Writing Tip Wednesday: Presentation

Dear Master’s Programs student,

Presentation matters. That’s why job interviewees opt for business suits over much-more-comfortable T-shirts and flip-flops. It’s why chefs at high-end restaurants fuss over plating. And it’s we make the mad scramble to tidy up the house before (judgmental) friends or family stop by for a visit.

In a similar way, the presentation of your papers matters. As writers, we want the aesthetics of our papers to enhance—not detract or distract from—our ideas. Below are a few simple suggestions for more readable, reader-friendly essays.

Smaller paragraphs
Even before I’ve read a single word of a paper, I have an initial reaction based on the size of its paragraphs. (Try this experiment: take a paper you’ve already written and make it into one huge paragraph. Try reading it and see how long it takes before you feel the ocular strain.) Looking at one monolithic block of unbroken text is hard on a reader’s eyes.

As a general rule of thumb (not a rule chiseled in stone), aim for paragraphs of about a half page to three quarters of a page long. If your paragraph starts to run over this limit, look for a place in the middle where you might be able to divide your idea.

Headings
The inclusion of headings is an easy, but tremendously helpful, way to aid your reader’s tracking of your main ideas. Not only do headings cue your reader about the contents of a section, but they also provide a natural “transition” from one section to the next. A general guideline is that a paper of five or more pages will usually benefit from section headings; when your paper reaches 10-12 pages, consider using sub-headings (i.e. level two headings) as well.

Clear topic sentences
Along with headings, clear topic sentences are another way to help your reader navigate your paper. I’ll write more about this next week, but for now, remember that a topic sentence should summarize a paragraph’s main point; it should generally be the very first sentence of a paragraph.

Happy writing,
James

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