Good Writing Checklist
Below is a checklist you can use to help guide your writing, whether it’s for a term paper, a thesis, or a peer-reviewed publication. Good papers should be able to answer yes to all of the questions.
- Does the title clearly and accurately tell the reader what the paper is about?
- If requested: Is the abstract concrete and short (between 100-200 words)?
- Is the paper formatted correctly with 1” margins, a normal font (Times New Roman or Arial, not Broadway) in a reasonable size (10-12 pts) with numbered pages (don’t make me count the pages to give you feedback)
- Does your introduction begin with the one most important and major contribution of the paper?
- Is the thesis statement found by the first sentence of the second paragraph at the latest?
- Does the paper provide the reader with a clear map of where the paper will be going without relying on an empty “roadmap” paragraph (e.g. “I will begin with an introduction, followed by a literature review…” etc.)?
Review of the Literature
- Does your lit review get to the point quickly? More importantly, does your lit review have a point and doesn’t read like a bullet list of loosely related articles?
- Are you using the most relevant and/or recent sources rather than every source possible or only the sources that support your claims?
- Were original sources used without relying on citations of citations?
- Are all of the key terms you’re using defined? (note that explaining the implications of terms, how people use the terms, or subtypes of terms are not definitions of terms)
- Does the literature review avoid meandering into irrelevant territory?
- Is a gap in the literature uncovered that doesn’t rely on insulting those who are being cited? E.g. “Although Budig and England’s (2001) work provides evidence for a motherhood wage penalty, we do not know if this wage penalty differs across racial categories.” is better than “Because Budig and England (2001) failed to consider how race impacts motherhood wage penalties, this paper fills an essential gap in an otherwise whitewashed literature.” And far better than “Budig and England’s (2001) work is highly cited but completely flawed for the most part.” (Ask yourself this: if the article you’re citing is so terrible, why are you discussing it?)
- Is every statement of supposed fact supported with a citation without relying on logical assumptions?
- Is the theory clearly connected to the literature review and useful for helping the reader better understand the research question?
- Is the theory understood well enough by the author so that the reader can also understand it?
- If quantitative/deductive, were testable hypotheses developed from the literature and/or theory?
- If qualitative/inductive, does the theory leave space for new theories to emerge later on from the data?
- If purely theoretical, I’m not the supervisor for you
Front-End Methods Section
- Is the discussion of the proposed data/methods/measures appropriate for the research question/theory?
- Is it clear who or what is going to be included and who will be excluded in the analysis?
- Is the author clear in how the data will be collected and analysed?
- If there are results in this paper (i.e. not a proposal) do the methods described in the front end match what was actually done in the research?
- Are the results supported with evidence in the data (quantitative or qualitative)?
- Are tables and/or graphs included that help the reader understand the results? Are they clearly formatted? Are they understandable for an experienced researcher to understand without having to go through the paper with a fine-toothed comb? Are they explained clearly enough in the text so that a novice reader can understand them?
- Do the results link back to the literature review and the theory?
- Is the overall picture explained? Do we see the forest and not just an infinite number of little trees?
- Are limitations included that honestly express what else needs to be done? Are the limitations something that could not have been overcome and there’s good reason why the author didn’t address the limitation in his/her own work already?
- Does the conclusion neatly summarize the point without repeating everything that was already said and/or introducing completely new ideas?
- Does every word/sentence paragraph/section count? If you cut that word/sentence/paragraph/section, does the meaning of the paper change? Is the paper concise, pithy, succinct (without repeating the same idea three ways?)
- Does each paragraph start with a topic sentence followed by supporting sentences?
- Is each sentence structured as: subject, verb, and object? Thereby avoiding run-on sentences, sentence fragments (like this one), passive voice, or the overuse of adjectives?
- Is each word actually the best one to clarify the authors’ ideas to the widest audience possible? (Sometimes big words are more precise but more often they are unnecessary or used incorrectly)
- Does the author take responsibility for what s/he is writing? In other words, do they avoid passive sentences beginning with statements like “It should be noted that” & do they have a confidently stated point?
- Is the text written consistently in the same tense, preferably present tense?
- Have you typed in ctrl+f and searched for the words “it” “it’s” “Its” and replaced them all with another word(s) and judiciously removed most other pronouns, with a limited sprinkling of “I” or “we” (“nous” over “je” en francais)?
- Were the citations in the references section all included in the paper and vice versa?
- Were references consistently formatted and complete?
- Are there enough citations? (note: there is no magic number)
- Was I able to read at a consistent pace without having to stop repeatedly to try to understand the author’s meaning?
- Does the research make an important contribution to the literature beyond just that no one has done it before? (note: No one that I know of has ever done a sociological study of why dogs pee on trees. This gap in the literature is not an indication that someone should study this topic.)
- Did the author avoid relying on clichés or assumptions of shared knowledge/political opinion/outrage? (e.g. “Since Millennials are obviously the worst, we need to study their behavior so we can make the world a better place.”)
- If an MA paper: Did this demonstrate an adequate ability to analyse the material?
- If a Ph.D. proposal/paper: Did this demonstrate an adequate ability to synthesize the material?
- Was the paper interesting? Did I manage to read it all without being distracted by Facebook or second-guessing my career choice?