Professor Julia Walker
Department of English
SUNY Geneseo

Important Things about Writing a Paper Y2K edition

OK, so you've heard I'm a hard grader. True. But I do play by the rules, and the rules are pretty clear. If you are worried about your papers, my best advice is to

  • read every word of this now,
  • then read it again before you start writing,
  • then read it again after you are finished.

Donít hesitate to come in and talk with me at any point in the process. Remember, just as youíd like to get a good grade, Iíd like to read a good paper. I hope this document helps to achieve that goal. Please read it carefully.

THINK first, write second. Take a topic and start thinking, looking at the texts, making yourself lists of points that occur to you, points related to the assigned topic. The topic will be designed to force you to form an opinion. Realize this, and let your opinion form as you look at the texts. If you make up your mind too soon, you will find yourself starting the paper with one opinion and ending with another. After you get a long list, pick the points which interest you most and which fit together best (with luck, they could be the same points) for a unified argument. Write on the assigned topic or you will receive a O.

  • You must have a thesis, a point you want to make, but a thesis is an informed opinion and comes after thinking about a topic, not before. Your goal of supporting that thesis will further determine which ideas you use and which you dump. You can't say everything in 5 pages. Don't try. If your paper does not set forth and support a clear thesis (argument), you are looking at a sure D, possibly an F. Plot summary is not the goal; analysis is.

  • You need to develop fully between two and four main points to support your thesis. You develop ideas in paragraphs. When you end paragraphs, you signal to your reader that you are going on to a new point by writing a concluding/transitional sentence. That sentence should touch base with your thesis. If you put three to five paragraphs on a page, you OBVIOUSLY are not developing your ideas. This is an easy-to-spot symptom of fragmented thinking -- all you have to do is look at the page. Print out a draft.

  • style: Write in standard English. This means good grammar, but not pretentious, convoluted, tortured prose. If you want to stay in third person, say "a person . . .he" or "a person . . . she" or "people. . . they."

  • Be logically consistent: you cannot say "a person. . .they." If you want to write in first person, be logically consistent about "I" and "we."

  • Try to avoid gender-specific language. If you are writing about Creon, you will obviously say "he"; but if you are talking about a non-specific person or a reader, do not automatically exclude half the universe. There are two ways out of this problem. The first is to say "a person. . .she," especially if you are female. Or use the more traditional "he," but don't use slashes, The best solution is to stay in the plural: people. . . they, readers. . .they. Nota bene: writing in first person plural also gets you out of this problem. No matter what your high school teacher said, there's nothing wrong with using first person in a paper which is your opinion. Just don't talk about the paper in the first person (that's what those teachers were trying to get you to avoid); eg. DON'T say "In this paper I will prove. . . ." Simply say "I see Antigone as a spoiled child in search of attention." or "We see that Antigone is . . . ." You must, of course, be consistent in your point of view: third OR first singular OR first plural; variety is not good when it comes to point of view.

  • Don't use "one" as a pronoun; real people in the United States do not talk this way.

  • Do not write in second person, "you," the point of view of this handout.

  • Avoid slang, sentence fragments, subject-verb agreement errors, passive voice, and all other crimes of the pen. Examples: slimy, indirect passive voice: "It is seen that Odysseus takes a long trip and that many adventures happen to him." (In addition to the convoluted style, there are the logical problems of what that "it" is and who does the seeing.)

  • Use this: clean, strong active voice: "Odysseus takes a long trip and has many adventures." (Although you will certainly want to go for some more complex sentence structures, you can still stick to active voice in almost all cases.)

  • Refer to the text in the present tense, for example: "Antigone says that she will bury her brother." Open the play and she's still saying it. If you want to indicate the passage of time within the text, use other words, for example: "Early in the war Pericles says. . . but later in the war the Athenians argue. . . . "

  • documentation: In a 100 or 200 level class, when you quote from the text, put the page number of the edition we are using in parenthesis at the end of the quote. Don't take up space by putting the whole title in parenthesis. For plays put act, scene, line: (II, i, 2-7); for epics put book and line. Do not do endnotes for these sorts of citations. I will assume you are using the assigned editions. If you use another edition, include a bibliography page (page 6) with the textual information in proper form. Example:

    Virgil. The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Random House, 1981.
    All references to the text made in this paper cite this edition.
  • If you use interpretive information taken from anywhere besides your own head (including the introductions in the texts), you must footnote it or you have plagiarized. I will give you a 0 if you do this (an F is 50 points.) If I am really outraged (a distinct possibility), I can also fail you in the course and send you to the Dean of Students for disciplinary action up to and including expulsion. See separate handout on plagiarism. Dates and other factual information do not need to be footnoted. Ideas require documentation. If this paper is supposed to be your own ideas, you should avoid this problem entirely. Think for yourself. You can do it or you wouldn't be here.

  • length: 5 pages means 5 pages, not 4 pages and one line. If it helps, think of the paper as between 5 and 6 pages. Observe standard 1-inch margins. The average double-spaced page has approximately 300 words on it, so a 5-page paper would be 1400-1500 words. You must hit the minimum. On the other hand, [much] more is not better: if you turn in 10 normal pages for a 5 page assignment, I will grade you down for inability to narrow a topic. Worry about word count, rather than pages, if you donít have a variety of fonts.

    proof-reading: A great way to proof-read is aloud. If you have trouble reading a sentence, you might consider that it's a bad sentence. If you know you have grammar problems, proof by reading the paper backwards, sentence at a time. This is no help for content, but it puts the grammar of each sentence on its own merits and keeps your mental ear from correcting mistakes which might be overlooked in context.

  • In this age of the word processor, pleasepleasepleaseplease print out a copy to proof-read. Just slamming in the spell-check won't take care of wrong words or the "to, two, too" errors, to say nothing of short or long paragraphs and the lack of transition sentences.

  • Always make sure your paper does what the introduction says it will do, and keep in mind that itís sometimes easier and better to go back and change the introduction.

  • packaging: Use standard, non-slippery white paper. Make a cover-sheet with the title ("Paper # 1" is NOT a title), your name, the class, and the date all on it somewhere. Staple in the upper left corner.

  • Remember that you do not put your own title in quotes or italics, although you must properly punctuate the title of any text appearing in your title.

  • DO NOT put your paper in a plastic paper-holder; I will only make you take it out.

  • Number each page; if you can't get your pc to number, that's OK, just number by hand.

  • If at all possible, print your final copy on a lazer printer. If not, be sure your ink is dark enough. I will not read pale grey papers; I will return them and you will have to print again, submit again, then wait until I get around to reading it, all this while the other students have their graded papers.


  • a word about word-processing: The hot excuse of the 90's was "the computer ate my paper." This is now harder to believe than all those paper-eating dogs. Be reasonable. If you want to use a new system, don't try to learn how the night before the paper is due. Remember to back up your files on floppies. SAVE often to avoid horror stories; most systems can be set to save automatically every 3 or 5 minutes. If you donít have easy access to a good printer, always budget time to get the paper printed.

    a final plea: Please come in and talk with me if you need help. You donít have to have a paper to ask for help. People very often need help getting started. I'm around lots in addition to my formal office hours. If I'm in the middle of something else, I will tell you so and set up another time. If you need to be sure of a time, make an appointment ó e-mail is a great way to do this or ask after class. Please remember it's better for both of us to talk about how to make a paper good than to talk about what went wrong.

  • Use the Writing/Learning Center for help if you know you have problems. They are not a proof-reading service, but if you go in and say "I donít understand commas" or "I canít write transition sentences," they will help you happily.

  • ***If for some catastrophic reason you do not have the paper completed by the due date, do not compound the problem by skipping class that day. Do not miss ANY of the class to finish a paper.

    If it's not there at the beginning of class,

    the paper is late anyway, and two wrongs do not make a happy professor.***