1998. Revised April 2007.
Below are some suggestions to help you avoid common problems. The rules on this page are correctives to the most common mistakes I have seen on student papers. If you are a student in one of my classes and do not understand any of these rules, please ask me to clarify. Otherwise, I will consider any violations a mark of laziness, and I will grade accordingly.
I. Seek clarity
Highlight your argument
- Choose a title for your essay that suggests your argument, or at least your subject.
- State your thesis clearly, preferably at the end of the first or second paragraph.
- Write the topic sentence of each paragraph in a way that supports your thesis.
Feel free to insert yourself in the paper, but only when necessary. Take, for example, this thesis statement: “The vision of space exploration persists not because it is inherently real, but because it appeals so powerfully to human aspirations.” Prefacing this sentence with the words, “this book will argue that” or “I will show that” adds nothing. On the other hand, consider these two sentences: “Usually we read about the Monitor as the story of a heroic inventor and revolutionary new warship. I expand that story to include patrons, contractors, constructors, rivals, users, public imagery, and literary expressions.”1 Here the author needs to contrast his approach to those of other historians, and the first person is the simplest way to do that.
Define your terms
Figure out what the main nouns in your paper are, and be sure to define them early on. This is especially true for abstract nouns, such as community, modernity, and almost any -ism: individualism, capitalism, socialism, liberalism, feminism, nationalism, republicanism, and the like. If you find yourself using one adjective frequently, be sure you know what it means.
For example, in Dust Bowl, Donald Worster contends that “Capitalism . . . has been the decisive factor in this nation”s use of nature.” Realizing that that the term “capitalism” has meant many things to many people, he lists three ideas that, he argues, constitute the ecological ethos of capitalism: “1. Nature must be seen as capital . . . 2. Man has a right, even an obligation, to use this capital for constant self-advancement . . . 3. The social order should permit and encourage this continual increase of personal wealth.”2 Maybe the reader agrees with this definition of capitalism, maybe not. But at least she knows what Worster is trying to argue.
Make people the subjects of your sentences
When possible, avoid not only the passive voice, but also sentences that have as their subjects abstract nouns, such as “the war,” “technology,” or “modernity.” Instead, use people, as specific as possible: “policy-makers,” “suburbanites,” “manufacturing executives,” “Elvis.”
- Poor: Fort Sumter was besieged on April 12, 1861.
- Still poor: The siege of Fort Sumter began on April 12, 1861.
- Better: On April 12, 1861, Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard ordered his troops to begin shelling Fort Sumter.
Similarly, try to use as precise verbs as possible. After you have finished your first draft, go back and look for opportunities to replace complex strings of words with single verbs.
- Poor: Women experienced a desire to be in a position of working outside the home.
- Better: Women sought jobs outside the home.
Do not use the first person to discuss events in which you did not participate.
- Poor: By promising the Philippines their independence so soon after annexation, we revealed our ambivalence about overseas expansion.
- Better: By promising the Philippines their independence so soon after annexation, Wilson revealed American ambivalence about overseas expansion.
Avoid labeling two people, events, texts, or tactics as “different.” Instead, explain how to things differed. Use real comparisons: “more radical”; “a political, rather than military, solution”; “broader-based”; “more expensive”; “ornamental, rather than merely utilitarian,” etc.
II. Follow the rules
Avoid scare quotes
Use double quotation marks unless you are presenting a quotation within another quotation. Commas and periods belong within quotation marks; semicolons, colons, and question marks do not (unless part of the original quotation). Avoid using quotation marks at all unless you are quoting someone.
- Poor: The Klansmen were not ”knights”; they were ”terrorists.”
- Better: Though the Klansmen referred to themselves as “knights,” most Americans today would consider them to be terrorists.
Choose the right word
Use amount for mass nouns, number for unit nouns. Thus, “a large number of people will drink any amount of beer.”
Use the pronouns who, whom, and whose when referring to people.
- Poor: The engineers that designed the Insterstate highways believed that more roads always meant progress.
- Better: The engineers who designed the Insterstate highways believed that more roads always meant progress.
Learn the difference between than and then. Thus, “I used to think that Windows was better than Macintosh, but then I tried a Macintosh and learned the errors of my ways.”
Learn the difference between the verbs lose and loose. Thus, “the colonel decided to loose his cavalry against the enemy, lest he lose the battle.”
The past tense of the verb to lead is led.
The possessive of it is its.
Avoid the words actual and actually unless you are contrasting fact and fiction.
- Poor: Five Points explores the actual lives of Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century New York City.
- Better: Five Points explores the lives of Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century New York City.
Do not refer to works by historians as “novels” unless you are prepared to make a sophisticated argument that they should be thought of as such.
Do not use the term “lifestyle” to describe events prior to 1961, when that term was first deployed in its current sense. Consider alternatives, such as livelihoodor culture.
Use ethnic and racial slurs only when necessary, as part of direct quotations.
Choose the right tense
Write about the past in the past tense. Use the future-in-past sparingly. In historical writing, people almost always get the past tense. Documents can take the present tense because they still exist, but it is often clearer to make the authors, rather than the documents, the subject of the sentence or clause.
- Poor: Because the commissioners focus on biomedical research, the Belmont Report scarcely mentions behavioral or social science.
- Poor: Because the commissioners would focus on biomedical research, the Belmont Report scarcely mentions behavioral or social science.
- Better: Because the commissioners focused on biomedical research, the Belmont Report scarcely mentions behavioral or social science.
- Better still: Because the commissioners focused on biomedical research, they scarcely mentioned behavioral or social science in the Belmont Report.
Avoid Briticisms such as amidst, amongst, whilst, theatre, and towards. If you are the citizen of a Commonwealth country, you may submit a written request to use these forms. If you are an American, write like one.
Follow standard format for history papers
Papers should follow the guidelines in The Chicago Manual of Style or Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Both of these works can be found in library reference areas. The basic forms can be found at the Bridgewater State College site.
Use real footnotes
- OK: New England Indians valued European goods more as status symbols than as functional tools (Cronon, 93).
- Better: New England Indians valued European goods more as status symbols than as functional tools.4
4William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 93.
For review papers citing only one or two secondary sources, the parenthetical style is fine. Provide footnotes for quotations, statistics, facts beyond common knowledge, and ideas not your own, whether quoted directly or paraphrased.
Number your pages except for a cover page, if included.
Spell out numbers that take only one or two words (e.g., twenty-five, seven thousand) and numbers at the start of sentences. Spell out the word percent.
Commas and periods generally go within quotation marks. Question marks, colons, and semicolons go outside.
III. Read your paper
A distressing number of papers I see are clearly rough drafts that have not been read by their authors prior to submission. Before printing a final draft, generate a rough draft and read it carefully. Better still, read it out loud, listening for any awkward sounding sentences. Watch for not only typos, but clumsy phrasings and transitions, unsubstantiated claims, and deviations from the above guidelines. Compare it to the Pre-Submission Checklist. And most importantly, be sure you argue at the end of the paper the same thing you argue in your introduction. If writing the paper has changed your mind about what you believe, that”s dandy, but go back and rewrite your introduction and your thesis statement to reflect your newfound wisdom.
1Howard E. McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 2; David A. Mindell, War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), ix.