Prof. Thompson/History Dept.
GENERAL COMMENTS AND SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING PAPERS
1. Please proofread papers carefully before handing them in. Even if you have someone else type your papers, you are responsible for proofreading—and for meeting deadlines (make SURE your typist will have your work to you in time or that you have timely access to a printer!). Also, it is a big tactical mistake to turn in a messy paper. Such work inevitably produces a negative reaction from instructors; further, it suggests (however unintentionally) that the writer does not care about the quality of work she or he turns in, or about the impression it makes. Do you want to imply that you have a poor self-image?
2. Learn from the unfortunate experiences of others. If you work on a computer, ALWAYS make a backup copy of your work—preferably on a separate disk. [”Losing” one’s only copy when the computer “eats” it is not an acceptable excuse for turning in a paper late.] If you use a typewriter, make a photocopy of each paper before you turn it in. NEVER assume that a paper which is slid under an office door, placed on someone’s desk in her/his absence, or placed in a mailbox is actually “turned in.” Unless specifically directed to do otherwise, it is best to give the paper personally to your professor or T.A.
3. Staple or clip pages of papers together; DO NOT USE TAPE OR ANY SORT OF BINDER! Leave proper margins (at least 1 inch all the way around), and NUMBER EACH PAGE.
4. EVERY PAPER MUST HAVE A TITLE. It need not be elegant or flashy, but “Assignment Number 1” or “Term Paper” will not do. It should also bear some relationship to the purpose of the paper; “Democratic Party Opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s Court-Packing Plan” may not be sexy, but it does inform the reader about what is to follow.
5. When in doubt about the spelling of a word, look it up!
6. Make sure that pronouns agree in number with their antecedents, and make sure that their antecedents are clearly identifiable.
7. All individual geographic entities and most collective nouns take singular verbs and are antecedents to singular pronouns. In other words, do not say: “The South . . . they,” “Congress . . . they,” “Chrysler Corporation . . . they,” etc. [See also #15, below.] P.S. In contrast, “media” and “data” are plural (the singulars are “medium” and “datum”).
8. One relatively easy way to improve your writing style is to vary the structures and lengths of your sentences. Also, avoid excessive repetition of words; when appropriate, try to use synonyms.
9. Regarding synonyms: it is all right to use a thesaurus if you know how to use it properly. But just because a word is classified as a potential synonym for another, you cannot use it indiscriminately. Make sure that the word you choose is appropriate and precise, within the particular context in which you want to use it.
10. Avoid excessively long, and one-sentence, paragraphs. Review rules governing paragraphing; a paragraph should be directed toward discussion and development of a single idea or point.
11. Avoid verbosity and redundancies. Try to make essays as concise as you can; everything you say should be relevant, and essential to your argument.
12. Be aware of, and respect, the distinctions between less and fewer, its and it’s, much and many, affect and effect, there and their, singular and plural possessives, colons and semicolons, etc. Those who know how to use “that” and “which” appropriately will earn many brownie points for their erudition.
13. Avoid anthropomorphism (ascribing animation to inanimate objects). Do not say: “The South hated the North;” “The factory stepped on the workers;” etc.
14. Avoid using contractions, abbreviations, colloquialisms, jargon, slang, and indefinite phrases (“sort of,” “kind of,” etc.) in formal papers. And do not use comparative words (such as “more” or “less”) unless both elements of the comparison are stated. In other words, do not say, “The United States was more industrialized in 1900,” unless the less industrialized time is also given: “The United States was more industrialized in 1900 than in 1860.”
15. When talking about the United States or the “American people,” do not refer to it or them as “we” or “us.” [Incidentally, “United States” is singular; this is a philosophical and ideological, as well as grammatical, truth.] Plural first-person pronouns are not only historically inaccurate (e.g., were you really there when “*we* beat the British in the Battle of New Orleans”?), but they smack of jingoist nationalism, as well. In fact, whenever possible, avoid using both the first and second persons in formal writing—although the judicious use of “I” is preferable to “this author,” “the writer of this paper,” the royal or papal “we,” awkward passive constructions, etc.
16. Avoid sweeping historical generalizations based upon limited or nonexistent evidence: “All Americans [or ‘millions of Americans’] longed for opportunities available along the frontier;” “Americans in the 1890s were racists.”
17. Be conscious of the pitfalls of ethnocentrism, sexism, class bias, and so on—and strive to avoid them. Not all Americans were—or are—male, white, middle class, native-born, Christian, etc. And not all people are Americans. Do not, for instance, refer to females by their first names (“Jane” for Jane Addams); would you call F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Scott” (or “F.”)? And PLEASE avoid arbitrary use of male denotations for people generally. [In response to those who believe that “man” and male pronouns are “generic” terms, consider the implications of the following: “We want to hire the best man for the job”—or the statement (correct by “traditional” standards of usage) that “Some believe that it is up to each individual to decide whether or not he should have an abortion.”] In short, do not assume or assert homogeneity or consensus where it does not exist—and do not ascribe your attitudes, gender, identity, or beliefs to the world at-large.
18. Make sure that the idea or thesis you intend to develop is stated clearly and explicitly, preferably toward the beginning of your paper. This is extremely important; to a great extent, your analysis will be judged in terms of what you say you intend to do. A clear statement of purpose is one of the single most important elements in any essay. A well-defined thesis or topic should plot the course of a paper; the entire discussion should be directed toward and focused around explication of this central idea.
19. Take care to keep your verb tenses consistent; avoid haphazard transitions from present to past, etc. Verbs must agree in number with their subjects. Also, avoid split infinitives, dangling participles, etc. Whenever possible, use the active, rather than the passive, voice. And, remember, transitive verbs must have an object.
20. Think BEFORE you write; try composing an outline or, at least, spelling out the major points you intend to cover and the order in which you intend to cover them. Focus your argument; develop it. Distinguish between primary and secondary points; not all matters can or should weigh equally heavily in your analysis. Build your case.
21. Learn the difference between analysis and expressions of your opinion—and between intellect and emotion (as in, “I feel . . .”). Unless it is asked for specifically, instructors are relatively unconcerned with your emotional responses, or with whether or not you “liked” or “agreed with” the readings.
22. Make clear the distinction between assertions of fact and expressions of opinion (not just your own). For instance, note the different implications of the following statements: (a) Americans were God’s chosen people; (b) According to Albert Beveridge, Americans were God’s chosen people
23. Be aware of the biases in the sources you use in research, including secondary sources. Polemical or self-interested works, but not just those, are suspicious sources for “hard” data, or for “objective” conclusions. Should one, for instance, rely confidently on Richard Nixon’s memoirs for documentation of the “truth” about Watergate? Can a scholar who cites only English-language sources present a full picture of life among German-American immigrants? Evaluate the quality and content of your data, and use them appropriately. Not everything in print (in fact, very little) should be regarded as “revealed truth.”
24. You must provide *evidence—*and effective evidence (see above)—to document your arguments. Cite examples or other types of data. Unsubstantiated assertions do not constitute evidence. In other words, do not say: “The Vietnam War was utterly absurd,” and leave it at that. If you believe that that was the case, then demonstrate its absurdity, with evidence and concrete analysis of it. Along these lines, avoid phrases like: “It is interesting to note...;” either your discussion will demonstrate that something is “interesting,” or it will not. Mere assertion that something is significant is no substitute for proof.
25. Make sure that the ideas you attribute to others are actually contained in their works. Is there concrete evidence in Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier” essay, for example, to support the contention that he was a “racist,” or a “propagandist for American overseas imperialism”? If so, cite it. Or, rather, are these implications that may be inferred from his writing? Implications, of course, should be considered, but should be so identified. And you must justify your own inferences (see above). Be careful!
26. Use footnotes whenever necessary; when in doubt, it is safer to use one than to omit it. Remember, references must be given for ideas that are not yours and for all except the most uncontroversial of facts (clearly established dates and places, for example), and not just for direct quotations. Also, when you refer to a selection from an anthology or periodical, your note should indicate the specific piece you used and its author, and not just the name of the volume, journal, or editor. Also, learn the value of informational footnotes, as opposed to those that merely cite references.
27. Quotations used in an essay must fit grammatically, as well as substantively, into the flow of your prose. It is acceptable to change tenses, number, and other matters within the quote, so long as the changes are presented as such: that is, placed in brackets (see #28, below).
28. Words of your own that are inserted into a quote should be surrounded by brackets, not parentheses.
29. Quotations longer than seven lines should be set off from the text—all lines indented and single-spaced. Quotation marks are not used with offset passages.
30. Please be careful about avoiding three common punctuation errors. (1)
Learn proper usage of colons and semicolons. (2) When quotation marks are used, normal U.S. practice is to use the double quotation mark (“); use single quotation marks (identical to an apostrophe) ONLY for words quoted within a quote. (3) A hyphen is used to divide a word or with certain compound words (single-spaced); dashes are used to set phrases off, and are represented by two hyphens on a p.c. or typewriter (--).
31. For all other matters of grammar, style, form, etc., consult any of several available manuals of style. If you do not own one, acquire one!
32. If you are having problems defining your topic, developing your arguments, finding appropriate source materials, etc.—or if you need any other type of substantive assistance in handling an assignment—consult your instructor. Plan ahead, and try to anticipate potential problems; this is particularly important if you expect to rely on materials from interlibrary loan.
33. No one can do her or his best work at the last minute, or by staying up all night (or for several nights!). Why don’t you see if, this term, you can avoid the “paper crisis” syndrome?!