Before all is said and written, some advice about advice deserves our first attention. When you write, you are expressing yourself : your arguments, your conclusion, an overview of your search for evidence. Thus, one person’s advice is another’s stifling constraint. Therefore, take my suggestions for what they are: not orders, but counsel offered to ease your journey through essay, book review, or research paper. Moreover, while I might think my advice is universally beneficial, do not be surprised if some other professor prefers a quite different style. In the end, though, it is your journey ... er, paper. Enjoy the sights.
First steps can admittedly be the hardest, but you’ve already taken some in the right direction if you’re reading this page. You’ve realized that you need to know something about the audience (me!) for whom you are writing. Well here’s the best advice right up front:
Give a damn.
Actually care about your writing.
Take pride in your words because they carry your ideas. The rest of us can only decide how interesting, clever, and sophisticated you are on the basis of your ideas. In fact, they say quite a bit about who you are, and when the words that carry those ideas are misspelled, strung together sloppily, or otherwise misused, they end up painting a unflattering picture of you, their author.
Okay, that was the pep talk; you probably want the actual, practical advice by now.
Good writing shows up through an investment of time. Only the rarely and unfairly blessed have found this to be otherwise. The rest of us need time. No thesaurus can replace hours spent on research and organization, nor camouflage the lack of the same. So budget yourself some: time early in the semester to mull over your options, maybe even to delve into some of them far enough to check their feasibility; time to do some real research; still more time to organize your evidence; then time to write a first draft; and more time again to revise later drafts, always to proofread yet one more time, maybe even to let an intelligent friend read your work.
You, however, want to show that you really care about your writing. Good, then go check out our department’s style sheet. Many of the technical details of how to write impressively have been gathered there by fellow scholars. Trying to remember whether to spell out a certain number, or just use the numerals? What gets capitalized? Check the style sheet for answers. Or check out the advice of others as well, once I finally finish building the necessary links for the main navigation bar.
Obviously, you don’t want to annoy your reader, especially when (in my case) your reader is grading your paper. So here are a few (?!?) of the pitfalls that many students let themselves fall into when writing history papers. In varying ways, they are usually guaranteed to help drive a grade down (because they often betray the fact that a studentnot you, of coursehas not taken the time to care about his work).
- Contractions: Don’t use them. “But...”, you’re saying. “They’re all over this page.” Indeed, they are, but my purpose here is not the same as yours in a formal essay or paper. They do not belong in scholarly work...which, believe it or not, is exactly what you are producing.
- Slang & Colloquialisms: Language is wonderfully, tortuously alive. It does things and becomes things no one expects, especially when being re-invented by the next generation. True, new expressions give energy and “kick” to prose often in danger of being fatally stale. They also greatly increase the risk of being misunderstood. Additionally, if you spend too much time showing how “cool” you are, the actual content of what you might have to say is endangered. On the most rare occasion, however, there might actually be a good enough reason for including such everyday parlance; when it happens, enclose it between quotation marks so your reader knows that you know what you’re doing by violating the rules.
- Profanity: There’s only one time to let profanity slip into a history paper, and that is when a primary document uses such language. In that case, it is appropriate. As with so much of the counsel I offer here, the issue centers around knowing your audience. Did I let some spicy language slip through above? Yes, because I knew it would grab and hold your attention, perhaps even lead you on to reading more. Would I do the same when writing a real paper? No. Plain and simple. It would send all the wrong signals.
- The Present Tense Trap: Generally, any crossover from another discipline is welcome, but not the habit of writing in the present tense. Put simply, Alexander is not still invading Persia. He already did it. Nor is he still dying. He’s finished with that deed as well. On the other hand, you can use the present tense when discussing what a written text tells us (e.g., “The account of Roger of Howden informs us....”). This is acceptable even if it does raise metaphysical questions about the intentionality and immanence of texts, but that’s why we offer philosophy courses here at Longwood, right?
- The Future Conditional/Fake Drama Tense: (AKA: The History Channel Tense) This bane of our lives is guaranteed to mess with your professor's blood-pressure. It's a pseudo-present tense that pretends we don't know what the outcome of the historical story is. “Joan of Arc would find Rouen unpleasant...” as though there will be a surprise ending this time. The cure, thankfully, is simple: ditch the word would; that's right, kill it; make it run away and hide in some other, less motivated student's paper.
- A Pox on MLA!: For reasons too deep-seated to discuss here, historians generally detest the parenthetical style of reference notes so en vogue with other disciplines.Give us footnotes! Or if we must compromise, we’ll settle for endnotes. Whoever said that footnotes disrupt the flow of a text hasn’t really tried to slog through one of those paragraphs chock-full of parenthetical interruptions. Yes, I’m ranting, but someone must defend this last bastion of civilization, right?
- One Exception: I am willing, however, in the interest of economy, to allow parenthetical notes to page numbers in the book reviews I assign. Since only page numbers appear, these concessions typically are not so jarring as full notes.
- Numbering: Also on the list of oddities that students that come up with is this gem: when numbering their footnotes/endnotes, quite a number of students think that all references to one text are, say, 1, while all references to another text is 2. And thus, I find ones and twos scattered all across the paper. No, and no again, I say. References are numbered sequentially as each note appears, regardless of the document cited. I can only assume the pernicious influence of MLA at work here again. Sigh.
Grammatical Faux Pas
I’ve saved the worst offenders for last. If you want to show that you don’t care much about your written work (or the attendant grade), just blow off grammar and decline to proofread your work. Trust me; the red ink will flow all over your paper, and the points will slide away. The list below is not all-inclusive; treat it more as a sort of Hall of Shame for the most egregious or common errors.
- Tense Shift: Can you use multiple tenses in a paper? Of course, and doing so is usually a sign of sophisticated analysis and writing. It does, however, put the burden of managing those tenses squarely on your shoulders. If you’re spooked by that prospect, then you can always write everything in simple past tense.
- Homonyms: Be honest—should you have been allowed to leave high school if you still can’t use their, there, and they’re properly? What about the college student who thought awful and offal were the same word? I now subtract points automatically for these mistakes, especially for the assumption that lead is the past tense of the verb to lead. Remember, this is where you must proofread; the spell-checker will not catch these words. I have finally reached the point of developing the “Homonym Death List”; these are transgressions that by themselves each debit a letter grade from an assignment.
- Comma Splicing: It may be okay in great French literature, but in English, one does not stitch sentences together with simply a comma. Usually, you will do well just to write two separate sentences. If two sentences must go together somehow, then find out how to do it properly (hint: discover what the semicolon does).
- Fragments: Admittedly, I’ve used fragments throughout this guide (even as I’ve transgressed other parts of my own advice...it’s all a lesson in the fact that, in writing, rules can sometimes be flouted to really good effect). Snappy fragments that answer questions or emphasize certain points are almost unnoticeable; they fit the place they occupy. Unfortunately, many students write a different kind of fragment: the incomplete sentence. This is wholly unnecessary since, once again, a proofread should catch this.
- Spelling: This one goes without saying, but just in case someone wants to object, I have now said it.
- Apostrophes Do Not Make Plurals: The “Apostrophe S” exists to show possession, not plurality. Just because the people who write copy for billboards cannot get this right doesn’t make it acceptable elsewhere.
- History Texts Are Not Novels!!: There is in fact a sophisticated argument over the inherent fictionality of any historical narrative. In my experience to date, no student who has called an historical account a novel was aware of this argument; no, they just got sloppy while looking for another word for book. Like the Homonyn Death List, this is an automatic letter-grade deduction.
- Pet Peeves: Like the Homonym Death List, here's another set of grievances that is likely to grow. I guess I've finally turned the cantankerous corner...
By now (if you’ve read all the above material), you’ve seen some of the worst mistakes that can occur. What follows are further suggestions for improving the impression given by your paper. Hopefully, they will make your paper flow better and give your writing that extra something you’re seeking. Keep in mind, however, that a paper with plenty of style but no substance will not make the grade.
- Start with Moronic Declarations of the Embarrassingly Obvious: So you have chosen to do a review of Prof. Scheisskopf’s Eric Clapton and the Third Crusade? That’s great, but don’t tell me so. The title already indicates this, and your text of course confirms it through the analysis.
- Begin with a Dictionary Definition: Ugh. Not only is a dictionary hardly inspirational reading, but why is it all that definitive? Are we not in college as a community of thinkers, ready to discuss the meaning of things? Don’t we live to explore the grey areas?
- Say a Text is Boring: Why is this critique supposedly so devastating? It means nothing save that a particular book didn’t quite manage to engage you, or that you’re still sulking over being made to read instead of playing video games . If, on the other hand, you truly believe the book will inevitably numb the minds of all who read it, then prove it so with specific evidence.
- Be a slave to the Passive Voice: Students love writing in the passive voice. I suspect two reasons are at work: the first is that it often takes more words to speak in passive than active voice, and some students are paranoid about writing enough to meet the assignment’s minimums; secondly, the passive voice seemingly lets an action take place without saying explicitly who committed the action. Thus, it’s almost a useful trick when one has done insufficient research. (But almost doesn’t do the trick here.)
In addition, large doses of the passive voice tend to rob an account of its own energy. When the narrative loses its excitement, you can count on the same effect for the reader. All this is not to say: never use the passive voice. On the contrary, it works well when used with care, especially for shifting the focus to the object being acted upon.
- Overuse to be: The verb be is basically an equal sign, a fact which makes it an eminently useful verb. On the other hand, it is not an “action” verb, so again, we’re dealing with a loss of rhetorical energy
- Make Overly Large Generalizations: Too often, students make sweeping claims about what always is, or what all people do, or what every situation calls for. Why not just take a hot air balloon ride over a WWI battlefield? Someone will certainly put a hole in either balloon. Instead, take time to analyze and then claim only what your evidence supports.
- Complain about foreign words: Welcome to the real world, the big one...you know, the one that involves the whole globe. The one where Americans only make up about 4.6% of the world’s population.
There are two primary reasons that an author uses foreign terms: either to show off his erudition or because that word best expresses what needs saying. In the first case, you might be put off by the pretentious git, or you might actually feel a moment of remorse and wish you had taken more foreign languages. (Care to guess which option your professor is suggesting as the better one?) In the second case, grab a dictionary, or in this Internet world of instant gratification, go to any one of countless translation sites. In no time you'll be on the ho pontus of Geschichte, moving about with vitesse and gratia.
- Stand Firm: You’ve joined the community of scholars now, and you have a sharp mind, so there is no need for overdone humility and caution. When you state a conclusion, don’t weaken it with qualifiers like “seems”, “appears”, or “probably.” With all these words, you are immediately expressing doubts in the validity of your position. If you have made your stand, then stand. (Strunk and White cover all these points, and more, in their small but authoritative tome.)
- Avoid Wordiness: Two issues come into play here. First, professors hate to read “fluff”, and second, wordy constructions bog the reader down. In general, use as few words as possible to make your points. This counsel especially applies to those of you writing reviews; you don’t have much space to work with, so being succinct lets you bring in more content.
- Proofread: Have I mentioned this enough times yet? Has it sunk in? Proofread your own paper; have a trustworthy friend proofread it. He or she might even offer constructive comments on your argument; if they do, then you have found a real friend indeed. For your own proofread, you might read it backwards. Many times, misspellings show up better that way. Do not, I repeat, do not trust the spell-checker to get it all for you. It won’t.
- Start Early: If it weren’t for deadlines, what would ever get done? However true such a cliché may be, procrastination is still your worst enemy. Get ahead, and stay ahead of your deadlines. Then you will have time to proofread and time to avoid plagiaristic lapses.