Guidelines – Table of Contents
The Importance of Good Writing: Grade inflation has made employers and graduate schools suspicious of grades and transcripts. Good communicative skills, above all good writing, count for ever more to the same degree as they appear to diminsh. College seems an ideal place to acquire or improve these skills. Good writing also offers advantages already in college. Many professors across the disciplines grade papers not only according to their content but also according to the quality of their writing (which includes aspects of structure and grammar). A good idea remains pale and powerless if you cannot get it across well. Writing well thus matters not only in English classes.
How to Use This Document: The first part offers a simple “recipe” for writing an academic paper from finding a topic to polishing the final draft. The second part consists of specific recommendations for your writing derived from the problems I observe most frequently. Note: most of my comments in the margins of your paper will refer to this section, giving you the number of the rule you should check (such as B.9). These rules cannot replace a manual of style, which you need to use, but they can give you some hints for a successful writing career at the college and beyond. The last page offers a key to my other correction symbols. Also refer to handouts on specific paper assignments.
Recently, the History Department has adopted Diana Hacker’s A Pocket Style Manual for all its classes. Corrections will also refer to this book, which is available in the campus bookstore and on reserve, where you can also find Jules Benjamin’s A Student’s Guide to History, a helpful manual for various history assignments that should be consulted in addition to these Guidelines. To find the Pocket Style Manual and the Student’s Guide to History on reserve, check under author or title, not under reserve lists.
First Step – Choose a Topic: Unless the instructor gives a specific assignment, the first difficulty you will encounter is the choice of a topic. Go by your interest and take something about which you would like to know more. The most productive approach often is a question, especially one arising from something that startles you (for example: “why did Marx condone certain forms of violence although he hoped to lead humankind to a peaceful society?” or “why was Napoleon I a symbol of freedom for Hegel, while many other Europeans saw him as a tyrant?”). Find a compromise between a too inclusive topic (“Peace Treaties in World History”) and a too specialized one (“Psychological Attitudes Toward the Singing of Lullabies in Early Twentieth-Century Swiss Mountain Villages”). In the first case, you will probably remain confined to generalizations, in the second you will have a hard time finding sources. Ask the instructor for suggestions concerning topics and sources and make your decision early.
Second Step – Look for Literature: You may want to read a general book on your topic, so you get introduced to the basic facts and further questions your subject may raise. Search for more literature in the library catalog, the databases, and bibliographical guides. Ask the reference librarians for help. Use a book review index and Historical Abstracts if you want to make sure a reference you found really refers to what you are working on.
Smaller papers will often require only the use of either primary or secondary sources, but you should be aware of the difference. Primary sources are usually texts from the period you are dealing with, for example the works of philosophers and writers, official documents, letters, autobiographies, or contemporary newspaper articles. Secondary sources are books and articles about your topic (such as a biography of Nietzsche, a study on Mill’s attitude toward socialism, or a textbook on the changes in warfare). If you write a historiographical paper (a paper on interpretations advanced by historians), however, the works of historians become your primary source.
As you read secondary sources, take notes on the key ideas. You do not have to read every book about your subject, but try to get hold of works presenting different approaches and opinions (use the Historical Abstracts and the Book Review Index). Note that in most cases recent publications should take precedence over older ones. In large research papers you should list primary and secondary sources separately in the bibliography.
Third Step – Write an Outline: Consider the standard structure: introduction, development, conclusion. The introduction should offer some facts about the topic and present the question(s) you are asking about it. The development should pursue your question(s), propose answers, and provide evidence for them from primary and/or secondary sources. Finally, the conclusion should refer to the question(s) asked in the introduction and summarize the answer(s). If you have further thoughts or questions that you could not develop in the paper, mention them here. You can give the reader an update on what you think you achieved in the paper and on what you could not find out with certainty.
As you write the outline, you may remember passages from your sources referring to your argument. Insert a short reference (for instance: “Good quote in Salvemini, Italy, p. 34″). You may want to revise the outline during the writing process.
Coherence: Your title should be worded clearly and reflect the content. Your introduction and conclusions must refer to what you are arguing in the development part of the paper. Be sure you make a point while writing; do not simply summarize contents or facts (except in the introduction or if you need to do some scene-setting); always keep the reader aware of where you are going. It should be clear in every section of your paper what you are talking about and why it is important. This does not mean that you have to justify every couple of lines; if your outline is good, much of this will be self-evident. Avoid platitudes in the style of mediocre television shows, such as: “Hitler’s campaigns would change the world forever.”
Reference Level: Always be clear and do not expect too much specialized knowledge from your potential audience. Pretend that you are writing for fellow students who are not enrolled in the same course. Briefly identify events and persons if they are not part of general knowledge. Examples: “The battle of Jena, which sealed Prussia’s defeat against France in 1806,” and “Lord Henry Palmerston, the British Prime Minister from 1855 to 1865.” (See also below, point B.8.)
Sources: With respect to primary sources, it often helps to inquire about the author’s goals and biases and to analyze the function of the text. Be critical, but try to get an awareness of the range of attitudes available to the author of your sources in context. It would, for example, be unfair to chastise an eighteenth-century peasant woman for her lack of appreciation for enlightenment thought or to ridicule the superstition of an Italian miner in the 1820s. With respect to your secondary sources, be critical too, but remember that a biased account must not be wrong simply because it is biased. Make a clear point arising from your own thoughts, but keep in mind that other authors may disagree with your interpretation. Consider the opposite argument and do not prematurely or summarily condemn other approaches. Find a good path between narrow-minded insistence on your point and vagueness according to the idea that everybody is somehow right. Indicate what you think is right and wrong and show why!
Quotations: You can (and sometimes should) quote key passages, but beware of excessive quoting (half-page quotations, for example, are almost always too much). Passages from primary sources can be excellent forms of evidence, and quotations from secondary sources can illustrate or summarize your point; but you should always ask yourself: what does the quotation add? In general, quotations should illustrate or prove the point you are making, but they should not make your point (which is a contradiction in itself). Otherwise you run the risk of producing a collage of foreign thoughts. As a rule, you should indent and single-space quotations that are longer than three lines. You do not need quotation marks in that case.
References: All information from books and articles and all quotes need a reference. Use footnotes or endnotes to acknowledge the source. The standard format for history is the Chicago Manual of Style.
Revision: Write a draft (or several ones), but leave much time for revision and editing. While revising the text, check for grammatical mistakes. Try to improve your style (see section B). Carefully check the spelling of foreign names and refer to your computer guide for non-English letters. Be careful about structuring your paragraphs. Ideally, a paragraph should contain one dominant idea or one step in your argument. It can be helpful to follow the same pattern in paragraphs as in the whole paper (introduction, development, conclusion).
Presentation: Present the paper in an appealing format. Insert page numbers (check your computer handbook if you do not know how to do it). Use a medium font, one-and-a-half or double space, with reasonable but not exaggerated margins. Use a spell-checking program but do not rely on it. It will neither catch incomplete sentences nor words that are misspelled but make sense in another context (such as “from” and “form”). You have to read the final printout carefully! It often happens that a printer “swallows” some lines of a text or reformats it incorrectly. A good rule is to read your paper aloud to yourself or–even better–to a roommate or friend. Let your friend tell you where he or she cannot understand you or follow your argument. Always plan ahead and leave enough time for revision. Professors can easily identify last-minute printouts of papers.
For more specific information use a manual of style. I also recommend Jules Benjamin, A Student’s Guide to History, 6th ed., New York: St. Martin’s, 1994, and Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, 5th ed., San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.
Fifth Step – Submit the Paper on Time: Extensions are often unfair to those students who hand in their work on time. Remember that it may well be possible to write a master’s thesis on your topic, but you do not have to do so!
Words are more powerful devices if used sparingly. Avoid overusing adjectives and adverbs. They often tire the reader and contain redundancies. Conciseness and brevity serve you best as long as clarity does not suffer!
Better: In 1923 political unrest and economic trouble in Germany combined to produce a crisis. Hyper-inflation caused economic hardship and famines. The government was helpless. (Which famine is not highly threatening? Which crisis is not serious and dangerous?)
Generally, vary word use. Exceptions to this rule exist, but try not to let repetition of words or phrases nearby in the text become a habit. It makes for boring reading. Pronouns (he, she, they, which, him) can help you to be more succinct; but make sure they are not ambiguous. Conjunctions (because, for) allow you to link two sentences and thus to avoid duplicating clauses or phrases.
Better: All of this pretending and acting to be someone else is rather difficult and scary for a young boy. It is also very confusing for him because he forgets who he is and who he is supposed to be.Shahar often argues that Ariès was wrong. In many chapters, however, Shahar reiterates arguments Ariès had made himself.
Better: Shahar often argues that Ariès was wrong. In many chapters, however, she reiterates arguments he had made himself.
Avoid overusing the passive voice. It either hides the agent–which can create confusion or vagueness–or makes a sentence wordy. (Conventions of style in some disciplines, however, request or at least allow the passive voice. This is true for medicine and many natural sciences.)
Better: Enlightened circles at the court of Louis XV criticized the new law regarding the schooling of poor children in 1763.
Study the comma rules. Wrong punctuation often makes reading difficult and confusing. Comma splices belong to the most frequent mistakes: Avoid connecting two main clauses with only a comma; insert a connecting conjunction or rephrase the sentence by starting it with the conjunction. If you write two main clauses connected by a conjunctive adverb or a transitional phrase, use a semicolon or period between them.
Better: Bismarck declined to impose harsh peace conditions on defeated Austria in 1866, for he wanted to win the Austrians as allies. (A semicolon between the two main clauses would also work.)
Or: Because he wanted to win the Austrians as allies, Bismarck declined to impose harsh peace conditions on defeated Austria in 1866.The Agricultural Revolution must have preceded the Industrial Revolution, otherwise people in industry would not have had enough food.
Better: The Agricultural Revolution must have preceded the Industrial Revolution; otherwise people in industry would not have had enough food.
Commas usually come before “and” and “but” if a complete sentence follows. Note that in a series of three parallel words a comma precedes the “and” coming before the last item (this is true for U. S. rules but not for British English).
Transitional words and phrases (however, moreover, on the other hand, nevertheless) often work better within a sentence than at the beginning. Do not forget to set them off by commas (comma before AND after)! Avoid using “though” in the place of “however”.
Better: The castration of boys, moreover, was a common practice among the Romans.Though, medieval iconography does not support Ariès’ argument.
Better: Medieval iconography, however, does not support Ariès’ argument.
Many manuals of style recommend that you use strong verbs instead of “to be” and “to have” and ask you in particular to avoid the phrases “there is” or “there are.” You do not have to be intransigent about this rule, but follow it whenever you can think of a convenient replacement.
Better: Some Polish farmers hid Jewish children and treated them nicely.
Do not shift tense unnecessarily unless meaning requires it. Longer summaries of texts or paraphrases should be put into the present tense, but I prefer the past tense for summaries of historical events.
Better: Goethe was afraid of the dark rooms in his parents’ house. One day the father scared him in order to help him overcome his fear.In the beginning of his second discourse Rousseau wrote that humans once enjoyed a harmonious state of nature.
Better: In the beginning of his second discourse Rousseau writes that humans once enjoyed a harmonious state of nature. (Paraphrase or part of a text summary; motivated change of tense)
Also: Some workshops still produce violins as they were built in the days of Stradivarius. (Motivated change of tense)
Whenever you introduce persons you should give their full name and briefly identify them. Later you should simply use their last name. Exceptions to this rule are persons so famous that almost every reader knows their full name and role.
Better: Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, thought Britain ought to appease Hitler. Later in the text: Chamberlain soon found out that nobody can appease a fanatic.
Among the most frequent mistakes I see are the confusion of “their” and “there” and “affect” and “effect.” Note that “there” is an adverb and “their” the possessive pronoun of the third person plural. The noun “affect” stands for “affection” or “passion,” while “effect” is the result of a cause. As a verb, “to affect” means “to influence” (or “to pretend”). “To effect” means “to produce” or “to bring about.” Another widespread problem is the confusion of “principal” (an adjective meaning “main” or “primary”) and “principle” (a noun meaning “guideline” or “rule”). The “principal” (as a noun) is, of course, the head of a school district.
Correct: The revolution of 1848 had profound effects on Marx and Engels and their theories. There are many quotes that prove this. Or: As many quotes prove, the revolution of 1848 profoundly affected the lives and theories of Marx and Engels.One of the principle ideas of the French Revolution was the principal of popular sovereignty.
Correct: One of the principal ideas of the French Revolution was the principle (or better: concept – to make the sentence sound less repetitive) of popular sovereignty.
Another frequent mistake is the misuse of the possessive and plural “s.” The plural “s” does not require an apostrophe, whereas the possessive one usually calls for it. A plural word ending with “s” used in the possessive form also calls for an apostrophe, which follows the word. Note: “it’s” is a short form of “it is” and should not be confused with the possessive pronoun “its.”
Correct: Rousseau’s writings expose European societies’ flaws (or: the flaws of European societies). Or singular: Rousseau’s writings expose society’s flaws.
Watch sentence logic, particularly the correlation between subject, verb, and objects. Ambivalent or faulty references distort your argument.
Better: Women in European society suffered many hardships in addition to the loss of the loved ones in World War I.
Frequently, a modifying clause at the beginning of a sentence does not fit the subject that follows the comma:
Correct: Having written his autobiography, Mill developed thoughts that went in other directions.
R.12) Avoid short forms, the “you” form, and slang expressions in formal writing.
Better: Under extreme circumstances of war and persecution people feel that they are not themselves and that they do not respect their heritage enough.
R.13) Hyphenate two-word adjectives, but do not hyphenate most two-word nouns.
A quotation should illustrate or prove your point. Never should it make your point, which is a contradiction in itself. Otherwise you run the risk of producing a collage of foreign thoughts. Quotations should normally be short; otherwise they may contain thoughts that you have not yet introduced yourself.
You should indent and single-space quotations that are longer than three lines. You do not need quotation marks in that case. When using a quotation within your own sentence, make sure that your words and the quotation form a complete and grammatically correct sentence.
Many historical terms cause spelling errors, often through the confusion of nouns and adjectives. Some examples:
The proletariat (noun – meaning the class) – but the proletarian movement (adjective).
Note that in these two cases the individual member of the class is spelled like the adjective: the richest bourgois meets the poorest proletarian.
The Nazis (noun) – but Nazi society (adjective). Note: the plural possessive of the noun is: the Nazis’ (see R. 10).
A word on dating (not the kind you may do on Friday night): Two ways of putting historical dates are accepted:
On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir apparent.
Note the two commas in the second case. The first version is obviously simpler. Note also that dates without either the day or the year do not require any commas:
In June 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir apparent.
On June 28 (or: On 28 June) Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir apparent.
B.9 refers to the recommendations above (often to the most common mistakes, such as the confusion of “there” and “their”)
|P=start new paragraph (“P” with two vertical lines)
RD=redundant word, expression, or passage (you may have said the same thing before)
REF=reference required (footnote, endnote, or page number)
RP=repetitive word use
cancelled first letter=use small letter
first letter underlined three times=use capital letter
wave line=find a better word or expression
© Copyright Raffael Scheck, 1996
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