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
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.
Be logically consistent: you cannot
say "a person. . .they." If you want to write in first person, be logically
consistent about "I" and "we."
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."
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.)
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. . . . "
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.)
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.
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
All references to the text
made in this paper cite this edition.
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
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.
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.
DO NOT put your paper in a plastic paper-holder; I will only make you take
Number each page; if you can't get your pc to number, that's OK, just number
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
A COPY OF EVERY PAPER YOU TURN IN FOR ANY CLASS. THIS IS COMMON SENSE.
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.
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.***