The following story originally ran in the December 1991 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine. The guidance below by Ronald Waters—former professor of history—and T.H. Kern, A&S '92, is so timeless we decided to publish it here.
Found on an office door in the history department, this document is a superb review of how to write a college paper—or a memo, or report.
We have designed this manual to help head off basic problems that haunt student papers. Following a sketchy primer on writing as a whole, we list particular offenses against language and logic. These are in alphabetical order so that comments in the margins of written assignments may easily be checked against a fuller explanation of the error.
In some place we draw inspiration from William Zinsser's On Writing Well, James J. Kilpatrick's The Writer's Art, or The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. For the most part, however, we rely on several thousand pages of undergraduate and graduate prose for ideas (and many examples). We are not grammatical or stylistic purists, an we are certain that readers will spot—and inform us of—errors in this text. We simply want clarity.
Our tone is chatty, but our purpose is serious and selfish. It is a pain to keep writing the same comments in margins, paper after paper, semester after semester, year after year.
Formal writing requires a structure. This doesn't mean your papers must follow a formula or that they should be boring, even if they are for a history course. But you must know four things before you begin to write: 1) what your points are; 2) if you can prove them (keeping in mind and testing, counter-arguments); 3) how you will prove them; and 4)how you can distill from them a logical conclusion.
Many people dislike formal outlines—the kind with Roman numerals and letters and numbers of various sizes. Some form of outline, nonetheless, is essential. One strongly recommended method is to list the major points in order, but to express them in full sentences. The result is less an outline than a logical sequence of opic sentences of paragraphs. This has the advantage of letting you see whether or not the major transitions work before you spend time writing. Pinpointing problems will take more time at the outset, but will make your job far simpler in the long run.
These are the building blocks of essays. Each should form a coherent unit, treating a particular idea or aspect of the topic rather than scattering thoughts with abandon. Paragraphs should function like links in a chain: self-contained, but connected to the rest. and each, as E.B. White says, should tell the reader "that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached."
An introductory paragraph or two should occur in reasonably proximity to the first page and should announce the major themes of the paper, serving as a promise to the reader of what the author will accomplish. The paragraphs that follow should build on the introduction and on earlier points—all while making sense. The conclusion should summarize your main points and make an intelligent case for your paper's significance. (If it has no significance, your reader will let you know.)
When proofreading your essay, check the opening and closing paragraphs to make sure they are consistent. Read the topic sentences of paragraphs in order. If you can make sense of the argument by doing that, you can be reasonably sure that the paper proceeds in logical fashion.
No amount of planning, and no beautifully constructed paragraph, is worth anything unless your sentences carry weight. A well-designed puzzle is pointless unless the pieces fit into a cohesive whole; so it is with writing. First, determine what you absolutely need to say to put your point across—the bare minimum to support your thesis. Ask yourself what evidence is necessary to make the case. If, for example, you want to demonstrate that slavery caused the Civil War, can you do it if you only have data from antislavery newspapers? What evidence will you need?
Your topic sentences—the ones that make the crucial points in general terms—are most important: If they fail, everything does. Make certain that topic sentences occur at the beginning of paragraphs (or at least, are not buried in the middle), and that they are crystal clear.
Terse prose is usually your best choice for non-fiction. Long, ornate sentences are hard to control and frequently disturb the reader's concentration. Write with nouns and verbs, and avoid forcing adjectives and adverbs into otherwise innocent sentences. For example:
- "The dour general's savage, unkempt, ragtag men viciously slashed their way through the prostrate countryside, laying waste to everything before them." Translates to: "Sherman's troops devastated the South."
As usual, Elements of Style puts it well. "The adjective hasn't been built," the authors state, "that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place." The same can be said for verbs (and we say it in the section on verbs).
Hearing the language
Although spoken and written English differ considerably, it is useful to read troublesome sentences out loud. If they don't sound right, try explaining their content—again, out loud—to an imaginary listener. The ears don't lie, a fact that can help you find ways to simplify your written English and make it more direct. Reading aloud can also help you pick up unintentional rhymes and monotonous, thumping rhythms, the kind that come from using similar sentence structures several times in a row.
Reading comments on your writing
Among the most difficult tasks a writer faces is learning to take advice. If you are fortunate, friends and faculty members will be brutal in editing your prose. When that happens, students tend either to reject the advice totally ("I know what I'm saying") or to incorporate the criticism unquestioningly. Either approach is wrongheaded.
Look for patterns of criticism. Do readers have trouble following the argument? If so, check the opening and closing statements and the topic sentences. Do readers tell you that you are wordy or put terms in the margins like "air," "puff," and "empty phrases"? If so, look at adjectives and adverbs—are there too many? Check to see if your sentences are unnecessarily complex. Also look for pretentious phrases and weasel words.
You are doing yourself and your editors a disservice if you accept or reject their advice without understanding what underlying problem prompted it.
Abbreviations are useful for note-taking and informal writing, but keep them to a minimum in formal written work. Their use often produces a casual, breezy manner that can either mock the seriousness of an essay or give it a twitch tone, with "i.e.," "e.g like nervous tics. To make matters worse, many students misuse "i.e." and "e.g." anyway. We won't discuss correct usage because we don't want to see any usage.
An anachronism is someone or something that is not in its correct historical or chronological time—a particularly egregious error in historical writing. Although the word is associated with the use of the past in the present, endowing historical settings with contemporary objects, words, or attitudes is equally absurd. The following is from the paper of a student who couldn't understand how the teaching assistant knew she made up the quotation:
- "Democracy," John Adams declared, "leads inevitably to fascism or communism."
A solid grasp on chronology enables you to avoid such errors. Quick reference to an etymological dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary Based on Historical Principles can also be helpful.
These are consistently misused. For a singular noun, indicate possession by adding an apostrophe and an "s." Some people use only the apostrophe when the noun itself ends with "s," but such is not preferred usage.
- CBS's fall lineup for 1988 was a commercial disaster: NBC's was not.
- Miles Davis's best recordings appeared before 1965. (Less preferred: Davis' best recordings ...)
For all plural nouns ending in "s," add only an apostrophe. If the plural does not end is "s," add an "s." Examples:
The Mathers' greatest treasure is their collection of German operas. (Or you can write around the problem: The Mather family's greatest treasure ...")
Do not use apostrophes for special cases such as decades or initials unless you are indicating possession:
- The 1970s were years of social stagnation; upheaval was the 1960's burden.
- JFK's greatest worry was the would-be FDRs running around the Senate.
Names like "PC's Unlimited" or phrases like "extra's: tomatoes and cheese" are incorrect even if they appear on corporate logos or in student cafeterias.
Students routinely confuse "it's" and "its," "who's" and "whose." "Its" and "whose" connote possession by an object or person. "It's" and "who's" are contractions of "it is" and "who is." Note this usage carefully.
A word commonly scribbled in the margins of undergraduate essays. See "Overwriting" and most of the rest of this manual.
Definitions are important because they are one of the ways in which you control (as best you can) how the reader understands your essay. Without them, you and your audience may have a radically different sense of the key terms of your argument. So define your terms—but don't simply rely on the dictionary. Few things turn off a reader more completely than an essay beginning with something like "Webster's defines 'race' as ..." A better way is to insert definitions gracefully into your own prose:
- Inherited physical characteristics—what we normally think of as "race"—are more a cultural than a biological construct.
Students are often frustrated by professors who write "be specific" or "vague" on one page of an essay, "too much detail" on another. There is, however, an art to making clear what or whom you are discussing. The trick is to elaborate, but concisely—in a clause or a few sentences. Note how much a few additional words help the following:
- Jane Addams criticized the role of middle-class women.
- As rewritten: Jane Addams, a pioneer social worker, criticized the role of middle-class women as being purely decorative, rather than productive.
Frequently, students stop short of indicating either the cause or the consequences of something. Unless explained in subsequent sentences, "Slavery produced the Civil War" is less satisfactory than "Slavery produced the Civil War by creating two different societies, North and South."
These are the funny little dots that appear in the middle of at the ends of quotations. Three of them indicate that words are missing and four indicate that the omissions include the end of a sentence. (Think of the fourth dot as the missing period.) Take, for example, the following, totally fabricated quotation: "I am not a communist. Furthermore, I have never been one." A stylistically proper (though dishonest) way to use the first sentence would be:
- Under hard questioning, Joe smith declared that "I am ... a communist." (The ellipses at least let the reader know that something was deleted.)
The two sentences might be used in the following fashion:
- Joe Smith declared that he was not "a communist ... [and] I never have been one." (The four ellipses let the reader know that the two parts of the quotation do not come from the same sentence. The brackets indicate that the "and" was inserted by the author of the essay.)
Note that ellipses are not generally necessary at the beginning of the quotation. Instead, the lack of a capital letter reveals a deletion. In the last example, the lower case "a" in "a communist" tells the reader that the quotation begins in the middle of a sentence.
Don't play God when you write. You won't be able to awe readers into belief through your authority and majesty, in the form of sheer assertion. when a writer props up assertion with phrases like "it is certain" or "we may assume," readers smell a rat. Avoid these forms of verbal flatulence.
In order to persuade, you need evidence, as well as logic and a well-constructed argument. an important first step in writing a paper is to determine what kind of data you need to prove your point. If, for example, you want to convince a reader that Victorian women were hostile to sex, you cannot rely solely on the writings of male physicians or authors of advice books. You need data from Victorian women themselves. Similarly, material from a Democratic party newspaper will not persuade critical readers that the Republican Party botched Reconstruction. Be certain that your evidence and argument support each other.
Also beware of justifying arguments by assuming an alternative that is not analyzed in your essay. (Our term for this is "the doctrine of the implied false alternative.") For example, "American workers chose the ballot box rather than revolution" implies that revolution was an alternative. If you make such a statement, you need to discuss it at length. Otherwise, it is merely a rhetorical flourish masquerading as an argument.
Footnotes are essential, but not as excuses for pedantry. Use them to let the reader know what you have drawn upon in making your argument. Footnote direct quotations and important ideas drawn from other scholars. Also occasionally use footnotes to discuss bodies of literature—to guide the reader to the major references in a particular field.
Do not use them as a solution to problems in organizing your argument or a garbage bin for things you wish you could have put in the text. Nor should you footnote common knowledge; if one of your points is undeniably true, simply state the point.
Footnote at the end of sentences, not within them, and—whenever possible—at the end of paragraphs rather than at each citation within a paragraph. Keep your footnote form simple. We prefer using the full bibliographical reference in the first footnote. After that, use an abbreviated form. Avoid using the Latin terms, ibid., op. cit., and loc. cit. Odds are, you don't know what they really mean, and neither do most professors.
Do not assume gender when making general statements, unless the group clearly consists of one gender. It is, for example, reasonable to write: "When a resident comes to the Susan B. Anthony Hotel for Women, she may expect to find a clean room." In most instances, however, assuming gender is sloppy, exclusionary, and unnecessary.It is acceptable, though cumbersome, to use "he or she" or "s/he" as pronouns. But you'll find it simpler and more graceful to avoid gender-specific pronouns altogether. "When a man opens a toy store, he can expect all of his friends with children to patronize him." Translates to:
- Anyone opening a toy store can expect the patronage of friends with children.
It also works to switch from singular to plural: "If a teacher is tough on writing, he can expect trouble." Becomes: "Teachers who are tough on writing can expect trouble."
A number of professional organizations and publishers, including the American Historical Association, have style sheets that provide guidelines for avoiding gender-specific language. Among the most recent is a publication by the Modern Language Association, by Francine Wattman Frank, et al., "Language, Gender, and Professional Writing: Theoretical Approaches and Guidelines for Nonsexist Usage."
"Get" and its variants are becoming the verbs of choice for millions of Americans. most of the time, this represents a misuse of the language. "We've got to get together," according to a political leader, "to get this tax situation straightened out." More precise and elegant ways can be found to express these ideas.
- Marco Polo got pasta from the Chinese.
Should be translated to:
- "Marco Polo learned about pasta from the Chinese."
This is a fine and useful word. It, nonetheless, does not belong at the beginning of sentences. (Don't ask for a rule.) In most instances, the offending word easily moves into a later part of the sentence:
- However, there were some bad things about Genghis Khan.
- Painlessly becomes: There were, however, bad things about Genghis Khan.
Aside from their great utility at the end of a line, hyphens also serve to link pairs of words. when forming compound words, hyphenate if common sense tells you the result will be more clear: "Picture perfect read eyed flies," for example, can be understood in several ways. Do not make the reader choose.
Adjectives usually take the hyphen, while nouns do not, as in the case of centuries:
- Nineteenth-century voters frequently thought they were electing "the best man." There are no such illusions in the twentieth century.
The unwritten rule is that two words start separated, are later linked by a hyphen, and ultimately join in dictionary matrimony. the progression is from "bed chamber" to "bed-chamber" to "bedchamber." Hyphens also indicate phrases such as "round-the-world" and "state-of- the-art." For current usage, consult contemporary dictionaries, "The Random House Dictionary of the English Language" (second edition, unabridged) is the most up-to-date reference. Also helpful is the American Heritage Dictionary.
It's and its
Jargon and slang
It is futile to construct a list of words to avoid in formal writing; aesthetics vary with each assignment, with professors(some of whom have less taste than others), and with the evolution of the language. Common sense is your best guide, caution the safest policy. Skip the colloquialisms that pepper contemporary English, and banish "business-speak." Bad examples are legion:
- Martin Luther had no input into the Catholic Church.
- Hiroshima was a real bummer.
Clauses are wonderful things, but introductory ones should always modify the subjects that follow them. Although many bad examples are long, complex, and subtle, one student was remarkably concise in producing a faulty modifier:
- As a woman, he admired her.
Give a person's full name in the first reference, even if the figure is reasonable well known. If you are writing about 17th-century England, for example, the first mention should be "Bishop Matthew Wren," not "Bishop Wren." Also, use a person's commonly used or professional name. A reference should be to "Richard Hofstadter," not to "R. Hofstadter." The latter form belongs to Soviet writers and sociologists.
Few are in favor of dull history, especially the book-buying public. but verbal pyrotechnics do not produce compelling prose. Only solid writing, good organization, and an engaging subject can do that. Exercise restraint. Many students are too eager to wax metaphorical, to paint things more vividly than necessary, and to substitute rhetoric for logic. this often comes across as foolish rather than dramatic, especially when events or inanimate objects acquire the traits of the animal kingdom:
- Carter's grain embargo cut into the Soviet economy like the bit of a rabid pit bull.
- Congress stood up on its hind feet and bared its pointy teeth at the president.
Personify rarely; use metaphors sparsely. when you do use metaphors, make sure that they are not mixed or do not conjure up grisly images:
Passive verbs lack a clear subject and should be avoided. Typical passive constructions are "should be avoided," was done," and "is chosen." You need not avoid passive verbs at all costs, but their number should be few because active verbs give a stronger, more direct tone to your writing.
In addition to reading less well, passive verbs also promote vagueness, because they permit the author to avoid naming a subject. "It was determined that..," for example, fails to state who determined it. This fact explains why passive verbs are so popular in bureaucratic and political discourse.
Note how passive constructions can convert to active ones. (That sentence, in fact, is a conversion from "Note how passive constructions can be converted to active ones.")
- It was decided that Socrates should die.
- Can be: The judges decided that Socrates should die.
There are many definitions of plagiarism. "Theft" is the simplest. It is plagiarism to take as your own a significant portion of the words or thoughts of another person, especially if you paraphrase them somewhat to disguise their origin. when you repeat someone else's words, enclose them in quotation marks and footnote the source. Also footnote passages of your prose that owe major intellectual debts to someone else's scholarship. In practical terms, plagiarism means an automatic "F."
See "Elaboration" and "Evidence".
Consult someone else. If necessary, check the MLA Handbook, or other reliable references, such as Margaret Shertzer's Elements of Grammar. Just remember, if you write a sentence that runs over three lines and has no comma, you may be in trouble. James Joyce could write a single, brilliant chapter with only one comma. You probably can't.
Quotations should support and illustrate an argument, not intrude upon it or substitute for it. Try to blend quotations with your own prose, pruning judiciously, and to break long ones into shorter units.
- James Madison declared: I trust we shall find that part which gives the general government the power of laying and collecting taxes indispensable, and essential to the existence of any efficient or well organized system of government ..."
This would read better as:
- "I trust," declared Madison, "we shall find that part which gives the general government the power of laying and collecting taxes indispensable ..."
Stay away from unattributed quotations. Do not plug someone else's words into the midst of your own without indicating who wrote or said them:
The revolutionaries aimed at finding something that "gives the general government the power of laying and collecting taxes ..."
Says who? The thought should either be paraphrased or credited to Madison:
- The revolutionaries aimed at finding something that, in James Madison's phrase, "gives the general government the power of laying and collecting taxes ..."
Above all, avoid bloc quotations. These large, single-spaced chunks look imposing on the page, but readers usually skip them, assuming that anything important will be in the body of the paper. Even if read, large quotations make an essay appear unoriginal and interrupt the flow of an argument. Integrate quotations into the paragraphs of your paper; a mother, more persuasive essay will result.
If you are dead-set on including a bloc quotation in your paper, make certain it does real work. It should illustrate some aspect of your subject that you cannot describe adequately in your own words; it should convey the nature—language, form, character—of your source materials; or it should enhance your argument substantially without retarding the flow of your exposition. Bloc quotations aren't taboo; they just have to earn their keep.
Avoid rhetorical questions. Why, you may ask? Because they fall into several obnoxious categories:
1) there are the unanswerable and pretentious ones: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"
2) There are silly ones: "Was slavery good or evil?"
3) There are the perky ones (and we hate perky): "Why don't we try to put ourselves into the head of an average medieval peasant?"
4) Above all, there are the ones authors use when they cannot think of a decent way to make a transition—ones that substitute for clear organization: "What, we may wonder, connects these various phenomena?" We know we will still wonder after reading the paragraphs that follow such a question.
Specific (as in "be specific")
Verbs in the infinitive form comprise two words, one of which is "to"—"to be," "to go," "to consume." fifty years ago it was a cardinal rule of grammar never to split infinitives—as in "to boldly go where no man has gone before," or "to really be radical." These examples and dozens of others have proven useful in writing, particularly for newspapers and in television. Enforcement of the rule has eased in many circles. The New York Times employs the policy that it is all right to split an infinitive when you cannot gracefully avoid doing so. Some of us are less forgiving.
Don't try to develop one until you are thoroughly in control of your writing. English is cruel to those who affect a style. Readers often laugh unkindly, as at this:
- The more Henry VIII cogitated and masticated, the more alternatives he saw to divorce.
Using "which" and "that" correctly can be a puzzler. Cardinal rules offer guidelines, but exceptions abound.
In general, use "that" in a defining, restricting, or essential clause; reserve "which" for nondefining or innessential clauses. What those terms means is that if the clause following "that" or "which" is essential to the definition of whatever precedes it, the appropriate word is "that." If, on the other hand, the clause merely modifies or elaborates upon the subject, the appropriate word is "which." James J. Kilpatrick gives a handy guide: "If the clause is to be set off by commas, use which. Otherwise, use that."
- The announcer's hairpiece, which he wears with no regularity, is the worst that Bryant Gumbel has ever seen.
Practice appears to differ among English-speaking nations. Many British writers consistently use "which" where Americans use "that." Don't plead that as an excuse. They only think it is their language.
Keep in mind that people are not things, and "that" refers to things. Do not write sentences like this one:
- Catherine the Great was the kind of woman that got what she wanted.
Usually a friendly and useful word, "the" can be overdone.
- The peasants went to the nobility whenever they needed relief from the clergy's demands.
- Reads better as: Peasants went to nobles whenever they needed relief from clerical demands.
See also "Passive voice." Instructed to avoid a dribble of adverbs, students reach for strong verbs. In this way they fall into careless error, most often an error of degree—using "pummel" where "strike" would be correct. use the dictionary, in which you should seek verbs that convey your meaning precisely.
Verbs and causation
More dangerous are verbs used blindly, dropped into a sentence without regard for what they imply about causation. For example: "Tom Paine's "Common Sense" produced the Revolution" makes a large claim, and one that cannot be proven. Unless you are prepared to argue the point, it is better to say "Tom Paine's "Common Sense" helped justify the Revolution." Make certain that the verbs you use do not commit you to causal propositions, or to implied relationships that you do not intend.
Arrange historical events in the past tense. The present and progressive tenses usually add confusion and inconsistency to historical writing. Students occasionally use these tenses in an attempt to give a sense of drama:
- Napoleon surveys Europe with an eagle eye. He sees before him a world to conquer and all that stands between him and glory is an insignificant island with poor cuisine and warm beer.
People who write like that end up doing documentaries for local television.
Speaking of television, avoid its latest contribution to the language, the "sports present tense," also known as Madden-speak. It's most common constructions begin with "if" and involve an imaginary rewriting of whatever just happened: "If he catches the football, it's a whole different game." When this verbal instant replay is applied to history, the effect is bizarre:
- If Lincoln lives, it is a while different Reconstruction.
- If Luther stays with the Catholic Church, there's no Reformation.
See also "Passive voice."
It is all right to refer to yourself in most academic papers. You might, for example, state: "I firmly believe that Turner's view of the frontier is flawed by sexism and racism." It would be simpler, however, to leave yourself out; "Turner's view of the frontier is flawed by sexism and racism."
If you do use "I," make certain that you aren't simply being self-indulgent, making yourself—rather than the topic—the centerpiece of your work. There is an obvious (and irritating) narcissism to essays that contain sentences like the following:
- I couldn't relate to slavery because it is so alien to my life growing up in Scarsdale.
I was really impressed with the way Machiavelli talked about how to get ahead in the world of politics. I know it is difficult to see George Bush as Lorenzo the Magnificent, but I can see the parallels and they're awesome.
Whatever you do, avoid using the imperial "we" when you really mean "I." (You may wonder why we use "we"" in this style sheet. Because two of us wrote it, that's why.) "We" neither disguises your identity nor creates a sense of community with your reader. It just makes you sound like Dan Rather.
- We now must turn our attention to the negative aspects of the Black Death.
- We must determine whether or not the French Revolution was truly revolutionary, or merely a bit of historical housecleaning.
Weasel words. If your information is less than conclusive, acknowledge that either in summary or by choosing another argument. But don't undercut your argument with weasel words—empty palliatives such as "to a certain degree," "it may seem likely that," or "in some cases." If your points are weak, they need no additional burdens. Note how much stronger the following become as the bracketed words drop out:
- [It may even be, as] some experts have hinted that Thomas More was [somewhat] suicidal [anyway].
- Josiah Royce was [to some extent] the Hegel of American philosophy.
Weasel words dilute your thought, and hence your argument.
We'll violate our own rule that an essay should always have a strong conclusion summarizing the argument and emphasizing its importance. We simply want to say that warnings about he pitfalls of prose should not scare you. Writing well is difficult, but it can be fun and should give a sense of accomplishment. Being able to communicate with other human beings, especially professors, is no means achievement.