Tips for Writing Formal Papers and Common Errors to Avoid

WARNING: If I see on the first page of your essay any errors or miscues that could have been avoided by using this guide, I will be inclined to stop reading your work and record a zero for your paper grade.

Assembling Written Work is a Step-by-Step Process

Remember that writing a paper is more a process than a mind-dump. After you have conducted your research and have completed all your readings, begin the process by writing a clear, concise thesis statement. Edit, refine, and rework the statement until it conveys the very essence of what you wish to communicate. Then write, and organize into a logical sequence, the most important points supporting your thesis. Edit and refine these points until they too clearly convey your message. Use these statements as your outline. Often you will find it helpful to put each statement on a separate piece of paper or index card, and then for each statement add the quotations, supporting thoughts, and anecdotes that (in their totality) are sufficient to convince the reader that the statement is valid and reasonable. Next, examine these fully developed sections to be certain that they flow without gaps in logic and do not potentially lead to conflicting or contradictory conclusions. The next step is to organize them into formal paragraphs that reasonably build upon their respective predecessors. Ensure your topics and statements flow logically, being ever wary of the non sequitur. It generally is good form and helpful for each paragraph to contain a topical sentence expressing the key point in the paragraph. Once you are satisfied with these working sections, you are ready to draft your introduction, which should state your thesis and provide a roadmap through your paper. Only then can you finally draft a conclusion. Only after you have completed this process are you then free to edit, embellish, and polish your paper into its final product.

Additional Writing Guides for both British and American English (Online and Printed)

Grammar and Style in British English:
Royal Literary Fund:
University of Leicester:
University of Leeds:
University of Bristol:
The Grammar Girl (for wonderful, humorous explanations):
Common Errors in English Usage:
New Hart's Rules: The Oxford Style Guide. Via here, but see also
Oxford Style Manual. Via here, but as before.
Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation. Via here, but as before.
Oxford Guide to Plain English. Via here, but . . . you get the picture.
Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Via . . . here, but . . .
Style: Lessons in Clariy and Grace. Via . . . here, but . . .
How to Write your Undergraduate Dissertation. Via . . . here, but . . .

Now for Some of the Basics

If you are given a specific question, answer it.
Give your essay a title, but do not make it overly dramatic.
Insert page numbers right away when you open a fresh document.
Be sure to write in complete sentences, but avoid run-on sentences.
Do not turn in a paper that is not stapled or otherwise bound together.
Do not use contractions. Spell out the words completely.
If you are particularly unsure of your spelling and grammar, you may wish to switch on the spell check and grammar check options in your word processing program. Be warned, though, that these features may have adverse effects like turning "programme" into "program" (the former will be intended by many students!), suggesting that the use of the subjunctive is incorrect, and confusing other complex matters of foreign words and phrases.
The spell check function is not infallible. Make sure you spell correctly.
There is no need to cite lecture; rather, you are strongly encouraged to conduct your own research or ask your teachers for further information if you would like to use specific material from lecture.
Quote accurately. Do not misrepresent what another author has written.
Do not speak beyond your own knowledge or the evidence you present; if you write something factual or significant, back it up with evidence and citation.
Avoid hackneyed transition or introductory sentences such as the following: "There are many reasons that . . . " or "It is plain to see that . . . " or "In the above quotation we see that . . . "; generally, use "This is/These are . . . " and its permutations sparingly.
Proofread. Many times. Aloud. Have a friend read it.

Punctuation is Important!

Know what an apostrophe is used for, and the difference between "its" and "it's."
Do not use an apostrophe to signify a plural noun or when signifying decades.
Know the differences among the comma, semi-colon, and colon. If you are unsure of the semi-colon's uses, you are likely best off not using it.
Do not use a comma between two independent clauses. A "comma splice" is simply a recipe for a run-on sentence, as in this example: "We arrived late at class, the professor had already started lecture."
To make a dash in your document, hit the hyphen button twice.
If you add your own words in a quotation, use [brackets like this] (not parentheses).
When using an ellipsis, the "dot dot dot," make sure to have spaces between the words and periods . . . like this. Also, do not use ellipses excessively; only use them within quotations to mark where you are skipping part of the original text.
If your sources use or language calls for accent marks, use them. Do not be lazy. For examples, in "naïve" there should be a diaeresis above i; in "façade" there should be a cedilla below c; in coup de grâce there should be a circumflex above a; cf. crème de la crème, déjà vu, and pâté.

Terms and Language

Maintain formal language, and avoid informalities such as "like shooting fish in a barrel." Colloquialisms in spoken language are one thing, but formal writing is another.
When using dates as adjectives, hyphenate. So, if you are discussing Christians of the sixteenth century, write "sixteenth-century Christians."
Avoid using "saw" or "witnessed" as a verb for a period. The sixteenth century did not so much "witness" the Reformation as the Reformation happened during the sixteenth century.
Know when to use "in" and "during." A specific event may have occured "in" a certain year, but historical processes lasting more than a moment (such as the Reformation) happened "during" the century in question.
Use "between" when discussing two entities, "among" for three or more.
The difference between "shall" and "will" may be a subtle one, but the historically savvy recognize that "shall" should be used for the first person (e.g. "We shall go to class at 1:00pm.) while "will" for the third (e.g. "Georgina will be there.")
Avoid the passive voice when possible. Do not let things happen to your actors, because they should be active. For example: "The man was attacked by the woman" is O.K. if you want to convey the passivity of the man, but "The woman attacked the man because he forgot the groceries" is much better if you want to reflect the agency of the woman. At times the passive is more desirable, as in the following example: "When Venice was attacked by the Genoese, the Venetian authorites mobilized forces." Here the passive voice captures the vulnerability of the city to attack.
Avoid the first person (I, we), unless you insist on offering your own personal conclusions or thoughts. Generally, your conclusions will be more forceful if you omit, for example, the "I think that" in the following statement: "I think that the Council of Trent was an important aspect of the Catholic Reformation."
Avoid the second person (you, y'all), because authors should not presume to know what each individual reader may think.
In general, use fewer words; keep it simple. Fewer words often get your point across more powerfully. For example, do not write "He is a man who loves donkeys"; rather, "He loves donkeys." Also, not "I think that Martin Luther would have found Cardinal Wolsey corrupt"; rather, "Martin Luther would have found Cardinal Wolsey corrupt." (Along these same lines, please refrain from using "time period" and "in order to"; these phrases are redundant.)
When stressing the importance of a certain term, use italics or quotation marks to set that term off, thereby signaling to your reader its importance.
If you are an American, use American spellings; if you are from the United Kingdom or a Commonwealth nation, use the appropriate style of English for your nationality. In general, preserve your academic and personal identity. For Mark Twain's humorous take on spelling in the English language, click here.
Pay attention to the tenses of your verbs and be consistent; do not have your subjects and verbs scattered chronologically.
Unless you have interviewed a scholar, generally authors' works do not "say" things; rather, they "argue," "maintain," "hold," "claim," and perhaps even "opine." In short, avoid "says."
Do not confuse homonyms like manner/manor, to/too/two, lead/led, and their/there/they're. For that matter, be wary of near-homonyms like "ascended" and "acceded"; monarchs may literally get up and onto their thrones, but more often students try to signify when monarchs assume an office.
Italicize foreign terms like theoprepres and Gesellschaft.
If you use Latin abbreviations such as ibid. and etc., make sure you know what they mean.
If a certain word is one word, do not split it up. For examples, write "cannot" instead of "can not," "altogether" in place of "all together," and "otherwise" rather than "other wise."
Although starting a sentence with a conjunction is common practice in conversation, please do not in your writing.
Similarly, prepositions should not come at the end of a sentence. For Winston Churchill's thoughts on this matter, however, click here.
Please, do not split your infinitives. That is, write: "The dog tried to walk carefully." NOT: "The dog tried to carefully walk."
When using a relative pronoun, such as "which," "that," "who," or "whom," make sure you use "who" or "whom" when referring back to a person. Use "which" or "that" when referring back to a non-human.
Generally, your statements will be far clearer if you minimize the distance between your antecedents and relative pronouns. In the following example "computer" is the antecedent and "which" the relative pronoun. "My computer, which I have owned for many years, has a lot of data on its hard drive and may need a new screen soon." This statement is clearer than "My computer has a lot of data on its hard drive, which I have owned for many years, may need a new screen soon."
Know when to use "which" and when "that" is more appropriate. The former is employed after a comma and signifies a subordinate clause not entirely necessary in the sentence.
Make sure your subjects and pronouns correspond. If you have an individual person or thing as the subject, do not write "they" or "them" as a relative pronoun.
Be certain that your subjects and verbs agree in number. Do not write that "the dogs, both black and white, is walking down the road" when you really mean" the dogs, both black and white, are walking down the road."
Whenever you write "this," make sure you are clear what "this" is.
The word, "however," should come in the middle of a sentence, not at the end or beginning, and should be set off by commas, as in this sentence.
If you are trying to cull word count, the "not only . . . but also" construction can easily be pared down to "both . . . and."
Avoid using "perhaps" whenever possible. It is a filler word that does not convey any real probability. If you think something has more than a fifty percent chance, then use "probably" or another synonym.
Avoid using "undoubtedly" and "inevitably." Many may doubt what you are writing, and very few things are truly inevitable.
Avoid using nouns as verbs; doing so often lends an air of jargon and informality. Use nouns like "impact" and "transition" as nouns. Thus, "The Research Exercise Framework has a negative impact on the likelihood of researchers' taking 'risks'" is to be preferred over "The Research Exercise Framework impacts negatively on the likelihood of researchers' taking 'risks.'"
Beware but appreciate the gerund. See the Grammar Girl's lucid explanation here.
Use "because" when you wish to present a causal relationship. For example, "Raphael did not wish to join the court, because he had seen how little the court valued truth."
Use your sentences and paragraphs as building blocks. Sentences should build on one another, and your argument should be sequentially related. Within a paragraph, have your thoughts move logically and smoothly, aiming at laying out your theses. Within an essay, assemble your paragraphs such that they strengthen and reinforce key points and themes.

Quotation and Citation

When discussing secondary sources, use the present tense. For example: Johann Sommerville argues that absolutism was an important ideology. For primary authors and events, use the past. For example: Martin Luther held that 1517 was a watershed year.
In your text, set up your quotations smoothly. Try not to be jarring or curt.
Incorporate quotations into the structure of your own sentences, rather than using large block quotations. You should be appropriating and mastering the texts, showing that mastery by using the texts in your own arguments and statements.
An effective way to demonstrate your knowledge of the material is by frequently using primary sources in your written work, and citing those sources accordingly. Let the past speak for itself, if you can.
When including a quotation within your own sentence, you need not capitalize the first letter of that quotation.
Avoid working from websites whenever possible. Generally, unless hosted by established academic authorities, websites are not always to be trusted, almost always changing, and often fleeting. If you find that a primary source is available both online and in print, you are always better off locating and citing the printed version.
Dictionaries are good. Use The Oxford English Dictionary whenever possible. The OED is the supreme authority of the English language and can be accessed online via the university's libraries website. Please do not use in formal writing.
Footnotes are an excellent place to show further knowledge of a subject and offer details that may not be entirely relevant to the argument in your text. Footnotes are not just for page numbers!
There are several differences between British and American usages of quotation marks.
Generally, in American usage the double marks "" come first, and single marks '' inside the doubles. In British usage, quotation marks are often called "inverted commas." Also, in American usage a period at the end of a quotation comes before your closing quotation mark, as in "this example." In British usage a "full stop" comes within those inverted commas, as in 'this example'.
There are many different methods to cite the various types of sources--books, articles, chapters, journals--and you should cite appropriately and consistently in your footnotes or endnotes.
When it comes to citation styles, follow your university's guidelines. If you are at an American institution and such guidelines have not been establisehd, pick a recognized style (Chicago, Turabian, MLA, APA, etc.) and be consistent. When writing in the scholarly humanities, like history and classics, use Chicago. American students can never go wrong if they go by The Chicago Manual of Style. (Check the university's libraries website to see if we subscribe to the digital edition.)
A bibliography is a slightly more formal version of the footnote reference. Bibliographies, or "Works Cited" pages, are good; in an accessible way, they show the reader where she or he can follow up the topics of your essay.