Rules for Paper Writing

A variety of problems come up over and over again on student papers, so I thought it would be worthwhile to identify them and provide some rules to help you avoid them in your papers for this course. I will start with general problems and then discuss more specific grammatical problems.

1. A final draft handed in for a grade cannot also be a first draft. Students cannot hope to get a good grade on a paper that is their first effort on the topic. Excellent papers are papers that have been written, re-written, and written again. In my courses, it is a rare student who can dash off a paper the night before it is due and get a good grade on it.

2. You should prepare an outline of your paper prior to writing it. All good writers do this. It helps chart where you are going, makes you stick to your theme, and keeps your thoughts organized. Related to this is the importance of having a good introductory paragraph. Your introduction should identify the work you are discussing, its year of publication (or approximate year(s) of creation for ancient works) and the author’s full name. It should tell us in a sentence or two what the general topic of the source is. Finally, it should tell me what you intend to accomplish in the paper. This not only helps the reader, but keeps you on track as well. When the paper is finished, you should re-read your introductory paragraph. Did you do what you said you would do? If not, revise the paper and/or your introduction. Under no circumstances should your introduction contain a synopsis of the plot or contents of the work. Nor should it contain highly specific information about the source. Typically your second paragraph will be the place for your synopsis or summary of the work.


3. You should write in the simplest sentences possible. Many students write in a complex, elliptical style. Some students believe that formal scholarly writing must use long words and even longer sentences. Some students never use one word when three will do. Such writing will often cloud meaning and raises the question of whether you, the author, even know what it is you are trying to say. Again, an added benefit of writing simply is that it will quickly become clear to you whether or not you know what you are writing about.

4. Never write one-sentence paragraphs. By definition, a paragraph has at least two sentences in it. Every paragraph should have an introductory sentence supported by those sentences that follow it.

5. Quotations are used when the words themselves can convey a mood or a sense that mere description cannot. Quotations should be used sparingly and never merely to fill up the page. Nor should you ever use quotations as a form of citation. A four-page paper containing two pages of quoted speech fools no one. Short quotations are indicated by the use of quotation marks at both the beginning and end of the phrase in question. Quotations of fifty or more words should be single spaced and set off from the text by indenting one half inch on the left hand margin only or, alternatively, indenting one half inch from both the left and right margins. When a block quotation is used, do not add quotation marks. Do not use a different size font. Do not italicize quotations.

Avoid irrelevant detail. Sometimes student papers go off on tangents that have little to do with the question or your response to it. Information for information’s sake is not appropriate. This is especially true where I have read the work too. Sometimes irrelevant material is also a sign that your paper lacks focus and that you yourself are not sure what is relevant and what is not.

6. The titles of books, epic poems, motion pictures, plays, and court cases are always either underlined or placed in italics. Either is correct, but once you have chosen one style, always use it for the rest of your paper. After identifying a book by its author(s), full title and the year of publication (“In The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), author Natalie Zemon Davis explores the lives of peasants in sixteenth century France.”), you should then refer to it by a shortened form (“Martin Guerre demonstrates the complexity of peasant life at the time.”). We indicate titles of short poems by placing them inside quotation marks rather than underlining or italicizing them (Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright”). Note that a “novel” is by definition fictional. Avoid using the word “novel” to describe works of history, true stories, or autobiographies. A safe word to describe any book is “book”.

7. All papers in this course are formal essays. That means that you must adhere to certain conventions. Margins, font, and spacing must be appropriate. This means one-inch margins all around. Margins should be consistent from page to page. Font must be twelve point. The paper should be double spaced between lines and between paragraphs with no extra spacing between paragraphs. In other words, the spacing between lines within your paragraph should be the same as the spacing between the last line of one paragraph and the first line of the next. The first line of each paragraph should be indented one half inch. All pages should be numbered except the first page (most word processing programs give you the option of not numbering the first page in the “insert page number” dialog box). If I ask for at least a four-page paper then that is how long it needs to be. If your paper is short it means that you have not discussed all the relevant material available.

In a formal paper one does not use the second person familiar (“you”). Rather, one uses the form “one.”

“One can see the influence of the social historians in this argument.”

And not:

“You can see the influence of the social historians in this argument.”

When referring to people, one uses “who” rather than “that”: “Joan Smith was a woman who believed in right and wrong” and not “Joan Smith was a woman that believed in right and wrong.” Some word processing software will automatically correct “who” for “that.” If your software does this, turn it off or, alternatively, do a search of your paper using the “find” function for the word “that” to see if you have substituted “that” for the word “who” in your paper.

8. Citation. For purposes of this course only, please use simple parenthetical citation rather than footnotes. Any reference to material in the book in question, whether a direct quotation or a summary in your own words, must be supported by a citation to the appropriate page or pages of the book. Thus, for example: “Davis explains that before a man can be found guilty there must be evidence of both a crime and that the defendant is the one who committed that crime.” (78). Some students believe that citations are only necessary when direct quotation is used. This is incorrect. All references to another’s work must be accurately cited in the paper, including those in which you are summarizing the author’s work in your own words. Failure to provide specific page citations to the words, ideas, and arguments of another violates fundamental scholarly practice and may make you vulnerable to an accusation of plagiarism. In addition, close paraphrasing of the work of an author (i.e. changing a word here or there), even when supported by citation to the work in your paper constitutes plagiarism. Failure to properly cite your work will result in zero credit for the assignment.

9. The credibility of formal scholarly writing depends upon the writer adopting a neutral and dignified tone. Unless otherwise indicated, these are not “thought papers.” Avoid overly emotional language and do not inject your personal feelings into your essay. Avoid plot summary. Instead, use facts to bolster your analytical conclusions. Every fact in your paper must have some larger relation to your analysis. If you cannot figure out why some piece of information is in your paper, you probably ought to remove it. In addition, formal essays never use archaic language, slang, or profanity (unless quoting another’s use of such language). The use of such language will instantly damage the credibility of your analysis in the mind of the reader.

In a formal essay one does not use contractions. A contraction consists of two words shortened and joined together by an apostrophe. Examples of contractions include “can’t,” “wouldn’t,” and “didn’t.” Instead of using contractions, spell out both words: “can not” (or “cannot”), “would not,” and “did not.”

10. Many students have yet to master the appropriate use of the apostrophe. We use apostrophes mainly in two areas: forming contractions (see number nine, above) and showing possession. Since you will not be using contractions in future written work we do not have to worry about them at all. Never use an apostrophe to make a plural name. Barney Boorn is one member of the Boorn family. Jesse and Stephen walking down the street are two Boorns. Note that there is no apostrophe to show the fact that there are two of them.

Use of apostrophes to show possession is quite simple. In order to make a singular possessive we simply add an apostrophe and an “s.” This rule has almost no exceptions:

“Does that belong to Russell?” “Yes, it is Russell’s hat.”

This rule applies even with a singular word ending in “s.”

“Does that monkey belong to Ross?” “Yes, it is Ross’s monkey” (not “Ross’ monkey”).

To form a plural possessive we add an “s” and an apostrophe:

“Do the Boorns live there?” “Yes, that is the Boorns’ house.”

“Where is the Congregationalist church?” The Congregationalists’ church is in the village.”

Some of you are confused about “it’s” and “its.” “It’s” is a contraction. It is the shortened form of “it is.” “Its” on the other hand is an irregular possessive. It shows possession without the use of an apostrophe (to distinguish it from the contraction “it’s”). Since you will no longer use contractions in this class, you need never worry about “it’s” again. Anytime your paper has the word “it’s” in it you know it is wrong. The possessive form “its” may appear in your paper if you need to show that something belongs to an “it.”

“East Manchester was a ghost town, its inhabitants had all moved west.”

11. When a person is first introduced in a paper, we always identify him or her by full name. Thereafter we refer to a person by last name. Some people like to use first names to refer to people once they have been fully identified. This is not an accepted form and should not be used. Instead, use last names. In cases where this would cause confusion (i.e. where there are a bunch of Putnams) you may use the first name instead to identify that person:

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“Though they were half brothers, Thomas Putnam, Jr. and Joseph Putnam found themselves on opposites sides of Salem Village politics. Joseph aligned himself with those who opposed an independent village church. While Thomas led a faction that supported one.”

Avoid the use of titles like “Mr.” or “Mrs.” The exception to this is when the title is significant. For example: “Reverend Parris,” “Lord Lucan,” or “Doctor Griggs.”

12. Numbers less than one hundred are always spelled out in a formal paper. If the number is one hundred or more you may use numerals to so indicate. Century designations are also always spelled out (“the nineteenth century” rather than “the 19th century”). Fractions are spelled out (“three-fourths of the voters agreed”). On the other hand, we designate decimals by number (“3.14” instead of “three point one four”).

13. British and Commonwealth nations use slightly different spelling schemes for some words compared to the spelling used in the United States. This is most apparent in words ending in “or” or “er” in the American style. Thus, for example, while Americans would write “color” and “theater,” Canadians would write “colour” or “theatre.” Since you are attending a Canadian university, it is probably a good idea to obey Canadian conventions, but I do not care which style you use, so long as you are consistent in applying one or the other in your papers.

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