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Writing Tips

1. Write several drafts. Make certain that you hand in a paper with a clear beginning, middle, and end. When even experienced writers sit down to write, they do not know exactly where they are headed, no matter how detailed their outlines might be. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it is by traveling into uncharted territory that we develop our most productive thoughts. However, a paper is an act of communication, so it is important to restructure your writing to create the convincing illusion that newly discovered thoughts were there from the very start. Here is a good rule of thumb: just before handing in a paper, see if you should revise the introduction one last time.

2. Devise an appropriate title. A title should reveal the central purpose of your paper. Jot down working titles as they occur to you. If you are having trouble coming up with a title, it could be that your paper is inadequately focused. Rethink!

3. Use quotations judiciously. Quotations can bolster your paper, but be careful not to rely on them too often, since their value is cheapened through overuse. Avoid quoting a secondary source as a conclusion or a crucial turning point in your argument. Instead, use your own words. Your conclusion must follow from your own logic and expression. If you wish to indicate that your conclusion agrees with the secondary source, say so in the text or in a footnote. When you do quote, it is usually best to identify the original author in your text. Generally speaking, "less is more," but if you include a quotation that is four lines or longer, indent it and make it single-spaced.

4. Keep your citations consistent. There are several systems commonly used to write footnotes and bibliographical entries. For formal research papers, our department recommends the ones described in the Chicago Manual of Style. Their abbreviated forms appear in A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Whatever system you choose, make sure to stick with just that one through the course of a paper. See the library’s research tutorial web site for more information on how to conduct research and cite references properly. You can also model your references after those found in the scholarly books and articles at your disposal.

5. Show zero tolerance for mechanical errors. Such errors distract the reader from the argument you are trying to make. Mistakes in spelling, punctuation, and grammar create a very bad impression, no matter how brilliant the thought behind the paper. Remember that your computer will not catch everything for you. Ultimately, you are the editor-in-chief. Here is a partial list of rules to follow:

  • Voice: active versus passive. Avoid the passive voice when possible. The active voice enhances the authority of the writer, while the passive voice can obscure it. Passive voice: It is understood by students that good writing is essential in college. Active voice: Students understand that good writing is essential in college.
  • Tense: past versus present. We suggest that you mainly use the past tense in history papers. Granted, it is conventional to use the present tense to refer to the authorial voice. Example: Karl Marx writes that capitalism alienates workers from the products of their labor. However, utilizing the past tense underscores the relationship of a document to its historical context, so it is preferable to say that Marx wrote what he wrote. Above all, keep tenses consistent from one sentence to the next.
  • Quoting a sentence fragment. When you quote a sentence fragment, your sentence is the one that governs capitalization and punctuation. That is, you do not have to reproduce the punctuation and capitalization from the original. Example: Sam Adams said that "the British parliament lies helpless," but he did not reckon with the Whigs. Please note that the use of that before the first quotation mark obviates any need for an introductory comma. In contrast, a comma is necessary if you want to write the following: Sam Adams said, "the British parliament lies helpless," but he did not reckon with the Whigs.
  • Punctuation in a quotation. Periods and commas go inside the closing quotation mark (see example above). Colons and semi-colons, however, follow the quotation mark.
  • Ellipsis. When you omit something from the middle of a quotation, indicate the omission with an ellipsis, which consists of three dots separated by spaces ( . . . ). These dots are not punctuation. If you need a comma or period, put it in the appropriate place. Example: He has enough to satisfy his wants, . . . but he is still greedy for more.
  • Dangling phrases. Do not leave your participial and gerundial phrases dangling. Wrong: Thinking over the conundrum, the answer became apparent to Mary. Right: Thinking over the conundrum, Mary discovered the answer. (Mary, not the answer, did the thinking.)
  • Pronoun agreement. Make certain that your pronouns agree with one another. Recently, English speakers have come to use they as a singular pronoun in cases where the gender of the person in question is unclear. In formal writing, however, this is not accepted practice. The pronoun they is always plural. Wrong: If anyone thinks that good writing does not require rewriting, they are sadly mistaken. Right: If anyone thinks that good writing does not require rewriting, she or he (or, he or she) is sadly mistaken. A better alternative is to restructure the sentence: Anyone who thinks that good writing does not require rewriting is sadly mistaken. Remember, the following pronouns are singular: anyone, anybody, everyone, and everybody.
  • Who versus that. Use who to refer to people and that to things. Example: The student who just left my office wrote a paper that is spectacular.
  • Its versus it’s. Its is the possessive of it and does not have an apostrophe. It’s is the contraction of it is or it has and does have an apostrophe.
  • Misuse of where. Avoid using where to substitute for that or when. Wrong: I recently heard where the sun will one day engulf the earth. Right: I recently heard that the sun will one day engulf the earth.
  • Then versus than. Never, ever confuse them. Use then to indicate progression in time. Example: First I will make dinner; then I will wash the dishes. Use than to make comparisons. Example: The History Department is far better than all other departments.
  • Less versus fewer. Use less with a singular noun (e.g., less gas, less influence) to indicate degree or amount. Use fewer with plural nouns (e.g., fewer people, fewer accidents) to express number.
  • Page numbers. Speaking of enumeration, make certain to number your pages!


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