Writing Numbers

I know I’m not the only one that has struggled to remember the rules regarding when to write 3 or three in an essay. Fortunately, I will be clarifying the rules so that next time you run into this issue, you will remember what to do. Here are some brief rules to follow.

1. The most commonly known rule is that if the number is less than 10, you must use the actual word (one, two, three, etc.). Additionally, if the number is greater than 10, you should use the numerals. However, you may choose to use words for numbers that are higher than ten and can be said in no more than two words. It is a matter of personal choice, but either way is accepted.

Example 1: All of the thirty-nine students attended math class yesterday.
All of the 39 students attended math class yesterday.

Example 2: There are 178 children enrolled for the summer cheerleading camp.

Incorrect: There are one hundred seventy-eight children enrolled for the summer cheerleading camp.

2. Always use words for numbers that are at the beginning of a sentence. If possible, re-word the sentence so that a long number is not at the beginning.

Example 1: Eight hundred fifty animals were rescued last year by the new wildlife preservation organization.

Example 2 (revised): The new wildlife preservation organization rescued 850 animals last year.

3. Numbers within the same categories should show consistency.

Example: The woman bought 30 dollars worth of lottery tickets from five different stores. She previously won 100 dollars from purchasing tickets from two different stores.

Incorrect: I have 20 pairs of shoes, but nine of them are too small for me now.

In the incorrect example, I should have either spelled out twenty or written the number 9 in order to make them consistent.

4. Spell out shorter versions of decades in lower-case letters. Or, put an apostrophe before the number and not before the s.

Example 1: I was born in the seventies (or '70s), and my parents were born in the forties (or '40s).

Incorrect: I was born in the ‘70’s, and my parents were born in the ‘40’s.

Example 2: I was born in the 1970s (or 1970’s), and my parents were born in the 1940s (or 1940’s).

5. The time of day can be written either as the number (using a.m. or p.m.) or written out (using o’clock). However, when you are expressing 12:00 a.m., use the word midnight instead. Also, use the word noon in place of 12:00 p.m.

For more tips on writing numbers in an essay, visit Daily Writing Tips.


I wouldn’t recommend habitually using parentheses in essay writing. Newspaper articles, personal narratives, and other informal writing styles are the only types of papers that should have parentheses. So, it is best to know how to use them appropriately. Parentheses are used to add a piece of information that otherwise would cause the reader to misunderstand your point.

Example: My father took my two youngest brothers to the baseball game (my oldest brother was away at college).

Without the use of parentheses, the reader might think that my father didn’t want to take my oldest brother to the game. By adding the statement inside the parentheses, I made it clear that the oldest brother was out of town, and that’s why he didn’t go to the game. Making a new sentence to explain that my oldest brother was away at school wouldn’t be the best way to introduce that piece of information. Parentheses can also be used to expand on the details of a specific topic.

Example: My father took my brothers to the baseball game (Braves vs. Red Sox).


Sometimes seeing long names of popular organizations (i.e. Central Intelligence Agency) can be quite troubling for the reader of your essay. In an essay that will be using the name of the organization more than once, it is best to follow it with the common acronym associated with it (shown in parentheses).

Example: The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been following Mr. Jones in a secret mission. Mr. Jones is unaware that the CIA has been tracking his location for the past few months.

In-Text Citations

Research papers require the use of citations to show from which sources your information has been gathered. Using parentheses to cite the references is appropriate. In APA style, cite the author’s last name followed by the page numbers. An example of this style can be found here.

eHow offers more helpful advice regarding the use of parentheses.


When is the proper time to use a contraction? Which styles of papers should have them? As a matter of fact, what’s a contraction, exactly?

I've noticed that Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader has asked numerous contestants to find contractions within sentences. It's very puzzling to see adults struggling with this simple part of speech. It might be beneficial to become familiar with these words as they play a huge part in everyday language (and in essay writing).

A contraction is a simplified version of one or two words by omission of one or more letters and the use of an apostrophe. The most noted example of confusion when it comes to using a contraction can be found in the following two words: your, and you're.

Example: Your dog just ate my food, and now you're going to have to buy another meal for me.

You're is a contraction. It is the combination of you and are. We say it all the time, but when it's written, it's usually spelled incorrectly. Your is an adjective describing a noun (Whose dog is it? It's your dog, not you're dog). If you're ever unsure of which spelling is correct, try saying the sentence using you are in place of the word each time. If it fits, then use the contraction you're. If not, use the adjective your.

Example: You are dog just ate my food, and now you are going to have to buy another meal for me.

It doesn't fit in the first clause, but it does in the second.

Using Contractions in Essays

Contractions are seen in very informal writing styles. This blog, for instance, is very informal. I can freely use contractions because this writing should flow easily, as if I were having a conversation with you. If you haven't noticed, I have been using contractions in this entire blog already. They're written in green. The problem with many contractions that are used in everyday language is that many people don't know how to spell them, or they use them incorrectly.

Example: I could've taken the bus, but I decided to walk instead.

Could've is a contraction of could and have.

Incorrect: I could of taken the bus, but I decided to walk instead.

When writing a research paper or any other formal paper, make sure there are no contractions in the essay. I'd also recommend not using contractions in resumes, cover letters, or school application personal statements. Usually, it won't be necessary to come up with a new word to use. Simply take the apostrophe out of the contraction and use the words separately.

Example (informal writing): Today, the medical staff told Carrie that she'll be discharged soon.

Example (formal writing): Today, the medical staff told Carrie that she will be discharged soon.

The second example shows that by taking the contraction out of the sentence, I've made it more professional in appearance and made it sound more professional to read. Some contractions won't be appropriate to separate, but the majority of them will; use your own judgment. For example, the contractions o'clock and ma'am are better understood as contractions.

Be sure to read the sentence thoroughly before assuming that it will make sense without the contraction.

Example: Didn't Mark say he would take Sarah to the movies?

Incorrect: Did not Mark say he would take Sarah to the movies?

Although the contraction is separated, the second sentence is not written properly. When you are writing a negative question (using the word not), then the verb goes before the subject and not goes after the subject.

Example: Did Mark not say he would take Sarah to the movies?

This would be the correct way to write the sentence in a formal essay.

One last point that I'd like to make is that the contraction it's does not show possession of an object. With most other nouns, the use of an apostrophe and the letter s shows possession.

Examples: John's cat; the baby's toy; my car's engine

However, possessive pronouns do not have apostrophes.

Examples: that lamp is hers, its eyes were open

For a list of contractions and the words from which they are formed, visit Enchanted Learning.

Consult my blog about commonly misspelled words for more information on words like your and you're.

For more help on possessive pronouns and apostrophes, visit Purdue OWL.

How to Create a Useful Outline

Updated September 7, 2017
In high school, teachers always stressed the importance of writing an outline before beginning your essay, but how many of us really took the time to do this? I remember waiting until the night before it was due to start on the paper. However, in college, it’s harder to get an A if you wait until the last minute. Professors aren’t as lenient about poor writing, and they expect papers to flow logically. Creating an outline can not only help your paper flow, but it’s an easy way to get your paper done without experiencing writer’s block!

Outlines don’t always have to be structured in the way you were taught in school (using alphanumeric symbols, etc.). In fact, the best way to outline is whatever comes naturally to you. Outlines are meant to be helpful, but they are often seen as useless by many students. The problem, in my opinion, is the way we are told to outline in school. For me, using Roman numerals can be just as confusing as writing the paper without an outline. Also, I was told to use phrasing instead of complete sentences for my outlines. However, I have found that writing my entire thoughts in complete sentences makes it much easier to write the paper, because the sentences were already done.

I almost always hand write my outlines. I keep a spiral notebook that is used only for outlining, and I am able to write ideas as they come to mind. Usually, when I am given a writing assignment, I immediately think of some points that I want to be sure to include in the paper. I write these ideas down (in complete sentences), and each of them start on a new line. Then, I go back and write numbers next to each sentence/idea in the order I want them to appear in my paper. It’s not always convenient to have your computer ready when you think of an idea for your paper. Having a notebook to quickly write down ideas is a very useful tool.

This has been the easiest technique for me when writing research papers, because there is a lot of information to keep up with. While I’m researching, I will write down main points and the citations of where I found these ideas. Then, when I sit down at my computer, I have the notebook handy to keep my ideas flowing. For example, if I was assigned to write a biography of a friend, I would have a list that looks something like this:

  • Jerry was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in December on a very cold winter day.
  • When he was two years old, his father died in a car accident.
  • He had three older sisters that helped his mother.
  • I met Jerry in the second grade and we have been friends since then.
  • We had many adventures during recess.
  • In high-school, we dated the same girl.
  • He studied journalism in college.
  • We enjoyed staying up all night discussing the writings of Lenin and Marx.
  • Jerry is now a successful lawyer in Washington, DC.
  • He earns more in one month than I earn in a year.
  • Vive la révolution!

These few short sentences will give me ideas for about three or four paragraphs. I could expand on the day he was born, and what the weather conditions were like. I could talk more about his father and explain how Jerry didn’t get the chance to know him very well. I could expand on his three sisters and their lives, or I could talk more about his mother and how her life influenced him. Just having this brief outline makes it easier when it’s time to write the paper. I could go in a lot of different directions.

Finally, be sure to read your paper after every 2-3 paragraphs, and then read it again when it’s complete. I’ve talked to many students that mention never going back over their papers and editing after the first draft. If you aren’t the type of person that works well with outlines (as many of us aren’t), then treat the first draft of your paper as your outline! You may be a good writer, but papers are never perfect the first time through. You may realize some points you left out, some points you’ve repeated too much, or maybe that a paragraph that you wrote at the end would fit much better in the beginning of your paper. In Microsoft Word (and many other word processing programs), there is an option to highlight. This is a very helpful tool when you go back to read your paper, because you can highlight words or sentences that may need improvement (as an easy reference to go back and correct them later).

No matter what method of outlining works best for you, there’s no denying that making a detailed outline before you begin writing is the best way to present your ideas in a clear, precise, and logical order. A well developed outline will save you a lot of time in the revision process, reducing the number of times that your ideas will need to be rearranged after you've written them.

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Writing a Strong Research Paper

1. See Writing a Strong Essay for help on basic writing for the paper (introduction, conclusion, etc.).

2. Spend a good amount of time searching for information before you start writing your paper. Reading websites and journals about the topic you are going to be writing about will help you decide which specific idea you want to center your paper around.

3. Don’t limit yourself to the first few sources you find. Having a definition from dictionary.com may not be as effective as having a definition from a scholarly source. Avoid citing references from web pages ending in .com and utilize any tools offered by your school to find scholarly references (research papers, articles, professional journals, etc.). Better websites to reference will end in the following: .edu; .org; .gov; or .net.

4. One of the most important factors to remember when writing a research paper is to strictly follow the guidelines of the format that you are told to use in your assignment instructions.

American Psychological Association (APA) style is used mostly in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Helpful websites are below:



Resource for the references page:

Modern Language Association (MLA) style is used mostly for writing in language and literature classes. Helpful websites are below:



Resource for the references page:

Chicago Manual of Style has two formats. The notes-bibliography style is used mostly for writing in literature, history and the arts. The author-date style is used mostly for the physical, natural, and social sciences. Helpful websites are below:



Resource for citations:

See Titles to learn about the specific guidelines regarding title pages and how to come up with a good title for your research paper.

Writing a Strong Essay


1. The introduction is often considered the most important part of your paper. Its main purpose is to sell your topic to the reader and grab their attention, making them want to read more.

Avoid starting your paper with “I am going to write about…” and “I want you to know about…”
Instead of starting with these sentences, just jump into the topic! The reader should understand what the paper will be addressing without you having to tell them.

2. Your thesis statement should present the argument to be discussed. It should be specific and doesn’t necessarily need to be concise. Examples of thesis statements are below.

Topic: Siberian Tigers

Example 1: In Russia, Siberian Tigers do not have a safe habitat in which to live.

Example 2: Siberian Tigers should be protected because they are being killed at alarming rates.

Example 3: Due to the ever increasing amount of poachers in the eastern region of Russia, Siberian Tigers are facing extinction, and their habitat needs to be protected.

The first example is a weak thesis statement. Although it addresses the topic to be discussed, it doesn’t necessarily present an argument or draw the reader’s attention into the paper. The second example is better, but it is not specific enough. The third example is the strongest because it not only explains the need for protection of the habitat, but it helps the reader understand that poachers are the main cause for putting the tigers at risk of extinction.

Argumentative Writing

3. Remember, not everyone will be interested in your paper. You will have readers that will agree with you and some readers that disagree. Make sure you are consistent with your side of the argument, and don’t sway back and forth in order to please both sides. Jumping from side to side will make your paper seem weak and confusing.

Example 1: Human cloning is helpful to the scientific community because it opens possibilities of creating organs for patients that are in need of these vital tissues. It should not be allowed for research because human lives are affected. However, it could be helpful in the long run.

This example shows that jumping from one side to another can make it difficult for the reader to understand your point of view. It is okay to acknowledge how the other side feels, but you want to keep your own point of view intact.

Example 2: Human cloning is helpful to the scientific community because it opens possibilities of creating organs for patients that are in need of these vital tissues. Although some might argue that it should not be allowed because human lives are affected, human cloning could be very resourceful in the long run.

This example successfully balances how to explain the other side’s viewpoint while still remaining strong in your initial argument. You want to make sure to follow your statements with quotations and evidence of researchers in the field of your topic that can make your argument stronger.

4. Keep terminology consistent throughout your essay. The type of language used depends on the type of essay you are writing. Pay attention to the assignment given. There are general rules for writing essays, but assignments for class often have specific guidelines that need to be followed.

Argumentative Paper

Do not stray away from your side of the argument. Your language should be strong and concise. It is okay to have personal judgment, but also support your argument with evidence from research and/or scholarly resources. Strong argumentative papers will address the opposing side’s views and have claims against them. Avoid using first person pronouns (I, me, we, us, etc.) unless otherwise stated in the assignment instructions.

Example 1: Some Christians feel that abortion is wrong because it is considered murder of a human being.

Incorrect: I am a Christian, and I feel that abortion is wrong because I consider it murder of a human being.

Example 2: Many Americans would argue that the U.S. government should not bail out any more companies in order to boost its economy.

Incorrect: We, as Americans, feel that the government should not bail out any more companies in order to boost our economy.

It isn’t necessary to state how you feel necessarily. You should argue from a point of view, which could include a large group of individuals. By taking yourself out of the argument, and by supporting your argument with evidence and scholarly sources, you will be enabling the reader to have an objective opinion about a certain issue.

Personal Narrative

The reader should be entertained with your writing. Personal narratives can be both humorous and emotional. You should find a way to establish a connection with the reader so that he or she remains interested. The language should be very personal and first person pronouns are inevitable.

Tenses are crucial in this type of writing. Be consistent in your writing, whether it’s in past, present, or future tense.

Incorrect: Monica and I traveled to New York City for the New Year’s Eve celebration. However, we didn’t reserve a hotel room for the night. I can’t believe I have to stay in New Jersey. I don’t mind staying in a cheap motel, but I didn’t want to.

This example shows that the author did not use the tenses properly. Although it can be appropriate to jump back and forth between tenses throughout a paper, it should not occur in the middle of a paragraph about only one topic. The following example shows how this paragraph could be written appropriately.

Example: Monica and I traveled to New York City for the New Year’s Eve celebration. However, we didn’t reserve a hotel room for the night. I can’t believe I had to stay in New Jersey. I usually don’t mind staying in a cheap motel, but I didn’t want to that night.

Instead of confusing the reader by jumping between tenses, this example shows how to stay in the same tense when it’s appropriate. The sentence I can’t believe I had to stay in New Jersey uses both present and past tense verbs, but they illustrate how the author is currently reflecting on the experience. In the last sentence, some words were added to make the sentence clearer and more readable.

Book Report

These assignments usually have a certain goal in mind for your paper. You may be asked to write as a critic, analyzing the book from a certain point of view. On the other hand, you may be asked to write a character analysis or a review illustrating the plot through symbolism. Whatever the case, make sure to follow the instructions of your assignment. Book reports can either be formal or informal.

If it is to be a formal critique, keep your writing objective. In other words, don’t say “I feel this was a good book because…” Instead, describe what the author did to make it good, and let the reader decide whether or not they would like it. You want to give an overall review of the aspects of the plot and characters without making a judgment of your own (unless told to do so in the assignment instructions, which would make it an informal critique).

Research Paper

Do not use first person pronouns (I, me, we, us, etc.). The language of a research paper should be very formal and should contain no contractions (don’t, won’t, etc.).

See Writing a Strong Research Paper for more information on this topic.

Newspaper Article

Newspaper articles are the most informal type of writing. Many of the general grammar rules do not have to be followed to allow for easier reading. You can use personal pronouns and have shorter, more concise sentences. It is not important to support claims with evidence. Articles are usually written from one point of view on a personal level between the author and reader.

5. Use transition words to help your paper flow more smoothly. Read #6 on General Grammar Tips to learn how to properly use these words. Transition words can help your paper feel complete rather than choppy.

Find a list of transition words here.


6. The best way to begin writing your conclusion is to use the introduction paragraph(s) of your paper. Do not repeat what you have already written. Instead, expand on your thesis statement by describing how the evidence you found to support your ideas is important. You want to leave the reader with something to remember about your paper.

It is perfectly fine to begin writing your conclusion even before you are finished with the rest of your paper. Sometimes it is easier to write part of the conclusion before you have finished doing research. Starting earlier on the conclusion will help you be consistent throughout the paper, and it will prevent the reader from reading repetitive statements.

If you didn't fully find evidence to support your thesis, or if there are gaps in research regarding a certain topic, put it in your conclusion! The reader should be well-informed about the process you took when writing the paper and how much work still needs to be done on the topic.

Imagine picking up a paper and only reading the last page. You should be able to get an idea of the topics discussed and why this paper was written. It should also be clear what the reader’s point of view is. If your reader skimmed through your paper and only grasped the last few paragraphs, they should still be left with a strong and lasting impression.

Finally, although it may be tempting, NEVER plagiarize someone's work.  To check for unintentional plagiarism, visit our free plagiarism checker.

Coming up with a Good Title

Read my post about Titles to learn which words should be capitalized and how to come up with a good title.

General Grammar Tips

1. Avoid slang terminology. Imagine writing a paper for someone from a different country. That person may not be familiar with slang terms that are used in conversational language.

Example 1: Mark knew how hard it was to get clean after being addicted to drugs for 5 years.
Example 2: Julie was a typical girl next door, and everyone loved being around her.
Example 3: My grandfather was out there, so we didn’t stay very long, in case he was going to do something crazy.

Get clean should have been exchanged with become sober so that it was clear for the reader.

Instead of using girl next door to describe Julie, her personality traits should have been listed or defined. Not everyone understands what this slang term means, and people could have different definitions for it. Also, using the phrase out there to describe someone that is mentally unstable would be confusing for a reader that was unfamiliar with this terminology. Be sure to make your writing more formal to the point that it could be translated into another language and still be understood.

Shameless plug:  Grammar errors can be difficult to spot.  Use our free online grammar check to catch these mistakes before your readers do.

2. Never use quotation marks for apologetic reasoning or for terms that are being defined.

Example 1: They were told to stop the party because they were “disturbing” the neighbors.
Example 2: Michael Jackson referred to himself as the “King of Pop.”
Example 3: “Photosynthesis” is defined as the process of converting light energy to chemical energy and storing it in the bonds of sugar.

The use of quotation marks in these sentences makes them seem weak. Only use quotation marks when actually quoting someone else’s work, and always cite your reference(s).

If you want to put emphasis on a word, you should italicize it to make it stand out.

3. Avoid excessive use of commas and semicolons. These punctuation marks can be very effective, but when they are used too frequently, the paper will not flow easily for the reader.

4. Follow the words this, these, and those with the actual element to which you are referring. Otherwise, don’t use them.

Example 1: The coaches of the baseball team knew each player’s strengths. These strengths helped them win the game.

If I would have left strengths out of the above sentence, it would have been unclear whether I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to coaches or strengths.

Incorrect: On Thanksgiving, Susan’s family eats turkey for lunch, watches a movie on television, and plays games all evening. This is her favorite part of the holiday.

It is unclear which part of Thanksgiving is Susan’s favorite. The sentence could have been: Playing games is her favorite part of the holiday.

Sometimes it is more appropriate to take the words this, these, and those out of the sentence completely. They can make the author appear to be confused or have a lack of direction in his or her writing. Replacing this with playing games made the sentence stronger and more focused.

5. Proper use of a semicolon (;):

a. Between two independent clauses (complete sentences) without using a coordinating conjunction (and, but, so, or, nor, yet):

Example 1: I went to the mall to buy clothes with my credit card; all of the stores that I visited would only take cash.

Example 2: President Obama gave a great speech this afternoon; I feel inspired to volunteer.

A semicolon is followed by a space and a lower-case letter, unless the second independent clause starts with a proper noun. Both sides of the semicolon should be complete sentences that relate to each other.

Incorrect: My sister loves taking her kids to the beach; where they can swim in the ocean.

In the sentence above, a comma should have been used instead of a semicolon, because the second clause is not a complete sentence.

Incorrect: Mark has three dogs; and he named them after The Three Stooges.

In the sentence above, the word and should be removed. The semicolon takes the place of a coordinating conjunction. The use of a comma would be appropriate with the word and.

b. To list items that contain punctuation:

Example: We traveled to the following places: Las Vegas, Nevada; San Francisco, California; and Chicago, Illinois.

Since each item contains a comma between the city and state, a semicolon is used to separate them. A semicolon would not be used to separate items that do not contain punctuation.

Example: My grocery list included eggs, milk, and bread.

6. Transition words should only be used at the beginning of a sentence or immediately after a semicolon.

Example 1: Plato was Aristotle’s teacher; however, Aristotle disagreed with many of Plato’s ideas.
Example 2: News reporters were at the scene of the crime. Consequently, the public knew about the robbery within minutes after the incident took place.

Find a list of transition words here.

7. Avoid using the words such, like, and a lot whenever possible. Find other words in a thesaurus that can replace these words. A free thesaurus can be found here.

8. Do not begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions (and, but, so, or, nor, yet). These words should only be used to connect two independent clauses. One way to check if you are using them correctly is to see if any of these words are capitalized within your paper. They should always be written in lower case.

9. Avoid starting many sentences with the word because. It is okay to use this word in the beginning of a phrase to introduce a new topic, but seeing it throughout a paper can make it difficult to grab the reader’s attention.

Example 1: Because felony offenders are unable to vote, they feel that they are not treated fairly after being released from prison. Because the majority of the public agrees with the law that prohibits them from voting, the prisoners will not be able to vote anytime soon.

Example 2: Due to the fact that felony offenders are unable to vote, they feel that they are not treated fairly after being released from prison. The prisoners will probably not be able to vote anytime soon, because the majority of the public agrees with the law that prohibits them from voting.

The second example looks more professional and doesn’t seem to be as repetitive.

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