Why do we have to write so much in the Arts and Social Sciences?

Here’s a question that students have asked me from time to time:

I struggle so much with writing that I dislike it. Why do we have to write so much in the Arts and Social Sciences?

I feel you. I don’t like academic writing either (I still struggle with it even today). I used to struggle so much as an undergraduate that I thought I was not cut out for academia. But after graduation, I met some prolific writers and academics in the course of my work. I asked them whether they struggled with writing. Their reply was quite surprising to me. They still find writing painful and difficult (even if it is their rice bowl, or something they’ve done for decades), and yes, they still struggle with it even after so many years!

It was very eye-opening (and liberating) to discover that struggling to write doesn’t mean that you’re bad at it.

So then the question we must ask ourselves is: why is writing painful?

I think it’s important to recognise that this is kind of growing pain. It is a good “pain” that stems from constantly reviewing and thinking about what we want to say. When we write, we are committing our thoughts into words on paper or on screen. This forces us to constantly review whether or not that is the thing we wish to say. We don’t encounter such problems when it comes to speaking because we are not immediately confronted with the words that leave our lips. But this is the case with writing.

The “pain” comes from that constant review and re-evaluation of what we want to commit to. There is a lot of growth and maturity when we confront the difficulties and take the writing exercise seriously. Academic writing is THE exercise that leads to a mature mind. It is THE activity that cultivates critical thinking. Because we are constantly being made to review our thoughts.

I have since come to terms with the struggle. And one thing I have also learnt is how writing is itself a journey of discovery. Sometimes we just don’t know what our thoughts are on a particular matter. The exercise of writing forces us to review and reflect on our own positions not only helps us to identify flaws in our thoughts, but it also helps us find connections between separate ideas that had been floating in our heads for so long. Writing is like a spring-cleaning exercise for the mind, where you made to sort the ideas into something coherent that you can present to yourself and to other people.

I have discovered a lot about myself through writing. I have grown tremendously, both intellectually and as a person because of the struggles of writing. So, embrace writing. Embrace the struggle as a challenge. By the time you graduate from university and look back, you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve grown as a person, by how much you have matured intellectually because of it.

Training my Left Hand to Write

I seem to have injured my right hand – once again – from writing too much.

I can’t tell if it’s a muscular problem or if there’s some issue with the nerves. I experience pain, numbness, and weakness in my right hand all at the same time. It’s a strange feeling to have. I don’t know how to explain the sensation (or lack of it).

It got so bad that I couldn’t hold a pair of chopsticks last week. I could still hold a pen, but it was difficult trying to control the movement.

Last week, I decided to see a doctor about it. The doctor thinks that it has something to do with the nerves in my neck. That’s scary. I did an x-ray but the report hasn’t come back yet. I’ll know the answer soon.

I figured I should learn to write with my left-hander just in case my right hand doesn’t recover, or if treatment to fix my right hand is beyond what I can afford. It’s probably a useful skill to be ambidextrous anyway.

One of the first things I did last week was to train myself to use chopsticks with my left hand. That has worked out quite well. It’s still not perfect. I mean, I can’t pick up noodles as easily as before, but it works sufficiently well for me to finish a bowl of noodles.

But the success of chopstick-use has inspired me to try using my left-hand for other things.

I’m now training my left-hand to use the mouse. This hasn’t been going as well as I hoped. It really takes a lot of patience. The problem is that my left hand isn’t as agile and flexible as my right hand. I move the mouse pointer slower than my right hand, and even so, I still end up clicking the wrong things every now and then.

One thing I realised from this experience is that my mouse is not ergonomic at all. Just a short period of use and my left hand would cramp. Perhaps that is why my right hand is now in this sad situation. Ironically, the mouse I bought had an ergonomic design. I’m trying to find an ergonomic solution, but so far the ones I’ve seen are really ugly. Do you have a mouse to recommend?

I have also tried learning to write with my left hand. Capital letters are fine. They look like the writing of a 3 year old, but it’ll do for now, I guess. I still have a lot of difficulty writing out small letters. I think the problem lies in the fact that there are more curved lines in small letters.

As they say, practice makes perfect.

Oh well, wish me luck!

The Morning Ritual of Pen and Paper

Have you ever found yourself in the situation, where you start out your day with some thoughts about what you’re going to do, but the moment you switch on your computer, you suddenly find that you’ve forgotten what exactly you were supposed to do.

And so you sit there feeling rather lost and confused.

Do you get that? Does it happen a lot to you?

I get that a lot. It is as if my computer monitor emits amnesia rays that wipe out one’s short-term memory immediately upon exposure. And then I waste the next hour or so trying to reconstruct or remember everything that was on my mind, with a certain feeling of confusion and helplessness, like a lost child in a crowded marketplace.

It’s terribly frustrating.

Not too long ago, I read an article about developing a good habit of starting the day by transferring everything from one’s mind onto paper.

I think, this should be done before turning on one’s computer.

The author recommended spending at least 10-20 minutes, writing everything that comes to one’s mind, without worrying about organising or structuring the contents of one’s thoughts. It can be in the form of bullet points, mind maps or even prose.

What matters is that you are able to flush everything out of your head, onto paper.

I’ve been experimenting with this for some time now, and I must say that it really helps me out a lot!

As a morning routine and ritual, I now start the day, making myself a cup of coffee, and return to my desk with the computer still turned off. I’ll put my phone aside far away from me, take out my journal and begin writing away.

Nothing like a good pen and paper to make the writing process a lot more pleasurable.

At the end of this writing exercise, I’ll switch on my computer, and type out everything I wrote, categorising them as tasks to do for the day (or week), or as notes for future reference (and for ease of searching).

If I find myself feeling lost and confused due to the amnesia rays coming from my computer monitor (no, I don’t seriously think there’s amnesia rays coming out of my screen – I’m just joking), I can always refer to the notes I wrote in the morning, and in a matter of minutes, I’m back in action.

I’ve since extended my pen-and-paper only exercise from 20 minutes to an entire hour each day. It seems to me that I write and develop ideas better this way too.

My hour-long ritual of pen and paper now involves writing lengthy pages of ideas (and sometimes blog posts like this).

Yes, there are many distractions on the computer. But I think the presence of the backspace button really alters the way one thinks. The temptation to hit the backspace (or delete) button brings about constant and abrupt halts to one’s thoughts. Ideas don’t flow smoothly from one’s mind to the keyboard.

Whereas, with just a pen and paper, not only are the distractions minimised, but the very absence of the backspace button compels one to chew on an idea first before transferring it to paper.

And when the idea is properly developed, the idea flows from one’s mind onto paper as smoothly as the ink flows from my pen.

Sure, this sounds like I’m re-discovering the invention of fire. But for someone who’s been overly reliant on technology, and have placed great faith for years in the power of technology to do away with the traditional methods, it is truly amazing and bewildering to realise that till now, nothing quite beats the good ol’ pen and paper.

Isn’t it ironic that despite our great advances in technology, no technological solution out there functions quite as well as pen and paper?

2014 Year-End Review (Part 2) – Don’t Stop Writing!

In Part 2 of my Year-End Review, I’d like to talk about the most important lesson that I learnt throughout the course of this year.

Some of you may know that I stopped blogging some time in the middle of 2013. That was the time when my previous blog grew very popular.

It attracted attention from certain groups of highly undesirable people. Several people (including acquaintances) reached out to me in the name of “developing” friendships (yeah, right…). They’d invite me out for lunch/dinner/tea or something so that we can “catch up,” when in reality, all they wanted was to benefit from the potential publicity that I could give. I don’t mind it if we did these kinds of things on a professional level (don’t mix personal matters with business). But it really disgusts me that people would deny it, and say that they are genuinely doing it for the sake of friendship. How do these people live with themselves? Are they content with such superficial friendships? Have they no shame in the way they conduct themselves?

It was the way these people did it, and the number of such people doing it that really overwhelmed me with great disgust. Maybe I just wasn’t mentally/emotionally prepared to handle so many disgusting and selfish people in such a short span of time.

Maybe… But the experience was so bad that one day I decided that I would stop blogging.

That was, by far, the worst decision of my life.

As I wrote this last sentence, I stopped typing for a while and thought deeply if I was exaggerating this claim. Looking back at every “bad” decision I made or regretted, I still would rank this as the single worst decision of my life ever. At least every other decision produced many learning insights.

When I stopped writing, I realised I lost a big part of myself. I seemed to have lost a deep connection of myself as the self-as-immersed-in-the-world. I realised that as soon as I stopped writing, I failed to give structure to my thoughts. They are scattered all over, disconnected one from the other.

Writing is very much like a meditative process for me. As I write, I focus on the idea developing word for word, and see it appear before my eyes on the screen. And every minute or so, I go back and review what has been written, and ponder deeply on it again and again. Does this make sense? Is it coherent? Could there have been a better way of expressing it?

This process of writing, forces me to meditate on the issue that I wish to discuss. It connects my deepest self – mind and heart – to the words on the screen. It links the thoughts in my head with the issues around me. Writing helps me to draw the connections between the scattered ideas in my mind, and when the dots are all connected, I gain insights into the matter.

This process cannot be replicated from speaking out loud, or simply from thinking to myself. A word, once uttered, is lost in the air. A thought, once entertained, fades away. I don’t have the words – critical feedback – appearing before my very eyes so that I can judge and evaluate each sentence, each word, in the context of its entirety.

What a big difference it makes to the way we think!

Not writing for months. That really affected me a lot. It got to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore, and so I decided to start a new blog – this blog – under a new name. A fresh start, so to speak. Unfortunately, as I had not been blogging when I transitioned from student to employee, I never developed a routine habit from the start for my writing activity. It has been difficult trying to write now that I’m working.

But I’m glad that I have those moments, every now and then, to retreat from life and work, to this little user interface on my screen, where I can pen my thoughts. These rare moments allow me to get in touch with myself and have a deeper understanding of moments and issues around me (and even of myself).

This idea of the importance in writing was further emphasized when a professor one day mentioned that the only way to develop one’s mind is to read a lot, discuss a lot, and most importantly, to write a lot. That resonated so deeply in me. I’ve been reading and discussing, but have been feeling a deep lack within for quite a while. Indeed, read, discuss and write. That is critical to one’s growth.

So yes, the big lesson of 2014 (at least for myself) is this: Don’t stop writing. Pick up your pen, or your keyboard, and write. Let the words flow, let your ideas develop. Don’t worry about perfection for perfection is an abstract ideal with no concrete parameters that will enable you to see that you have arrived at your destination. Just write, and write intimately so that you can hear yourself, and be deeply in touch with yourself.

Don’t stop writing!

A hot cup of toffee nut latte on a cold rainy day

I love how Christmas is coming. Every year Starbucks will offer its special Christmas brew. I look forward to it every year.

A cup of toffee nut latte with its fragrant smell and taste brings me so much happiness. And especially on a cold rainy day, this drink is the perfect beverage to compliment the lovely chilly weather. MMMmmm…

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t particularly like the drink so much anymore now. I guess as one grows with age, one outgrows one’s liking for sweet drinks.

So why do I still drink it? Mainly, for the nostalgia, but also as an annual reminder for what it now represents.

This was the drink that has accompanied me for so many cold and rainy nights back in my undergraduate days, where at the end of the semester (well, at the end of every Semester 1) I’d spend several, almost-consecutive nights in a row, working overnight on campus to write papers after papers, until the sun rose at about 6+am (no kidding!).

It was the drink that in many ways, stayed beside me, sitting with me, keeping me up, keeping me going. The fact that it was a seasonal brew made it all the more special. It also, in a way, gave me something to look forward to at the time when assignments are aplenty, and where stress is high.

Now that I have graduated and don’t need undergo such academic toiling, this drink brings me lovely memories of the those times where I stayed up to write papers. While in some ways, I hated the experience, I still loved it for the kind of peace and quiet that I enjoyed. There’s something really wonderful about sitting in a dim room in the middle of the night, with a small desk lamp over your head, with another one or two other students working in the study room. Maybe it’s the combination of the lack of sleep, stress and the caffeine, but the experience of solitude as you think and write is magical… But I digress.

More significantly, this drink stands as a symbol of the silent companion who stands by your side, cheering you, giving you (mental) strength to keep going, to keep thinking, to keep writing. That you’re never alone even as you’re writing at 4am in the middle of the night, where everyone else is asleep.

That companion, who transforms and gives new meaning and understanding to the experience of the toil and suffering of work; transforming toil into toil-AND-pleasure, adding an element of joy – sips of joy full of flavour, stimulating your senses as if setting off a series of fireworks in your mind – with every small sip I took, as I wrote my papers with frustration.

Toil transformed into toil-and-pleasure.

It is a hopeful drink. It serves as a reminder of those moments, and how I overcame those moments year after year till graduation, with this simple seasonal drink.

To drink it once again, today, on a cold rainy day in December. A timely reminder. A comforting thought. A heartening sip.

Second Person Narratives

Here’s a random thought that came to my mind: why aren’t there stories written in the second person narrative? (i.e. stories involving, “you”).

I’ve not seen any literature out there are employs this mode of writing.

If you think about it, it can be – and in fact, it is! – very exciting. When you read or tell stories from a second person narrative, it’s as if the subjective phenomenal experience of life unfolds before YOU! Yes, even if it is very very mundane, the fact that life unfolds before your very mind is an intriguing experience. It seems that the mind works very differently when you read in the second person.

To demonstrate this, I shall recount a brief description of the start of my day in the second person narrative: (Ready? Let’s go!)

You regain consciousness. You experience darkness. You hear a continuous stream of sound. As you slowly gain more consciousness, you begin to perceive it as classical music. Ah, you remember it as the sound of your radio alarm.

You open your eyes. You experience the fading of darkness into light. You see the sun shining through the curtains. Your body aches. You experience the sour, aching sensation in your shoulders and your calves. You wonder why they are aching, and you slowly remember that last night, you were busy doing some household chores.

You reach for your phone to look at the time. You press the button on the side of your phone: the time now is 6.55am. You try to get up but your aching body doesn’t agree with your decision. You continue to lie in bed. You close your eyes and continue listening to the music.

You’re too tired to think. Nothing goes through your mind. You feel as if you are going back to sleep. You hear a voice. You awake once more and pay close attention to the voice. You realise the radio station is now broadcasting the news. You continue lying in bed with your eyes open. After a while, you try again to get up. You succeed. Now, you are sitting upright on your bed.

You turn to the right and you stand up. You feel the coldness of the floor. You stretch your arms and your legs, and you begin walking towards the toilet. You stand by the urinal and pee. You feel a sense of relief. Now, you turn to the tap, and turn on the water. You feel the cold water flowing onto your hands. You stretch out your hands, you reach for the soap, you lather it up, and put the soap back. You rinse your hands. Now, you reach for the toothbrush and the toothpaste. You brush your teeth…

Well, you get the picture.

Try reading the passage above in an excited tone. It makes for a very thrilling story.

Anyway, yes, we should have more stories like this. It’s very intriguing. Life unfolds before your very eyes.

Pretty cool, isn’t it? Why don’t you try narrating a story in the second person narrative?

Waking Up After September Ends

“Wake me up when September ends…”

Well, ok, it’s October now. Gosh… I actually can’t believe I haven’t been blogging for slightly more than two months. It felt like eternity.

I’ve been so ridiculously crazy over the past two months. Somehow, when the semester began, I found myself flooded with a never-ending stream of activity. It was exhausting and stressful, but it was amazing.

The past 2 months have so far, been the greatest high points of my life and career here in NTU.

I never would have imagined so many amazing events to have happened in two months, but it did! And now that the high tide of activity has subsided, I can breathe a little easy now, recollect, and can’t help but feel like the past two months were nothing but the most amazing beautiful dream that I’ve had.

So, what did I do?

I spent the entire month of August writing a paper for an academic journal. It’s my first paper for an academic journal. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s not the previous post (if you’re wondering, the previous one had too many problems and too little textual material available to make a solid case; I had to write a different paper). In many ways, it was reminiscent of my undergraduate days. In some ways, it was nostalgic.

Anyway, the editor got back to me. The reviewers’ comments were: It was very very interesting. They loved it! But, major revisions required. Oh dear…

In addition, I participated in a small workshop that involved several directors of research centres around the world (including the UN), discussing issues about East-West boundaries, and problems in science and policy making. It was inspiring to sit in a room filled with one of the most brilliant minds in the world. I want to be like them! They spoke elegantly, conducted themselves in the most gentlemanly manner, and most of all, they were full of brilliant ideas and insights.

Those were the mast amazing 3 days of my life. I grew a lot and I came out a changed person.

Not too long after that, in September, I had to fly to China alone, on my own, for the very first time in my life. I made two trips, each trip lasting a week. If you did not know, I’m involved in the production of a massively open online course (MOOC) in Confucian Philosophy. A MOOC is an online course complete with video lessons, online readings, and online quizzes and assignments, which can earn you a lovely certificate by the administering university.

I won’t be the one conducting the lessons in front of the camera. Rather, I’m the one who does all the behind-the-scenes stuff, such as going to China to get government clearance to film lessons in historical sites in China, among many other matters.

Anyway, the birthday of Confucius was coming up, and we wanted to film the Grand Ritual to Confucius at the Confucius Temple in his hometown in Qufu. But that’s not the only thing we wanted to film. There’s a lot more, but I won’t spoil it for you – at least not now. Anyway, all these things required administrative clearance from the Chinese authorities. It was a learning experience, as China has a very different work culture.

But perhaps the greatest eye opener and learning experience was to experience Confucianism as it was lived and practiced by the people of Qufu. Perhaps, it’s because Qufu is the hometown of Confucius that Confucianism is strongly practised till this day (I can’t make the claim for all of China since I’ve only been to this small town). Imagine this: everywhere you go, you are met with the most sincere, authentic, and friendly people ever. Doesn’t matter where I go (and no, it wasn’t special treatment because I was a foreigner, they all thought I was a local – they were very surprised when I told them I was from Singapore). Human affection and close relationships are the number one priority. Everything that is done is done for the sake of deepening the friendship. Even if you are doing business or working, the close friendship is of utmost importance.

It is no wonder the first line in the Analects is so strongly featured in Qufu:


For a friend to come [visit you] from afar, is this not a great joy?

Analects 1.1

I guess you could say I returned from China a convert, a strong fervent believer of the teachings of Confucius.

It was so refreshing to meet sincere people interested more in friendships than in being able to suck something out from you. It’s a tragedy because nowadays in Singapore, there are just far too many pretentious people who lie that they’re interested in being friends, but actually want to gain something from the friendship. (Seriously, I’m ok if you just say point blank that you want something from me – I don’t like this kind of hypocritical bullshit where you can’t voice your true intentions, but have to keep going around in circles.)

That was a wonderful experience.

Anyway, the second week, my professor and the filming crew came down to China, and it was, for me, a really stressful week as I encountered administrative hiccups here and there. The Chinese authorities do not operate as efficiently as the Singapore civil service. So I had to run around China, making phone calls to various offices just to find alternative solutions or to fix the problem. It was the most stressful week. On the bright side, I was able to pamper myself with delicious foods while I was there, so I was quite happy.

I just came back from China last week, and spent the past couple of days recuperating from the two months of madness. I think I’m now properly rested, which means I should be able to work very efficiently and I can return to blogging regularly. Yay!

So stay tuned for more!

Tips on Writing

I just came out from a really awesome tutorial about how to improve on one’s writing. Many of the points were familiar, but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget them. In fact, when I was reminded about them today, I realised that I have committed a lot of mistakes which I should not have in the first place.

So, for the benefit of all who may need to write non-fiction, here’s a series of important lessons in writing that I’ve picked up over the years. Practice them and you will be on the path to awesomeness! Haha… I’m still not that awesome yet, but I do know that when I follow these pointers, my writing improves in its clarity. I hope that you’ll learn and benefit greatly as I have from this. =) One thing I know is that if you practice this regularly, it helps to clarify your own thinking as well. =)


#1: Define the problem.

Good writing is focused. It does not try to cover too many things. No. It focuses on just one thing, and one thing alone. But how do you ensure that your writing is focused? Phrase your problem as a question. If your question is vague, clarify it further. Is your question clear? If not, refine the question by narrowing what it is that you are asking.

Another good way to determine if your scope is sufficiently focused is to say what you want to prove in just ONE short sentence. No, long sentences filled with a myriad of punctuations are not allowed here. If you cannot phrase what you want to do in one short sentence, i.e. you have several sentences or just a long sentence, it’s an indicator that you are trying to say more than one thing. The general rule is that a single idea is best expressed in the form of one sentence. Long, or multiple sentences are indicators that you have too many ideas running around in your head. In this case, it’s an indicator that you’ll need to re-articulate the problem with a much narrower scope.


#2: Introduction.

An introduction states clearly what it is that you want to achieve in your paper/article. It provides a brief introduction into the matter, the problem, your solution, and how you will demonstrate it.

Avoid writing fancifully as it can be a distraction. Not everybody is a literature major. Few will therefore be able to understand what it is that you are trying to say if you were to do that.

It is also useful to define terms, and to discuss certain limitations which you are unable to handle in the paper/article. Sometimes, we are constrained by a word limit, and very little can therefore be accomplished. Sometimes, covering a related topic will make the paper lose its focus, and so it is better not to talk about it.


#3: Presenting Other People’s Claims.

Sometimes, you may need to say what so-and-so has said. It is always important to ensure that you have provided a very faithful account of what the other has said. If the person’s points sounds ridiculous, the problem is usually not with that person, but with you. It should be an indicator that somehow, there has been some misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

The best rule of thumb is to always provide the best interpretation possible. Especially in philosophy, do the opponent a favour by giving him/her the strongest interpretation possible, without distortion. This way, you (and the reader) will know that you are not doing injustice by presenting a straw-man argument, that is, a caricature of the actual claims.


#4: Refuting an Argument.

Before talking about how to refute an argument, it is important to understand how an argument works. An argument is not an explanation. Explanations assume that X is true, and provides an account of it. Arguments make no assumptions, but instead attempt to prove the conclusion.

Arguments are made up of premises that lead to the conclusion.

Here is a standard example of an argument:

Premise 1: All men are mortal.
Premise 2: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: THEREFORE, Socrates is mortal.

When ALL premises are true, the conclusion is NECESSARILY true. This is how our reasoning operates. We believe certain things to be so because they are supported by other facts/premises which we know to be true.

When refuting an argument, arguing against the conclusion does absolutely nothing. Let us assume that our imaginary friend, Bob, has the following argument:

Premise 1: A [True]
Premise 2: B [True]
Conclusion: THEREFORE, C. [Therefore, true]

Arguing against C, i.e. not-C, will have no effect against Bob. Why? Bob still believes in the truth of premises 1 and 2, and therefore he is compelled to believe in the conclusion, C.

The first move is to weaken the argument, by introducing doubt about the certainty of such an argument. This can be done by showing that one of the premises is false. For example, I could argue that Premise 1 is false. When you do this, this is what happens to Bob’s thinking:

Premise 1: A [False]
Premise 2: B [True]
Conclusion: THEREFORE, C. [Therefore, not certain about the truth of C]

By proving one of the premises false, your opponent will not be compelled by his argument to believe that his conclusion is 100% true (unless he/she becomes emotional, in which case, there’s no point proceeding).

Once you have introduced uncertainty into the true-ness of the conclusion, you can now proceed to prove the conclusion false, i.e. not-C. You will need to supply your own argument, not merely assert that C is false.

There are other strategies in arguing against the opponent, but I will not cover them here. Nonetheless, the main point of this advice is this – you do not refute your opponent just by arguing that his/her conclusion is false. You need to first weaken the argument by showing a problem in one of the premises.


#5: Examples.

One important rule when it comes to examples: NEVER USE EXAMPLES TO DO THE JOB OF ARGUING. Examples are meant to support your arguments, to give it greater strength. This includes raising thought experiments. These things show something, but they do not prove anything. In fact, examples are always open to interpretation. And therefore, you must contextualise your examples by arguing your point, and proceed to show how the example strengthens your claim.

It’s also important to note that stating a list of facts does not constitute a valid argument. Facts are always open to interpretation. Telling me that everyone in this room has black hair doesn’t say anything. People can interpret it in many ways – “There are many Chinese in the room”; or “Everyone in the room has dyed their hair.” One must say what’s significant about these things to make a valid point.


#6: Sentences.

Here’s a simple rule for writing – express only one idea in a sentence. If your sentence is too long, it’s because you have too many ideas. And when you try to cramp too many ideas into one sentence, it becomes confusing. If your sentence is longer than 3 lines, you should seriously consider rephrasing them for clarity.


#7: Planning the Body.

In #1, I mentioned how one way to focus your writing is to phrase it into a very specific question. This question is like your final destination. But before you can reach the destination, you will need stepping stones to cross the river to get to the other side. You can do this by specifying mini-questions that will act as guides to lead to answer your specific question. Here’s an example:

Specific question: How is X useful in the field of Y?

Mini-question 1: What is X?
Mini-question 2: What is Y?
Mini-question 3: How is X related to Y?
Mini-question 4: In what way is X useful to Y in that relation?
Mini-question 5: How useful is X in that regard?

These mini-questions form the stepping stones that will lead you and the reader to the final destination.


#8: Body Paragraphs.

Body paragraphs should contain only ONE idea, expressed in ONE sentence, to answer ONE mini-question. If you cannot state your answer in one sentence, that means you have more than one idea. In this case, you might want to redefine you mini-question(s), and even the specific question accordingly.

This has nothing to do with being intellectually dishonest, where one changes the hypothesis to suit the data. Usually, the problem is that we have failed to narrow our specific question enough. This exercise reveals the ambiguity in our thoughts, and makes us aware of just how far away we are from writing a clear, concise, and focused paper.

Each paragraph contains one sentence which answers the mini-question. And in the subsequent sentences, you will proceed to prove why your mini-answer is true. Examples are used to support the claim. But remember, they must never be used to do the job of proving your point.


#9: A Fair, Balanced View.

A fair, balanced view does not mean sitting on the fence. It means that you have considered the other perspective, and yet found that their arguments are problematic. How do you present a fair, balanced view in your paper? You can do this by raising objections against your own points, or defences for the opponent which you have attacked. After which, you should proceed to defend your position.

Once again, this can only be effectively proven by considering a non-trivial objection to your position. This demonstrates to the reader that you have not cheated by constructing a straw man argument.


#10: Conclusion.

A good conclusion makes no new points. Instead, it reiterates the points made thus far as a short one-paragraph summary.

This is optional, but sometimes, people find it useful to mention what else could have been discussed had the article not been limited by its scope or word limit. This can be useful in showing the broad application of your arguments in other circumstances. But be careful not to make new arguments at this point. You should only raise matters that are worth discussing, but could not have been done in the paper/article.


#11: Sign-posting.

This is a very useful strategy. Sign-posting is the use of certain words to make your important points visible to the reader. Sometimes, the main point does not appear as clearly as you would like it to be. So it helps to put a huge literary sign board there which says: “HEY! LOOK HERE! THIS IS THE POINT THAT I WAS TRYING TO PROVE IN THIS PARAGRAPH!!!”

For example, if you wanted to show that Bob had contradicted himself, you could say: “Bob said X. Yet Bob believes in not-X.” But this might not occur to the reader that a contradiction has taken place.

So, for greater clarity, you can put a sign-post there: “Bob said X. Yet Bob believes in not-X, BUT THIS CONTRADICTS WITH WHAT HE HAD SAID.” The meaning of the statement doesn’t change, but the point that you wanted to make becomes clearer.


#12: The Evils of Passive Voice.

Passive voice are sentences where the subject is on the receiving end of the action (verb).

Here are examples of passive voice (The active voice is indicated in brackets):

Bob was murdered by Tim. (Active: Tim murdered Bob)
The dog was bitten by the man. (Active: The man bit the dog)
The cake was eaten by somebody. (Active: Somebody ate the cake)

Passive voice is evil! Do not use passive voice unless necessary.

There is a disadvantage in using the passive voice. Active voice is easier to comprehend. Passive voice, however, usually involves more words and more prepositions, which can lead to confusion, and even a slower rate of comprehension.

The bigger problem with passive voice is that the actor of the statement can be ambiguous. I can say: “The cake was eaten.” But who ate the cake? When sentences are expressed in the passive voice, we make the assumption that the reader knows who the actor is. This can introduce unnecessary ambiguity into the paper, as the reader is left unsure of who did the deed.

But this can also confuse the writer, as it makes it easier for the writer to take for granted that he/she knows who is doing the deed. One should therefore avoid this ambiguity by refraining from using passive voice as much as possible.


#13: Making Comparisons.

Comparisons should always be about two things that are as similar as possible. You’ll need to compare apples with apples, and oranges with oranges. You cannot simply choose two things that have merely one common feature to do a comparison – there is no clear focus on what is being compared.

Furthermore, the two cases used must be justified. Anyone can simply pick two things out of the list of infinite possibilities. At the very least, you’ll need to justify why you have chosen to compare these two things instead of other things. This gives greater weight to the comparison made, and makes for a more credible argument.

There’s probably a lot more that can be said, but I think this short guide is already sufficient for the writing of a clear, focused, and awesome paper/article/essay. Hope you found it useful!