This section features helpful writing tips from the instructor, including general guidance and stylistic guidance. There is also a list of general paper comments from the course teaching assistant; it appears directly below.
General Paper Comments (PDF) (Courtesy of Jillian Dickert. Used with permission.)
Before writing an academic paper, you should:
- Formulate a clear, concise question you are posing and write it down.
- Answer the question. Formulate a clear, straightforward thesis that directly answers the question. A good rule of thumb: if you can't make a simple diagram of your thesis, you probably can't explain it clearly either.
- Here are suggestions about developing thesis statements:
- Thesis Statement (from the Writing Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
- Developing the Thesis Statement and Supporting Argument (Youngstown State University)
- Outline your argument. Rearrange your outline to increase its coherence. Rearrange it again.
- Strive for strong opening and concluding paragraphs that clearly state your thesis. Try to grab the reader's attention and explain why she should care about your topic. Aim for specificity in your main point, and make sure it's an argument and not just a description. Underline, italicize, or bold your thesis statement. Use the first paragraph to lead up to your thesis statement. This paragraph is your chance to convey the payoff of your paper. It should explain why your thesis is interesting and why it makes sense.
- Tightly organize the structure of your paper. Divide the paper into sections, each of which should elaborate part of the argument you outlined in the first paragraph. Within each section, each paragraph should build off the previous paragraph leading the reader to the main point of the section. Within each paragraph, each sentence should logically lead to the next. I strongly recommend generating a sentence-level outline of the paper, paragraph by paragraph.
- End the paper with a convincing conclusion. The paragraphs should recap your argument. This may seem repetitive to you. Do it anyway!
- This is an academic paper. You therefore need to engage the academic literature on your topic. For papers on a particular race, this will mostly involve readings on the syllabus. For papers on other topics, you will need to find, read, and cite the relevant academic literature.
- You must use evidence in your paper for every major point you make. Avoid unsubstantiated assertions of fact. When you make a claim, provide evidence to persuade your reader that your claim is true. Often, this only requires a single citation.
- Do not ignore contrary evidence. Either acknowledge that such contrary evidence limits the generality of your argument or show why it is not actually contrary to your argument.
- Cite class readings and lecture notes to bolster your argument. Draw on all the potentially relevant readings.
- Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
- Check your spelling and punctuation.
- Avoid awkward sentences. To help check for awkward sentences, read them aloud to yourself or to a friend.
- Use active, not passive verbs.
- Tighten every sentence by cutting unnecessary words.
- Break up long paragraphs by topic. Make sure each paragraph completes a point/subpoint that supports your argument/thesis. Paragraphs should usually begin with an introductory sentence and end with a concluding sentence.
- Consultant standard reference on grammar and language use (C. W. Strunk and E. B. White's Elements of Style, Diana Hacker's A Pocket Style Manual, or Joseph M. Williams' Style: Toward Clarity and Grace).
- As you read others' writing, attend to good and bad elements of style. Think about what you would like to emulate and what you should avoid in your own writing. What do you find useful and interesting in a good piece of writing? How does the author do it? Pay attention to the overall organization of a reading, to the sequence of paragraphs, to topic sentences, and to sentence composition and the choice of vocabulary. When you come across a particularly difficult piece, spend some time dissecting its offensiveness.
- Do not protect your writing from your editing. Take it for granted that you will delete sentences or even whole paragraphs as you edit. The most important aspect of editing is not to correct individual sentences (though you should do this too), but to ensure that each paragraph makes a clear and distinct point, and the paper makes a tight, coherent argument.
- Use a proper citation format in your bibliography (e.g. APA).
- Do not use impersonal pronouns (e.g., it) when the referent is unclear or nowhere in sight. The "it" should refer clearly to a specific noun used in the preceding clause, not to a general concept contained in the previous clause, nor to a specific noun two or more clauses away. Similarly, avoid using "this" and "that" as subjects or direct objects. Thus, you would not write: "Dahl and other scholars have advanced the argument that democratization depends little on international influence. But this ignores important exceptions, such as Greece, Argentina, Taiwan, and the Eastern Europe." Instead, write: "Dahl and other scholars have advanced the argument that democratization depends little on international influence. But this argument ignores important exceptions, such as Greece, Argentina, Taiwan, and the Eastern Europe."
- In formal writing, never use the second person as a substitute for impersonal or general references. Thus you should not write: "living in a democracy makes you less likely to be arrested for political reasons." You might write instead: "Citizens in democratic societies are less likely to be arrested for political reasons."
- Do not worry about split infinitives. If Captain Kirk can do it ("to boldly go where no one has gone before"), so can you.
- For your first paper, allow at least two hours after that paper is completely written to your satisfaction to go back through it and check to make sure that you have covered all these points. For subsequent papers, check through your paper both for these points and for any hints you have received on previous papers.
- Use times 12, no extra spaces, 1-inch margins, page numbers, and NO cover page.