Five Tips to Improve Writing

1. Train yourself to read critically.

Reading critically will help you to think logically, leading to more organized and nuanced writing. Critical reading has the added benefit of allowing you to plow through heavy political science reading loads more quickly.

So how do you learn to read critically? Most political science scholarly work follows a similar pattern. In their writing, most scholars: (1) introduce a puzzle or an observation, which leads them to ask a question; (2) build on other scholars’ work to formulate an argument in response to that question; and (3) use evidence (quantitative or qualitative data) to test their argument. The challenge is learning how to pick out these main points, and then keep them straight when reading piles up over the course of a semester.

Dorothy Ohl is a PhD student and graduate teaching assistant in GW’s Department of Political Science. She created an Excel spreadsheet that she uses to keep notes for her graduate seminars, undergraduate courses she supports, and independent research. Check it out, and consider how you might adapt it to guide your reading and organize your class or research notes. She also has also suggested 10 Steps to Reading Political Science Writing.

2. Spend 10 minutes analyzing your writing assignment.

When approaching a research or writing project, students often wonder “what the professor is looking for.” Learning how to dissect an assignment prompt can facilitate creating a clear outline for your paper. 

The University of North Carolina Writing Center’s guide explains how to read the assignment prompt—recognizing what kind of information your professor is communicating through that document. As the resource explains, paying attention to the words used in the assignment will clarify your expected motivation in writing the paper, audience, use of evidence, writing style, and other technical details.

After your initial analysis of the prompt, feel free to bring it to the GW Writing Center, where you can talk through your approach with a writing tutor!

3. Know your weaknesses; find targeted resources.

One of the tough parts about developing your writing is understanding where you need to improve, and how you might work towards addressing your weaknesses.

A common comment at the end of a paper is, “You need to develop your argument more.” But what does this mean? The University of North Carolina Writing Center has a guide on forming an argument, supporting it with evidence, and addressing a counterargument.

Your professor or TA might also recommend that your introduction include a clearer thesis statement. By this, they mean a sentence or two near the paper’s beginning that distills your argument. The UNC Writing Center provides a guide on this as well.

A paper draft might end with a peer or professor’s comment that the paper requires greater organization. Usually, poor organization (repetitive paragraphs; lack of clear transitions between paragraphs) is a symptom of an argument that is still in development—not clearly and logically laid out as of yet. GW University Writing Program Professor Carol Hayes developed a short exercise students can use to recognize these organizational issues.

Another trick is to exchange a draft with a classmate—you each print out your paper so there is only one paragraph on each page and scramble the pages. Then, see if your partner puts them in the “correct” order. If your partner has a difficult time doing this for your paper, it hints at flaws in argumentation and organization. You can then have a conversation about the transition sentences that might help the argument “flow” more logically, or the gaps in the argument that need to be addressed.

Argumentation, thesis statements, and organization are common initial areas to strengthen your writing. But as you develop, acknowledge your tertiary opportunities for improvement—do you need to seek out advice on writing introductions and conclusions? More elegantly integrating sources into your argument? Professors and teaching assistants can help you identify areas for improvement in your writing more easily if you bring a draft or graded final paper to hour offices and have a discussion about their comments.

4. Get feedback along the way.

The least helpful feedback you’ll receive on written work comes in the form of final paper comments. At that point, you are moving on to the next assignment; while you should consider how to address the instructor’s comments in subsequent writing, you will be starting a new project and argument and it may be difficult to see the connections.

The most influential feedback comes as early as drafting your paper’s research question or brainstorming your approach to the assignment prompt. GW’s Writing Center encourages students to make an appointment, bring in an assignment prompt, and discuss how the student is planning to respond to the prompt.

Visiting the instructor during office hours can provide critical direction for your research and writing during the project’s formative stages. It is most helpful to bring something concrete to office hours—specific questions about the assignment’s wording and your approach to answering its question, a draft thesis statement, a one-page outline, a diagram representing your argument, etc.

5. Seek out extracurricular writing activities.

Many people finish their undergraduate work and only years later feel confident in their writing. This is often because we do not write frequently enough during our undergraduate studies to realize substantial improvements in writing clarity. It also is a sign that there are different types of writing, and that it takes time to learn how to write a political science research paper, as opposed to a policy memo, as opposed to a news brief for a busy boss. Picking up extracurricular writing activities as an undergraduate can accelerate this learning process.

In addition to building your writing technique, such writing experiences can cultivate interests you pursue in senior undergraduate research, or the writing material itself can serve as a writing sample for jobs or graduate school applications (see our advice on professional outlets for writing)

Outside-of-class writing opportunities might include: 

  • Writing for the school newspaper. Learn how to join the GW Hatchet team.
  • Contributing to a blog. The blogosphere is vast. Professors and graduate students can recommend blogs in line with your academic interest. For instance, for those with an international relations interest, contact e-IR regarding submission options. If you are interested in Middle East politics, consider submitting a blog post concept to Jadaliyya or Muftah.
  • Starting your own blog. You might create a blog at the start of a study abroad experience, to write about your passion for basketball, or to focus on your thesis topic. Check out this list of top undergraduate blogs for inspiration.
  • Seeking out writing-intensive internships. Summarizing an event you attended for your boss, writing a daily news brief, authoring portions of organization reports, contributing to the organization’s blog—these are all invaluable writing experiences that, by the way, look great on your resume.