Introduction  Blunders to Avoid  Stylistic Improvements

Caveat Scriptor

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...

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.

Let me hammer this point home one time more! Last-minute work betrays itself as such. That's why I mark papers not just for the quality of research but also the quality of the writing. That's why simple mistakes like misused homonyms or use of "would" for past tense situations are so costly to student scores. You want the good grade? Then invest time in research. Invest time in writing. Invest time in proofreading.

Aggravating your Reader

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 student—not you, of course—has not taken the time to care about his work).

Professional Language/Tone

Verb Tense

Citation

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.

Stylistic Touchups

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.

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