Guidelines - Table of Contents
The Importance of Good Writing
How to Use This Document
First Step - Choose a Topic
Second Step - Look for Literature
Third Step - Write an Outline
Fourth Step - Writing
Fifth Step - Submit the Paper on Time
The Importance of Good Writing: Grade
has made employers and graduate schools suspicious of grades and
Good communicative skills, above all good writing, count for ever more
to the same degree as they appear to diminsh. College seems an ideal
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
their writing (which includes aspects of structure and grammar). A good
idea remains pale and powerless if you cannot get it across well.
well thus matters not only in English classes.
How to Use This Document: The first part
a simple "recipe" for writing an academic paper from finding
a topic to polishing the final draft. The second part consists of
recommendations for your writing derived from the problems I observe
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
(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
correction symbols. Also refer to handouts on specific paper
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
to know more. The most productive approach often is a question,
one arising from something that startles you (for example: "why did
Marx condone certain forms of violence although he hoped to lead
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
Villages"). In the first case, you will probably remain confined to
generalizations, in the second you will have a hard time finding
Ask the instructor for suggestions concerning topics and sources and
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
questions your subject may raise. Search for more literature in the
catalog, the databases, and bibliographical guides. Ask the reference
for help. Use a book review index and Historical Abstracts if
want to make sure a reference you found really refers to what you are
Smaller papers will often require only the use of either primary or
sources, but you should be aware of the difference. Primary sources are
usually texts from the period you are dealing with, for example the
of philosophers and writers, official documents, letters,
or contemporary newspaper articles. Secondary sources are books and
about your topic (such as a biography of Nietzsche, a study on Mill's
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
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
should take precedence over older ones. In large research papers you
list primary and secondary sources separately in the bibliography.
Third Step - Write an Outline: Consider the
introduction, development, conclusion. The introduction should offer
facts about the topic and present the question(s) you are asking about
it. The development should pursue your question(s), propose answers,
provide evidence for them from primary and/or secondary sources.
the conclusion should refer to the question(s) asked in the
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
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
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.
Fourth Step - Writing: Some Points You
Coherence: Your title should be
worded clearly and reflect the
content. Your introduction and conclusions must refer to what you are
in the development part of the paper. Be sure you make a point
writing; do not simply summarize contents or facts (except in the
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
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
much of this will be self-evident. Avoid platitudes in the style of
television shows, such as: "Hitler's campaigns would change the world
Reference Level: Always be clear and
do not expect too much specialized
knowledge from your potential audience. Pretend that you are
for fellow students who are not enrolled in the same course.
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
available to the author of your sources in context. It would, for
be unfair to chastise an eighteenth-century peasant woman for her lack
of appreciation for enlightenment thought or to ridicule the
of an Italian miner in the 1820s. With respect to your secondary
be critical too, but remember that a biased account must not be wrong
because it is biased. Make a clear point arising from your own
but keep in mind that other authors may disagree with your
Consider the opposite argument and do not prematurely or summarily
other approaches. Find a good path between narrow-minded insistence on
your point and vagueness according to the idea that everybody is
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
too much). Passages from primary sources can be excellent forms of
and quotations from secondary sources can illustrate or summarize your
but you should always ask yourself: what does the quotation add? In
quotations should illustrate or prove the point you are making,
should not make your point (which is a contradiction in itself).
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
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
mistakes. Try to improve your style (see section B). Carefully check
spelling of foreign names and refer to your computer guide for
letters. Be careful about structuring your paragraphs. Ideally, a
should contain one dominant idea or one step in your argument. It can
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
do it). Use a medium font, one-and-a-half or double space, with
but not exaggerated margins. Use a spell-checking program but do not
on it. It will neither catch incomplete sentences nor words that are
but make sense in another context (such as "from" and "form").
You have to read the final printout carefully! It often
that a printer "swallows" some lines of a text or reformats it
incorrectly. A good rule is to read your paper aloud to yourself
better--to a roommate or friend. Let your friend tell you where he or
cannot understand you or follow your argument. Always plan ahead and
enough time for revision. Professors can easily identify last-minute
For more specific information use a manual of style. I also
Jules Benjamin, A Student's Guide to History, 6th ed., New
St. Martin's, 1994, and Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The
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
have to do so!
B. Some Recommendations for Your Writing
R.1) 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!
1923 political unrest and economic trouble in Germany combined
dangerously to produce a quite serious crisis. Hyper-inflation caused
bad economic hardship and highly threatening famines. The utterly
helpless government did not know at all what to do.
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?)
R.2) 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.
of this pretending and acting that you are someone else is rather
difficult and scary for a young boy. Not only is it scary and difficult
for a young boy but also very confusing. It is confusing for the boy,
who forgets who he is.
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.
R.3) 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.)
new law regarding the schooling of poor children was criticized in 1763
[by enlightened circles at the court of Louis XV].
Better: Enlightened circles at
the court of Louis XV criticized the new law regarding the schooling of
poor children in 1763.
R.4) 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.
declined to impose harsh peace conditions on defeated Austria in 1866,
he wanted to win the Austrians as allies.
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).
Example: The three steps
of dialectic reasoning are thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
R.5) 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
the castration of boys was a common practice among the Romans.
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.
R.6) 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.
were some cases in which Polish farmers hid Jewish children and were
nice to them.
Better: Some Polish farmers hid
Jewish children and treated them nicely.
R.7) 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.
was afraid of the dark rooms in his parents' house. One day the father
scares him in order to help him overcome his fear.
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
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)
R.8) 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.
thought Britain ought to appease Adolf Hitler, the German dictator.
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.
R.9) 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.
revolution of 1848 had profound affects on Marx and Engels and there
theories. Their are many quotes that prove this.
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.
R.10) 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."
writing's exposed European societies flaws.
Correct: Rousseau's writings
expose European societies' flaws (or: the flaws of European societies).
Or singular: Rousseau's
writings expose society's flaws.
R.11) Watch sentence logic,
particularly the correlation between subject, verb, and objects.
Ambivalent or faulty references distort your argument.
in European society suffered many hardships in addition to the loved
ones lost in World War I. (This makes the "loved ones" appear as
"hardship," which the author probably did not mean to say.)
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:
written his autobiography, Mill's thoughts developed in other
directions. (The subject is Mill's thoughts, but his thoughts had not
written the autobiography.)
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.
extreme circumstances of war and persecution you feel that you're not
yourself and that you don't respect your heritage enough.
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.
century thinkers often praised the intellectual impulses of the
Twentieth-century thinkers often praised the intellectual impulses of
the nineteenth century.
R.14) 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
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.
R. 15) Many historical terms
cause spelling errors, often through the confusion of nouns and
adjectives. Some examples:
The bourgeoisie (noun - meaning the
class) - but bourgeois capital (adjective).
The proletariat (noun - meaning the class) - but the proletarian
Note that in these two cases the individual member of the class is
spelled like the adjective: the richest bourgois meets the poorest
The Nazis (noun) - but Nazi society (adjective). Note: the plural
possessive of the noun is: the Nazis' (see R. 10).
R. 16) A word on dating (not
the kind you may do on Friday night): Two ways of putting historical
dates are accepted:
On 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip
assassinated the Austro-Hungarian heir apparent.
On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian
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
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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