Helpful Hints for Writing Class Papers

Prepared by Paul Brians

The papers you write for this class are supposed to function as the equivalent of take-home exams for which you choose the questions. The point is to show that you have thoroughly read the assigned material, worked closely with the study guides, and can explain and interpret the material as a result. Your grade will be based primarily on how thoroughly you would seem to have done this work.

Choose a well-defined topic which is clearly identified in your title (you don't need a mysteriously "catchy" title to get teachers to read your papers--that's our job). Your first paragraph should state clearly and unambiguously what your paper is about. Then the rest of the paper should stick to the topic, not wandering about to unrelated matters.

Your papers may be thesis-based if you wish, and you can even argue with the authors you are studying, but only in a scholarly way. That is, you must thoroughly and clearly present their thinking first, demonstrating your mastery of the texts before you present your own views. In taking sides in any controversy, you must anticipate the arguments of the other side, consider its likely arguments, and deal with those arguments. Literary criticism is not an opportunity for unfettered self-expression: you need to engage with others whose views you may not agree with.

There are plenty of ways to approach these assignments without a thesis, however. You can compare one text with another, trace a theme through a work, discuss a literary technique as it is used in the work, or discuss the relationship between two characters. You can get many ideas for other kinds of topics by consulting Sylvan Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing About Literature.

Avoid excessively personal responses. These are serious, scholarly papers, in which your gut feelings and preferences should play very little role. This is the time to show off your analytical skills rather than your emotions.

Avoid talking about what you don't understand. The time to express doubts and ask questions (the kind you don't have answers for) is in class discussion, not in formal papers. Never begin a paper by explaining how hard it was to write. Choose topics that you can handle, not ones that baffle you. Go with your strengths.

Avoid expressing contempt for famous authors, music, or art in your writing. If you write that Shakespeare's sonnets are stupid, you'll only be inviting your readers to regard you as ignorant. If you can't stand the sound of harpsichords, that's your misfortune, but not something to brag about in a paper any more than you should loudly proclaim that you think burgundy is disgusting swill when it is offered at a fine dinner party. If a work is on the syllabus, many people, your teacher included, think it's important. Try to learn why. Again, you can express your bafflement or repulsion in discussion; but in a paper you need to take it for granted that you have to treat the material with some respect. If you criticize it, you must do so in an informed, sophisticated manner, not just expressing your personal distaste.

You must directly address the material, not focus on tangential matters it reminds you of. You can discuss the relevance of an older text for modern times, but make sure you are not writing a paper about modern times as such, failing to discuss thoroughly the assigned text in its own context. These papers are text-based. Close reading is required.

A good paper covers all the relevant sections of an assigned work. If you focus only on the opening pages it will look as if you didn't finish the reading assignment.

If you are using research sources, there are certain important considerations to keep especially in mind. Don't restrict yourself to Web sites and common reference tools such as dictionaries and encyclopedias unless your teacher specifically allows you to. Normally you are expected to use to a research library and real, paper books and journal articles (though more and more journal articles are available online through library services--talk to a reference librarian to get help with this). When drawing on sources, don't just string quotations together, or paraphrase what they have to say by changing a few words. Master the material and incorporate it into your own argument, still remembering to cite the source you've drawn on whether you quote it or not.

Here's an example: Suppose Sean O'Malley wrote: "Yeats' poetry, despite the fact that he is often viewed as a spokesman for the Irish people, is often forbiddingly difficult." This is not such memorable wording that it's worth quoting directly. Anyone with half a brain can quote (with a modern computer you can even quote without ever reading what you quote); paraphrasing instead demonstrates that you understand your source. But it would be bad writing, verging on plagiarism (and distorting the source), to tinker with his wording like this: "Sean O'Malley says that Yeats, despite speaking for the Irish people, often writes really difficult poems." Resist the urge to do minor revisions of your sources like this. Here's a better approach, which acknowledges O'Malley as a source but has digested what he has to say into the writer's own material: "Whereas Sean O'Malley suggests that Yeats' reputation as a spokesman for Ireland is inconsistent with the difficulty of his writing; his most typically Irish writing is not in fact that difficult." Here we see the writer thinking about and using a source, not just reproducing it.

Here are some suggestions that will help you avoid common mechanical errors in preparing your papers. To avoid simple writing errors, consult my Common Errors in English" at"

Most of these details won't have a big effect on your grade, but following these guidelines will keep me in good humor. Use this page to refer to when interpreting marks on your papers.

  1. If you are not used to writing papers for literature classes, carefully study the first three chapters of Sylvan Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing About Literature.
  2. All papers must be typed or printed out on a computer . Double-space throughout, do not put extra space between paragraphs, and use 12-point type.
  3. Allow yourself time to proofread and correct your paper. If you are using a computer, be sure to check the printed output. You will catch errors that you missed on the screen. If you use a commercial typing service, please proofread its work carefully. You are responsible for any errors in the finished product. Pencilled-in corrections ar e always preferable to beautifully typed mistakes.
  4. Always write at least the amount assigned. Shorter papers will receive an F. Quotations, notes and sources do not count in calculating length. There is no maximum length for papers in this class. Always number your pages, by hand if necessary, but you should consult your word processor's manual to find out how to do this automatically.
  5. Always use 20-weight paper. If you have an ink-jet printer, make sure the cartridge is working properly before the day on which you plan to do your printing. Last-minute printer problems are not an acceptable excuse for turning a paper in on time. If all else fails, send in your paper by e-mail attachment or bring it to class on a floppy disk.
  6. Never put a class paper into any kind of folder , especially those plastic ones with the snap-on spines. Fasten your paper together with a staple or a paper clip.
  7. Be sure to give your paper a specific title which clearly describes its contents. "Modern Literature" or "Humanities 303" is not a title. Nor should you simply use the name of the work you are discussing. "Dead Cats in Tom Sawyer " is more like it. See Barnet on choosing a topic and a title (26-33).
  8. Learn the proper critical vocabulary from Barnet terms like "setting," "point of view," "irony," etc. Study Barnet's sample papers in chapters 4 and 5.
  9. Do not underline or italicize your paper's title or place it in quotation marks. Underlining titles is an old-fashioned form of quotation. You aren't quoting your own title. When you do quote a title, italicize it if it is a book or a work which could be printed as a book; place it between quotation marks if it is a short poem, short story, essay, or other work which would be published only as part of a book.
  10. Always space before parentheses . It is never correct to omit the space before a parenthesis.
  11. Learn how to type true dashes on your computer (a Macintosh dash is typed by holding down the shift and option keys and pressing the hyphen key). If you cannot type true dashes, use double hyphens, like this (--). Here are examples of dash and hyphen usage: correct: word—word, incorrect: word -word, incorrect: word - word. Never leave spaces around a dash. Do not use dashes where you should use hyphens. Learn how to use semicolons and colons correctly. For instance, quotations may be introduced with a colon, but never with a semicolon.
  12. Learn when to use apostrophes (in contractions, as in "don't," where the apostrophe stands for the missing letter--in this case, an "o,"--and in possessives, as in "Harry's Bar"). The only possessives which do not use apostrophes are the pronouns "yours," "ours," "theirs," "its," and--of course--"mine," "his," and "hers." People almost never insert apostrophes in the last three; just remember that the first four are treated the same. "It's" with an apostrophe is always the contraction for "it is."
  13. Periods go after parentheses which are a part of the same sentence (like this). However, if you are quoting a sentence or phrase which ends with a question mark or exclamation mark treat it like this: "Help!' he shouted" (7). Or: "Don't forget to save your document!" (7). Note that you need both the exclamation point and the period. The parenthesis is part of your sentence and needs to be included in it. However, in a block quot ation which is set off, no punctuation follows the parenthesis citing the page from which the quotation comes (see 15 below for set-off quotations).
  14. Double space throughout your paper, even in quotations set off and in notes. This gives me room to make comments and corrections.
  15. Prose quotations of five lines or more and all verse quotations of four lines or more must be set off in a block quotation like this:
    Mary had a little lamb,
    Its fleece was white as snow,
    And everywhere that Mary went,
    The lamb was sure to go.
    Pay special attention to the requirement to preserve the ends of lines of verse just as they appear in the original. If your quotation of verse is shorter, then you need to mark the line ends with a slash: "Mary had a little lamb,/Its fleece was white as snow." In quoting prose, indent from the left only, not from the right. When you set off a quotation, be sure not to add quotation marks around the material, since setting it off is itself a mark of quotation. If the passage quoted already contains quotation marks within it, they must of course be retained.
  16. Use single quotation marks only for a quotation within a quotation. It is an error to use them simply because the quoted material consists of single words or short phrases. Generally avoid ironic quotation marks like this: "He was an 'intellectual.'" The temptation to use such marks usually means you have not yet found the precise word or phrase you need.
  17. All modern computers allow you to use accent marks in words such as "fiancé". Learn how to make them on your computer, or insert them by hand. Never use an apostrophe as a substitute for an accent mark. You can find instructions for typing accent marks at (Macintosh users scroll all the way to the bottom of the page for the relatively simple Mac instructions).
  18. Ellipses are never necessary at the beginning of a quotation, and seldom at the end of one. The main use of an ellipsis is to mark omitted words in the middle of a quotation: "The novel can trace its origins in the distant past to the 12th-century romance" can become "The novel can trace its origins . . . to the 12th-century romance." The three dots which mark the ellipsis show that some words have been left out. If you are just quoting a brief phrase, you don't need to show that words surrounding the phrase have been omitted: that's obvious, so no ellipsis is necessary. When you quote a substantial excerpt from a sentence, however, and the quotation ends your own sentence, you need to type a period after the last word and then follow with the three dots, like this: "He was unable to see the dark ground in front of him. . . . ." To keep the dots of your ellipses from breaking onto two separate lines, learn how to type nonbreaking spaces between them.
  19. When writing passages of plot summary, use the present tense , even when the story itself is written in the past tense. Be careful to be consistent about tense throughout your paper. Do not switch back and forth between present and past. Be especially careful when you continue to summarize after quoting a passage from your source which itself uses the past tense. It may trick you into continuing to use the past instead of switching back to the present.
  20. Introduce all quotations. Don't just begin quoting a source abruptly. For example: "As Robert J. Brown remarks in The Wisdom of the Ages, Some people are unwise.'" The first time you cite an author, use both first and last names. In subsequent references, use only the last name. Quote only when necessary. Quote material you go on to analyze or discuss. Paraphrase whenever that would be more efficient or clear than quoting, but remember that paraphrases must be cited with parenthetical notes, just like quotations. Avoid ending a paper with a quotation.
  21. Cite all outside sources whether you quote them or merely use their ideas, according to the MLA form. (For a quick guide to MLA citation style, see Do not use footnotes or endnotes. The parenthetical method of citation is very simple, once learned, but make sure you use MLA style and not APA. Your list of sources should be called "Sources Cited" or--if there is only one--"Source Cited," and these words must not be put in quotation marks or underlined. You will never write anything in a paper for this class which deserves to be called a bibliography.
  22. When citing the main book under discussion as your source, you need not cite the author's name if it is obvious from the context.
  23. Note that block quotations are cited differently, with the citation beginning in the middle of the page under the last line of the quotation.
  24. In citing long verse works with numbered lines, cite the line numbers, not the page numbers. You may also need to cite act and scene numbers in plays.
  25. Despite what you may have heard, it is not incorrect to use the first person in formal writing, especially when you are expressing an opinion. Another common misconception is the idea that you should avoid repeating words. When a certain word is the word you need, then that is the word you should use. A good rule of thumb is: avoid frequently repeating the same adjectives and adverbs; do consistently use the same nouns and verbs when you are referring to the same objects and actions.
  26. Use your spelling-checker but also proofread manually. It won't solve all your problems, but it will help. Most papers which receive low grades for sloppy writing are yanked off the printer moments before coming to class. Give yourself time to proofread your final printed copy with care.
  27. The professor's pet peeve: "A lot" is always two words. There is no such word as "alot," no matter how many times you may read it in other people's writing.
  28. Another pet peeve: Don't write "time period." It's redundant. Write either "time" or "period."
  29. Strive for a clear, simple, direct style. Avoid obscure jargon, needlessly complex sentence construction and flowery language for its own sake. Always use the simplest style which can adequately convey your thoughts.
  30. A common flaw in papers is the lack of a good conclusion. A conclusion should not simply repeat or summarize what you have said before (in a brief paper I am not going to forget what you have said by the time I reach the end). If your concluding paragraph reads a lot like your opening one, strike it out and write a real conclusion.
  31. Never cut class while trying in vain to get your paper to print. If you have last-minute printer problems, send me a copy by e-mail attachment. I can convert and print from just about any computer format. If even that is impossible, still come to class and ask for my help.
Last revised April 9, 2006.

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