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Department of History and Military Studies
Writing Papers: Twelve keys to writing a great paper
Dr. Brian Blodgett, Dr. Jon Carleton, and Dr. Cynthia Metcalf
1. Remember that writing is a process. Sitting down at the computer to write your paper
is the FINAL step in this process. It may be unpleasant and will likely be unsuccessful ifyou attempt it too early. You must first begin by actively reading your sources. Put away
the highlighter and instead treat your sources as people, having conversations with them.Contrary to what your parents may have told you, WRITE IN YOUR BOOKS! Takenotes in the margins. If you are accessing work online, download it, and use the comment
feature to take notes in the margins. When you read something, make comparisons and /
or contrasts to other information you have read. If you agree with a point, write it in themargins, if you disagree, write as well and tell why you disagree.
Now, once you have ACTIVELY read you sources, you are ready to begin. Keep awayfrom the computer at this stage use the old fashioned pen and paper to sketch out your
ideas. 1) Develop your topic and sketch out a few ideas, 2) Reread with your topic and
your ideas in mind, 3) Formulate your thesis, 4) Outline, 5) Draft, and 6) Revise.
The first step is developing your topic. Focus it enough so that you can explore it with
depth. Students generally make the mistake of writing about something too broad. Aim toprove something specific a general rule is the narrower the better. Be brave enough to
take an interesting stand on an issue, adopt an unconventional view (if you can support it)
you score extra points with a topic that is not obvious.
The second step is to collect examples that speak to your topic or prove your argument.
Look beyond the obvious. Refine and redefine your topic as you reread. Try to build up aset of examples that go together well. They may address different aspects of your topic or
reveal some progression.
Develop your argument as you play with these examples. Do not shy away from
examples that seem to work against your argument. Very often, such counterevidence is
the key to a subtler, more persuasive interpretation. As you outline your paper, be sure toask yourself what difference your argument makes.
2. Define your thesis carefully. A good thesis is precise, interesting, but not obvious. It isyour point of view and it should be worth demonstrating. Generally, it stands in
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2opposition to some other view. The reader should know what your thesis is by the end
of the first paragraph. Your thesis does not have to say everything about your topic; it
only needs to set out your point of view and launch your paper.
3. Make the first paragraph count. Do not fool around with long paragraphs ofbackground or vague introductions. Avoid introductory blather, high-flown phrases about
the beauty of ancient culture, assurances that ancient literature has fascinated generations,
or other empty observations. If you are at a loss for how to start your paper, you might tryone of the following strategies: outline the argument that your thesis refutes, describe aproblem of interpretation, or present a vivid example. Your last sentence in your
introduction should be your thesis statement.
4. Organize your paper. No simple formula will do; in fact, simple formulas often make
for dull reading. Give your paper a suitable design so that each part follows logically
from the previous one and leads logically to the next. Include signposts in the text tomake your design clear. Guide your reader through your argument with clear transitional
5. Organize your paragraphs. A paragraph should be unified, coherent, and developed. Itshould center upon one particular question, idea, or example. The sentences should
follow in some clear sequence. Ensure that you support the central idea.
6. Argue from evidence. Keep your unsubstantiated opinions in the background. Instead,
show the reader that the words of the source you are analyzing support your thesis. Yourevidence may consist of quotations from an ancient author, simple reference to a passage
of an ancient author, or (sometimes) reference to a modern work of scholarship. Explain
to the reader what the evidence you cite means and how it proves your thesis.
7. Use quotations as needed to support your thesis but you must have a good reason for
quoting a passage. It is best to use only bits and pieces of a quotation, rather than anentire quote. Never, ever just use a quotation without both setting it up and following it
with some analysis. If you want to make a simple point, paraphrase and cite the source.
Do not use quotations without analyzing them. Do not end paragraphs or the paper withquotations.
8. Write for an educated audience that is familiar with your source. Avoid long passages
of summary. Your audience has read the book; we know the plot. Your job is to help us
see something in it that we may not have seen before.
9. Write as clearly as you can. Choose your words carefully. Be sure you know what your
words mean, especially when they have a prominent place in your paper. As Mark Twainsaid: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a largematter--it is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."
10. Write as forcefully as you can. Avoid the passive voice. Avoid clichs, faddish
expressions, and meaningless, outworn words and phrases. Avoid filler phrases that
obscure your main point. Avoid the verbs to be: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, andbeen. Replace all verbs to be with strong verbs, ex. He was a good runner in the race,
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3replace it with He sped. After writing your paper, go back and see how many words
you can eliminate. Each word should be vital to your paper. Can you take four or five
words out and replace it with one?
11. Give your essay a title that tries to capture the principal idea you want to convey toyour reader. A bad title: "Homer's Iliad." A better one: "The Clothes Don't Make the
Man: Identity and Disguise in the Odyssey."
12. Proofread. This means, not only running SpellCheck, but also checking for
Using Quotations: Incorporate brief quotations into the body of your text. They should
conform grammatically to your sentence. Use brackets to mark an insertion or a change
in the original text. For longer quotations - four typed lines of prose or three of poetry -use a block quotation this means you should indent the quotation and single space.
Better yet, if you are tempted to use a long quote, think again do you really need all of
it? Could just a few words do? Could you paraphrase it? Do not enclose a block quotationin quotation marks. If you leave out a part of a sentence, use an ellipsis (a set of three
periods . . . ) to signal that something has been left out. If you want to skip from a passagein a sentence to one that occurs in a later sentence, use a period immediately before the
ellipsis (. . . .) (that is, use 4 periods). Do not start or end a quotation with an ellipsis.
Citations: Cite your evidence adequately using the Chicago Manual or Style or the
Turabian Manual of Style using footnotes. Do not use intext parenthetical citations. Whenyou refer to a source, include the citation (in footnote format) and a reference list with a
full citation (author, title, place of publication, publisher, year of publication, and page
number). Give a citation for every quotation and every example you use.
Reference Books: A few reference books are essential for any writer. A good dictionary
is the first, of course. However, you should NEVER cite dictionaries or encyclopedias incollege level work (unless you are writing a paper about dictionaries or encyclopedias). I
would also recommend a general guide to style. I like the Chicago Manual of Style, the
Turabian Manual of Style, and the Elements of Style. General encyclopedias may behelpful to answer some straightforward questions (Did Aeschylus write before
Sophocles? What were the Eleusinian Mysteries?). A thesaurus can be helpful when you
do not know the precise word you are looking for, although it should always lead youback to the dictionary.
Paper Format: Your professor will provide you with more details on this but as a general
guide, you may, if you choose, use a separate title page (Be aware though, that the title
page and reference pages are NOT included in word or page counts). In any case, be sureto include your name, the class, your instructor's name, and an interesting title. Do notunderline or place quotation marks around your title. Your paper should have margins of
one inch on each side. Use a 12-point font, double-spaced. Number each page after the
first, normally in the upper right corner.
Plagiarism: If you use the words or the ideas of another without attribution, you arecommitting the very serious academic crime of plagiarism.