likely to manifest at least one of the problems noted above). Ask a friend to read your paper; if s/he has to read a sentence more than once to understand what it means, ask them to mark it for review.

ENVS Professor Rick Paradis

ENVS Professor Rick Paradis fully supports the idea of the SPN, or Scholarly Personal Narrative. This idea supports using personal stories and anecdotes to enhance and/or illustrate your critical reflections or the connections you are trying to make between ideas and to make your writing more interesting. However, he cautions that not all professors share his point of view. Based on your professor’s expectations and instructions, it should be simple to determine whether or not incorporating personal stories is appropriate.

Tips from TA’s

ENVS TA Lauren Conroy

  • Make sure you proof read! It makes a huge difference in the overall quality of your paper.
  • Resources are available online and at the library to help with using in-text citations. These resources show you how to properly cite in each of the major formats.
  • For ENVS 001 and 002, pay close attention to each element of the assignment. The requirements for the majority of the homework assignments are laid out very clearly. If you follow them closely you will do well.
  • Think and write critically. Do not just write what you think the TA or an environmentally minded citizen would want you to write. Example: just because we’re told “organic” is better than conventional by environmentalists, that does not mean that everything about organic items is better than conventional…
  • When researching, use Google Scholar and the UVM’s scholarly article databases. Do not do popular searches (New York Times, Wikipedia). Make sure sources are peer reviewed.
  • My biggest piece of advice: read the news! Seriously. The Huffington Post, New York Times, Grist… and the majority of other news sources have Environmental sections. Keeping up on local, national, and global news will help you to not only become a better (ENVS) writer, but will provide you with diverse perspectives.