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 http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/"
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
Last revised April 9, 2006.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Always space before parentheses . It is never
correct to omit the space before a parenthesis.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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).
- Double space throughout your paper, even in
quotations set off and in notes. This gives me room to make comments
- 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,
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.
was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was
sure to go.
- 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.
- 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 http://www.starr.net/is/type/kbh.html (Macintosh users scroll all the way to the bottom of the page for the relatively simple Mac instructions).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/research/r_mla.html.) 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.
- 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.
- Note that block quotations are cited differently, with the citation beginning in the middle of the page under the last line of the quotation.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Another pet peeve: Don't write "time period."
It's redundant. Write either "time" or "period."
- 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.
- 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
- 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.