3 Tips to Help Develop Your Essay Writing Style

By Micah Norris, 3rd Year History/Art History student

It may sometimes feel that the strictures of university essay writing limit our ability to develop our own personal writing style, but this belief cannot be further from the truth. A professor of mine once said that by the end of the school year, he could tell whose essay he was reading without even looking at our names. How? We all have a distinct way of writing that is just as unique as our talking voice. Writing style is the manner in which we express our ideas; this manner includes word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, and tone. An effective style will keep your reader engaged and interested in your essay. Let’s look at three ways to further advance your writing style!

  1. Write Daily!

The best way to develop your writing style is also the easiest (bonus!). The more you write, the more you are able to understand who you are as a writer and be able to improve. Consider carrying a journal around with you and write about your daily activities. The subject doesn’t have to be complicated. Write about that cute dog you pet, what you ate for dinner, or anything that you think is worth writing down! You will begin to notice recurring patterns in your writing (such as certain phrases or words you tend to use) and can then decide what aspects of your writing work well and what needs to be developed more. Frequent writing will also help you develop skills in conveying ideas concisely and efficiently, which is a major asset for essay writing. I also encourage you to go back and re-read your past writing. You might be surprised at how much you’ve grown as a writer!

To learn more about how to incorporate writing into your daily life, check out Queen’s Learning Strategies advice on time management here: http://sass.queensu.ca/learningstrategies/topic-time-management/

  1. Pay Attention to Tone

 Just as when we speak, there is often more meaning in how we say something than what we’re saying in our writing—this is called tone. When you write an essay, think about the attitude with which you want to approach a given topic. Two important writing tools that help express your desired tone are adjectives and punctuation.  Consider the example below:

  1.  Due to the Union Army’s tremendous military success, they valiantly defeated the Confederates on May 9, 1865 and ended the U.S Civil War!
  2.  Despite the efforts of the Confederates, they were defeated by the Union Army on May 9, 1865, thus ending the U.S Civil War.

Using value-laden words such as “tremendous” and “valiantly,” and emphatic punctuation such as an exclamation mark, changes my tone. The second example’s more moderate tone is more appropriate to academic writing. Always remember to make sure that your essay’s language and punctuation match your intended tone.

  1. Explore Different Writing Styles

 Academic writing is meant to be formal and professional, but that doesn’t mean there is only one way to write essays. To figure out a writing style that best suits you, it may be helpful to explore different ways of writing. Perhaps you are used to persuasive writing, where you try to convince your reader of a certain idea or opinion by taking a strong one-sided stance in your essay. If you are looking for a new way to convey ideas, you can approach your writing with an expository style. This style focuses more on revealing facts to your reader in sequential points, almost like walking them step-by-step through your ideas. Keep in mind that different styles work best for different assignments, so being able to write in more than one writing style is very advantageous.

 Tip: A good way to explore different writing styles is to pay critical attention to the style of other writers. Next time you’re reading a book or newspaper article, think about how the author is trying to talk to you, the reader. Explore a variety of sources, both fiction and non-fiction. There is no limit when it comes to reading!

Photo courtesy of Lucas under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.




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“Never say never; is it too late to…” try to change?

By Joyce Leung, 4th year ConEd/Psychology student

Whether that’s changing your habits, mindset, attitude, or relationship – it’s not always going to be an easy step over. One thing is for sure though, you’re never too old (or late) to change you or anything.

As a fourth year undergrad student looking back, I have changed a lot in my abilities, skills, and mindset. “Why?” When I entered university I decided that I wanted to improve, change, and learn, which is something I hope to always be doing. “How?” Namely through experience, putting myself out there, and being okay with trying and failing, but also with these ideas guiding my way.


#1.  You must recognize that it won’t be a quick or effortless change… but that you still want to try

Tell yourself it’s going to be hard because it very likely will be and accept it because you are putting yourself in a place where it’s not in your realm of the usual or familiar. That is what you hope to break out of. Be ready for the challenge and difficulties, rather than thinking that it’ll be an easy, short process.


#2. You’re your own biggest critic but also… your biggest obstacle and supporter.

Once you’re okay and see that this will be outside your comfort zone know that it’s you who can come up with the excuses but also that you are the only one who can get this done. I learned that I truly am the only one who can change yourself. This is incredibly true if I think back to the times my mom nagged me to change my habits to when I personally put my words (not hers) into action finally. I did that because I wanted to change myself for myself. No one can make it happen, just you.


#3. Be real with yourself. Make a plan. And revise it until it works.

You know what you are like when you’re at your best and also at your lowest. Make a plan that will work with you and that will also get the work done. Create realistic milestone goals that suits your style that build up to your ultimate end goal, while it still pushing you. Write down what it will look and feel like if your plan is working so you have cues to look out for. Afterwards, write down all the things stopping you or that have stopped. That might be the difficulty in finding time in your busy schedule, which may be the reason you’ll stop. Or that you remembered the last time you tried this you gave up part way because it just wasn’t working out.

Once you’ve listed down the barriers and obstacles, dedicate realistic solutions that will help you overcome them. That may be devoting a page or a notebook to track your progress or designing a plan that only takes a few minutes a day to fix that time issue. Or writing down what you would tell a friend if they wanted to give up, or asking friends to help you with this mission.

Don’t forget or lose sight. Be aware and attentive to your plan. Celebrate the small victories because that is progress adding up! Count the small steps – don’t expect Rome to be built in a day! What do the results look like? If it isn’t working, what do I need to adjust? You will probably adjust your plan and that’s almost expected. You might need to take a break sometimes and that’s okay, but never stop trying because it will work eventually if you do.


#4. Easily said, hardly done but who’s counting? Who’s celebrating?

The answer’s YOU! In any case, remember you’re accountable and holding accountability is a great way to get things done. In my experience, if I don’t write my progress or experience down, I will forget about my plans to change altogether. Find your way of holding yourself accountable!

In addition, too often do we lose track of our goals much like those New Year’s resolutions you might have forgotten already. Just as likely, you’ve probably guilt tripped and cycled through that once you’d missed a step in your grand scheme to eradicate or lessen a habit or trait of yours. I’ve been there, and done that. At the end of the day though, I realized that I’m the one who can make this change but guilt tripping won’t add to this development. Accepting the setbacks is hard, but recognize that you are not your mistakes and disappointments and that you are also your successes and are important in the lives of your family and friends. What you can’t forget is that you can get back up on your feet and continue trying. I know you can! And you know that too.




If the blog here has caught your interest in changing, check out our resources here:

Book an appointment with our Learning Strategist to help with planning: http://sass.queensu.ca/learningstrategies/advisingappointments/

Look at our online resources spanning from Time Management to Motivation here: http://sass.queensu.ca/learningstrategies/topics/

Or check out our social media for more inspiration and tools:

Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/QueensLearningStrategies)

Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/sass_ls/)


Photo courtesy of Adrian Scottow under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

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Exercising a Growth Mindset

 By Sam Werger, 4th year History student

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”


University can be many things to many people. For some it is an opportunity to leave their small hometown for the bright lights of the big city. For others it’s a chance to make new friends and meet all kinds of new people. A person’s university career can be a chance to learn about one’s self and grow emotionally, physically, and mentally. University is perhaps the best opportunity many of us have to develop our skills and generally improve ourselves. Growth at university depends largely upon one’s ability and willingness to exercise a growth mindset.

What is a growth mindset?

Well, a growth mindset is the opposite of a fixed mindset. For example, someone with a fixed mindset would see a failure as the end of the road and might give up when they have failed. In contrast, someone with a growth mindset will see a failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. Failure is an inevitability (unless you’re some sort of super-human in which case you can probably stop reading now) but it doesn’t have to be the end of the road. I’ve certainly failed to achieve certain goals I’ve had and failed to live up to my own expectations of myself. I’ve made mistakes academically and socially. And yet, as I look forward to the last two months of my undergraduate career I can say with certainty that my time at university has been a success.

I was able to succeed because I didn’t allow my failures to define me. I maintained a growth mindset and viewed my failures as stepping stones towards a greater success. Every time I failed I also got a new lesson. Every time I didn’t do well on a test or paper I learned what it takes to succeed in school. Every time I was disappointed in myself I learned a little bit more about what I want to achieve in life. Through my failures I have gained perspective and learned lessons that helped me eventually succeed.

So the next time you fail to meet your goals don’t look at that failure as an end. Don’t even look at it as a failure. Instead, look at it as a lesson and a stepping stone on the path to success. Growing depends upon our view of things, not the things themselves.

For more on Growth Mindsets click here.


Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

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Get your Head in the Game: 5 Ways to Deal with Distractions

 By Sunny Zheng, 3rd year Life Sciences student

As a Peer Learning Assistant (PLA), one of the most common questions students approach me with is, “How do I deal with distractions?” Good question. This is something that everybody seems to struggle with, even us, PLAs. Unfortunately, there is no miracle solution that will help you avoid all distractions. However, there are several simple strategies that can help you be less distracted and I will provide you with 5 of them below.


1. Save your hardest work for your best time of day

Do your most difficult assignments during the time of the day that you feel most alert. You will least likely be distracted during this time, so it makes sense to save your work for then. For me, this is early morning, after a refreshing sleep and before getting drained from the activities of the day. For others, this time may be in the evening, when you feel more relaxed.


2. Distraction pad

Have a little notepad beside you while studying and every time you get distracted with a thought, write it down, then push it aside for later. Distracting thoughts can be anything from remembering that you still have another assignment to complete, to daydreaming about your next meal. Later on in the day when you have some free time, you can review your distraction pad to see if any of those thoughts were important and needed to be addressed.


3. Work within your attention span

Do you ever find yourself working for so long that your mind becomes hazy and you realize that you’re reading the same paragraph over and over again without absorbing anything? Instead of getting frustrated about losing focus, learn to work within your attention span. Figure out how long you can stay focused before your thoughts start to wander, and then divide up your assignment into chunks lasting that period of time. You should also take breaks in between your work sessions! Breaks provide a chance for you to recharge your energy. As for me, I like to use the 50/10 rule, where I work for 50 minutes and then rest for 10 minutes.


4. Unplug!

A huge distraction for students these days is social media. Many people have found that the best way to avoid this distraction is to remove all technology from sight. Like they say, “out of sight, out of mind!” Try setting your phone on silent and then putting it away. If you don’t need your laptop, hide that as well. Without seeing electronic devices, you will be less tempted to check social media. If you must work on your laptop, however, try keeping only those tabs you need and closing all irrelevant ones, like Facebook and YouTube.


5. Blocking social media with apps!

If you find it difficult to control yourself from checking social media websites while studying, don’t worry because there are apps that can help you with that. For example, “Self-control” is an app offered on Macs that you can use to block certain websites for as long as you choose. If you’re a PC user, there is a great Google chrome extension called “StayFocused” (Mac users can use this as well) that allows you to restrict the amount of time you spend on specific websites. Other apps are also available and they are listed here.


So, there you have it – five tips to help you avoid distractions. Hopefully, you’ve learned something useful that you can apply to your studying routine. It is important to remember, however, that there is no magic solution that will help you stay fully on task. It is perfectly normal to be distracted from time to time. But during those situations where you can’t afford to be distracted, try the tips listed above, or check out a bunch of other ones listed here.

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Top 3 Tips of Where to Start When Editing Your Paper

By Cassidy Burr, 2nd year English/Art History

For many years of my life, I was against editing my papers. I thought I did enough editing as I wrote, and that what I had done was “good enough.” Well, let me tell you what a difference editing can make and how “good enough” is no longer good enough for me. Looking at your paper with fresh eyes, and reading it all the way through, can make all the difference, but it can also be intimidating. Here are my top 3 tips on where to start editing your paper.

  1. The Lonely “This”

Let’s start out with one that a lot of people miss, but is easy to fix. Look for any time you have written the word “this” without anything after it. For example: “The environment is negatively affected by this.” This what? Being specific will help make your argument clearer and get to what you are trying to say faster. “This” needs to be followed by a noun which is clearly connected to a previous idea. The corrected example could be something like, “The environment is negatively affected by this cataclysmic event.”

  1. Tightly-Packed Sentences

A general rule of thumb is that your sentence should not be more than 4 lines long. Sometimes including a long sentence is fitting, but it still has to be properly punctuated. Even if you use the right punctuation, it still might be confusing for the reader if there are too many ideas in one sentence. Check your writing: how many ideas are you trying to include in a sentence? If there are more than one, try to break it up. If you can’t see the divide in the sentence, maybe ask a friend to read it and look for where the divide could go.

  1. Common Commas

Most of the time while talking to my friends about editing our papers, we talk about commas, and I think it is safe to say that commas are one of the most common forms of punctuation with which writers struggle. One hard and fast rule to look out for is to never put a comma between a subject and a verb. However, good writers need to know comma rules –  for more details check out the Writing Centre’s simple explanation here (PDF).

Even though this list is short, I hope that these three tips will help you get started with editing your paper, or maybe convince you that editing is worth it.


Photo courtesy of David Mulder under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0. 

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Transitioning Between Ideas In Your Writing

By Michelle Bates, 4th-year English/Sociology student

Figuring out how to transition between all of your strong ideas in a paper can be challenging. For some, it is the biggest road block in effectively communicating an argument! However, topic and concluding sentences in paragraphs are not to be feared. They can help focus your ideas and make all the difference in a paper’s coherence. I have three suggestions worth considering if you want to improve these key sentences in your work.

What is first basic to understand about topic and concluding statements is that they must begin and conclude only one complete thought. So, it is up to the topic sentence (the first sentence of a paragraph) to introduce this point, while the concluding sentence will explain why the information you have provided in the body of the paragraph is important. The next paragraph you write, and any after that, should not try to prove the same point. Once you understand their roles, you can try improving these sentences to be as effective and argumentative as possible through other techniques.

When considering how to make your opening sentences flow, you may try acknowledging the previous paragraph’s conclusions. There is a difference between making the same point and relating a previous point to the current one to make it even stronger. These types of transition sentences are most common in compare and contrast papers. However, in any type of paper they can effectively display an accumulation of valid points, reminding the reader of how these points relate to and support the main argument.

In addition to these two very useful pointers, the most important part of writing these sentences is that they always refer back to your thesis. Specifically, the topic sentence is there to introduce the paragraph’s point and how it supports your thesis, while the concluding sentence states exactly how this is accomplished with your evidence. This explanation is necessary for a great paper, and is most effectively accomplished by being as specific as possible.

Constructing these sentences is a little extra work. However, I can’t stress enough how much it can make the difference between locking down a strong argument, and having a sporadic, weak one. Hopefully these tips help; good luck with your future writing!


For more information on this topic, see:



Photo courtesy of nicodemo.valerio under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

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Exam Strategies? SASS has your back.


Welcome to exam season!


Student Academic Success Services has got you covered! Make an exam study schedule, or make a professional appointment with a learning strategist to hone your skills!

“Study smarter, not harder” is the cliche — but it’s true! Our “Preparing for and taking tests and exams” resources are thorough and will help you create a customized study schedule and teach you strategies for effectively preparing, no matter what type of test you face.


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Blog: Some further thoughts on the importance of outlining …

I know that a lot of people think that writing an essay outline is a waste of time. I’m here to convince you otherwise. I spent all of my high school years and at least one of my university years as an anti-outliner, but I finally realized that, for years, I’d been going about my papers in the wrong way.

Why should you write an outline?

Believe it or not, I find that the most difficult part of an essay is the outline, but I also think that it’s the most important (aside, of course, from the actual essay itself). I say it’s difficult because I use it as a tool to organize my ideas and to clarify my argument, and I find those aspects of essays to require the most brainpower. Once I’ve outlined my main points, I can see if any part of my thesis remains unsupported (rare) or if any of my points are digressions from my argument (basically every essay I’ve ever written). At that point, if I need to, I can cut out some points or do some more research. It’s also pretty great for making sure that your paper is balanced – nobody likes to read eight pages about your first point, and only two pages about your second.

Another bonus of having an outline is that you can take it to your TA for feedback. It’s one thing to have a TA approve your thesis (something I always recommend before beginning to write), but, if your TA can see your whole outline (and is so inclined), she or he can suggest where your argument needs more support or where you should rearrange your ideas.

How should you write an outline?

I have no one answer for this question. If you find a way that works for you, stick with it; if not, try something else. You want your outline to put your thoughts in order: you should try to have your ideas build on each other throughout your paper. In a strong essay, intentional paragraph order is important – you shouldn’t be able to randomly rearrange your paragraphs and have your argument still make as much sense, or “flow” as well from one point to another. Another thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need to prove your entire thesis in every paragraph. Work through it bit by bit, and support those bits with different paragraphs.

Personally, I like to outline by word count. I tend to write short essays, and I find that if I ascribe a certain number of words to each concept, it keeps me on track. I also like to colour code my outline (usually with highlighter dots), both because it looks pretty and because I can then go through my notes and mark the points that go in each section of my paper. From there, all I have to do is group all of my pink dots and all of my green dots, and then my essay practically writes itself.

Another method that I know is popular, especially if you’re technologically savvy and like to type up your notes, is to create your outline by cutting and pasting your notes into groups of main points. After that, you can just reword your clumps of notes into coherent sentences, and again, your essay is essentially writing itself.

If neither of those methods appeal to you, check out the Writing Centre’s handout on outlines: http://sass.queensu.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2013/06/Creating-Outlines.pdf.

Good luck with your essays, and until next time, happy writing!


Image of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar outline courtesy of http://michelleboydwaters.com/handwritten-outlines-of-famous-authors/ under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivations 2.0 license.

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Writing for the Web (How to Write Effectively for the Internet)

By Stacey Seymour, Peer Writing Assistant

Writing for the web is very different from any other form of writing. Research shows that it takes about 3 seconds for people to decide if a page is worth reading or not. If you’re working with websites at school, for your summer job, or just for pleasure, then you need to know how to tailor your webpage for your readers, so that they stay and read your amazing content.

Why is writing for the web different?

People scan the web – they don’t read it. Jakob Neilson, a web usability consultant, has done lots of research that shows that web users scan webpages for information, rather than reading word by word like they would in a book.

People also tend to read in an F pattern on the web. They start at the top, read the heading across the top of the page, and maybe a few other eye-catching things up there (like lists, numbers, subheadings). Then, they scan down the page from top to bottom.

You can use this research to help structure your pages effectively when you’re writing content.

Practical Tips for Writing for the Web

  • Figure out what your users want: This is the most important element of writing for the web. People are visiting your website for a specific purpose, and if you can figure out what that is, then you can give them exactly what they’re looking for (which is really the goal of any website)
  • Keep it short: No one wants to fight through tons of text to get to the information they’re looking for. Try and keep any content as concise as possible.
  • Use plain language: The language you use when writing for the web should be simple, everyday language. Avoid difficult or overly-decorative vocabulary, but don’t dumb-down your content either. You want to use the same kind of words you use in everyday speech.
  • Put the important information at the top: Make sure that the most essential information can be seen on the screen without having to scroll down.
  • Make the key message of your page clear immediately: The headline you choose for your page should immediately explain what information readers will find on this page. A brief page summary at the beginning of your page can also help with this.
  • Use strong verbs: Since your sentences should be short, use verbs that pack a punch in order to make the action happen quickly. For example: instead of saying “we will articulate and elaborate on our goals”, say “we will explain our goals”.
  • Use the active voice: The active voice usually produces simpler, more straightforward sentences.
  • Use “You” and “We”: Writing for the web is like a conversation, so your tone should be conversational. This means using pronous like “you” when referring to the reader, and “we” when referring to your organization.
  • Use a “top down” approach to paragraphs: Always put the most important information at the beginning of your paragraph, and add less important details toward the end.
  • Chunk your content: Readers online don’t always read from beginning to end. If you can, chunk your content into manageable bite-sized portions of information so that your reader can jump around on your page while still getting the information.
  • Use headings to guide your readers: Headings break up the text and help to chunk your information. Keep your headings informative, and (even though it’s less fun) avoid jokes or puns in your headings, as headings should be as clear as possible, and wordplay can be confusing.
  • Give just enough information: You need to give your readers enough information that they find what they were looking for, but don’t overwhelm them with details.

Remember that your page is there for the reader, not for your organization: Your page needs to give readers the information they’re looking for, not the information that your organization deems is important. Consider the fact that your organization is not who will be using your website. This may be difficult to explain to supervisors and clients who have a very specific image they want to present to the public, so try and work with those people to make your webpage useful for your readers, but also pleasing for your organization.

Photo courtesy of Christian Schnettelker under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

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Tips to Get You Through the Research Process

By Alex MacKenzie, Peer Writing Assistant

In first and second year, I found that one of the most difficult and time-consuming parts of the writing process was research.  With so many sources out there and so many ways to approach research, I always found the experience challenging.   With these tips, you’ll hopefully be able to get through the research process as painlessly as possible!

1. Start early!

As a student, I know how hard this first one can be.  With a million-and-one things on the go, finding the time to start an assignment weeks in advance can be tricky.  However, this is often the key to research success, as it allows you time to play around with your ideas, survey a wide range of sources, and visit your TA (see point 6).  My advice? Spend a few hours doing research as soon as you receive assignment. This will get you going on things early and give you a sense of how time consuming the research process is going to be. By starting early and figuring out how much time you need to spend on the assignment, you will be able to set distinct goals along the way to keep you on track throughout the writing process.

2. Know where to look.  

The initial stages of research can often be a difficult point in the writing process, especially if you are unfamiliar with the scholarship in the field.  Here are a few great places to start:

  • Visit the library website (http://library.queensu.ca/) and search the key words of your topic.  To narrow your search even more, you can tick off any applicable boxes on the left hand side:

blog photo

This is a quick and easy way to access some of the more prominent scholarship in the field.

  • Look to your textbook.  If there is a chapter on the topic you are researching, take a look at what sources are used.  This can provide a good starting point and give you some guidance.

3. Stick to scholarly and peer reviewed sources. 

In other words, steer clear of sources like Wikipedia or websites that aren’t academically credible. Generally, the sources you find in the library or on the library website are a safe bet.

4. Be mindful of source variation.

You don’t want all of your articles to be from the same academic journal or edited book.  Including a variety of sources will give you a deeper understanding of all sides of an argument.

5. Keep track of your sources.

It’s easy to become weighed down by all of the information that you’re picking up as you research.  That’s why it’s so important to keep your sources in order and your evidence properly labelled.  You can do this by keeping a word document of your sources and the information you collect from them as you research.  When you do this, remember to include page numbers with information.  This will make it much easier when you have to do citations.  This document will be useful when you start planning, as you will be able to reference it rather than flipping back and forth between sources again.

6. Visit your TA!

The number one thing I recommend to anyone working on a written assignment is to make an appointment to see whoever will be marking your work.  In most cases, this is your TA or a professor.  As written assignments are often subject to some degree of subjectivity, this is a great way to ensure that you’re on the right path. I find it most helpful to go in when I have completed my research and have a clear direction for where I would like to take the assignment.  Don’t be afraid to make multiple appointments if you feel that you need them or would like reassurance that you are on the right track.

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