General Guidelines for Writing Papers
Developed by Michele Aina Barale
Adapted for use by MSU Denver Students
Every paper, no matter how long or short, no matter its topic--even a book review--has a thesis.
A thesis is a statement of purpose; the thesis gives the reader some idea, in capsule form, of just what it is that the writer intends the reader to learn from a particular piece of writing. Often a thesis states an opinion that you intend to prove. For example, a short book review might have as a thesis the following:
In PMS: Is It Natural? Karen Noda evaluates the medical and psychological counseling available to women who suffer from PMS and concludes that the monetary benefits gained by physicians and psychotherapists are greater than the relief they offer their clients.
For a longer paper, a more detailed thesis would be needed. An 8-10 page paper might have the following thesis:
A woman who chose to become a writer during the early nineteenth century had to overcome two major obstacles: publishers who believed that writing was man's domain and a family that taught her that woman's proper sphere was the nursery and not the study. Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen's lives and publication histories demonstrate the effects of such public expectation and private training.
Were this 8-10 page paper to be expanded into a term paper of perhaps 25 pages, the thesis would, as you might suspect, expand as well. Such a paper might have the following thesis:
An examination of the lives and publication history of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charlotte Bronte reveals the double burden women writers had to overcome: a publishing tradition that was solely male and a domestic tradition that placed women in the nursery rather than the study. The effects of this double burden are especially clear in the first novels of each of these authors. All of these novels present the story of a young woman who seeks what is denied her by both family and society. All of these novels portray, as well, such young women deliberating between personal autonomy and romantic love.
Introductions and Conclusions
Every paper has an introduction and a conclusion.
An introduction leads the reader into the paper. It often begins with a broad statement and finishes specifically, narrowly, perhaps with a statement of thesis. For example, in a paper about the effects of sexist language, the introduction might be about the ways language in general creates and reflects its culture. The concluding statement might be a thesis about the particular ways in which sexist terminology attempts to create women to fit American cultural desires.
The conclusion should be a summary when your paper has been particularly fact-filled and the reader needs a restatement of important relationships between facts. There should be no new information introduced in a conclusion. The best sort of conclusion begins narrowly and ends broadly. It moves, in other words, in the exact opposite direction than does the introduction. By beginning narrowly, re-stating the thesis in a concluding and differently phrased way, the conclusion reminds the reader of what all these pages were about. By ending broadly, the conclusion suggests the ways in which this paper's particular concerns have meaning in the wider world. The paper about sexist language, in its concluding paragraph, might begin by noting the ways in which sexist language has determined women's jobs, sexuality, and status. It might end with the idea that no woman can grow to her fullest potential unless language can be re-created to reflect the existence and value of all people, including women.
Paragraphs must be developed.
The single sentence paragraph is not acceptable for formal writing; it is appropriate only in journalism. A developed paragraph has a topic sentence, three or four (or many more) sentences which extend or exemplify the topic sentence, and a concluding sentence. Paragraphs should be arranged to move logically from one major point to the next with appropriate transitions.
Titles mean something. They are the first thing to spark a reader's interest, and they tell a reader what to expect. A title such as Wife Battering lets the reader know the subject, but nothing else, whereas a title such as Wife Battering and Unemployment suggests that your paper will discuss the relationship between these two topics. Be sure that your title creatively reflects the content of your paper. The title of your paper is neither underlined nor put in quotation marks. All important words--nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs--plus the first word of your title and the first word after a colon are capitalized. Prepositions, articles, and conjunctions are not capitalized. Thus you would write:
The Peace Movement and Feminism: An Analysis of Greenham Common
Underlining, Italicizing, and Quotation Marks
Underline or italicize book titles, movie and play titles, the names of television shows, record albums, radio shows, long poems (Evangeline, The Wasteland -- these are poems which conceivable could be published as separate books), long musical compositions (Carmen), works of art, the names of ships, the titles of magazines and journals (Newsweek, The Journal of Applied Technology).
Put quotation marks around the titles of articles, essays, short stories, chapters of books, songs, short poems, single episodes of a television series:
On Tuesday, ABC aired "The Homecoming," a poignant episode of M*A*S*H.
The conventions of underlining or quotation marks apply in the title of your paper as well. For instance, if part of your title includes the title of a book, article, poem or short story, place the appropriate quotation marks or underline with the title:
The Use of Nature in Wuthering Heights -- a title which includes the name of a novel;
An Analysis of Narrative Voice in "I Stand Here Ironing" -- a title including the name of a short story;
Rich's use of the domestic in "Transcendental Etude" -- a title including the name of a poem;
Is Tarten's "The Power of Danger: Rape and the City" Still relevant?-- a title including the name of an article.
Use of Quotations
If you quote someone (to quote is a verb; that which is quoted is a quotation and not a "quote") you presumably do so because the quoted person says something in a striking, unforgettable, wonderful manner. Paraphrase authors whose style is not particularly interesting, giving them, of course, proper credit for their ideas. Do not quote just to take up space; it is obvious when you do so. Do not quote entire paragraphs of information; paraphrase and summarize instead. Never quote if you can say it better or when paraphrasing can produce a tight, coherent statement out of a lengthy quotation. You should introduce each quotation. Long quotations need a summation from you after the quotation.
Quotations of five or more lines should be indented five spaces on both the right and left hand margins and should be single-spaced. Indented quotations do not use quotation marks at their beginning and end. If you are quoting someone who is also quoting someone, or if there is dialogue within the indented quotation, then use double quotation marks internally. For example:
Catherine Martin, social historian and author, criticized recent analyses of educational trends:
An article in The New York Times Review claims that the increase in enrollments in community colleges across the nation is "the main reason that the total enrollment in higher education has not fallen." I would maintain that forecasts of such a fall-off in college and university attendance were based upon the supposition that high employment rates would necessarily lower the need or even the desire for continuing education. This is forecast based on an unspoken Protestant Ethic: that Americans seek knowledge only when it monetarily profits them.
Citing Your Sources
All ideas which come from others should be so credited.
You must use footnotes or internal citations to acknowledge others who have helped your thinking, even if you express someone else's ideas in your own words (paraphrase). Often students become confused as to what is their idea and what is not. If you have read a number of articles and books on a certain subject, it may be hard to say what is only yours and what isn't. In fact, if you came fairly ignorant to the subject, you could easily make the argument that everything you know came from someone else. Don't let honesty drive you mad. Be reasonable. Such things as facts and statistics are general knowledge, but you may need to cite your source for them so that the reader can judge whether or not the compiler is reputable, current, or trustworthy. For instance, if the president of Pepsi-Cola gives you statistics on the percentage of mothers who breast feed in the United States, those figures may not be as reliable as those provided by the La Leche League. If you state that Brazil is a country in South America, you would not need to cite your source; we can presume that this information is part of a common fund of knowledge. Within any discipline there are common ideas and approaches; you need not cite your source for the use of those ideas and methods. Synthesizing others' ideas, words, and thoughts is a critical activity worthy of the informed intellect. To cite many sources--good reliable, knowledgeable sources--indicates that you have read widely and that you have drawn from the best minds in the field. It indicates good research and does not imply that you have no ideas of your own.
Footnotes are placed at the bottom of the page on which the quotation is placed. End notes are placed at the end of the manuscript. The Social Sciences often cite author and date within the text itself--(Moran, 1982). Use whatever style your instructor prefers.
Bibliographies come after the end notes, or if footnotes or in-text citations are used, at the end of the manuscript. Bibliographies may list all books pertinent to the field or they may list only works consulted. Again, use whatever style your instructor prefers. Bibliographies are always alphabetized.
The same paper should not be used for two classes without the permission of both instructors!
Don't use sexist language. Use "people" or "humankind" rather than "man" or "mankind." "He" means a male person. "Humanity" and "persons" and "people" are useful words to keep in mind. If your reference is to persons of both sexes, use "she and he" or "him and her" or switch to the plural and use "they" and "them." Be careful not to lose parallel construction if you switch to the plural form. "S/he" can be used, although it is somewhat awkward.
BEWARE OF COMMON MISTAKES, SUCH AS:
Sentence fragments—incomplete sentences: Labor statistics that have been manipulated and so are useless.
Comma splices—the use of a comma to join two sentences: The Bill was introduced in May, it was defeated in August.
Run-on sentences—joining two or more sentences: The mouse ran up the clock it ran back down. Overuse or misuse of commas: She, ran over the mouse, with her car.
Unclear pronoun references and overuse of certain pronouns--the use of a pronoun that does not clearly refer to a specific noun and/or the overuse of pronouns such as “this” and “these”. Pronouns should be used clearly and sparingly!
COMMON WORD USAGE MISTAKES:
Its—the possessive form of it
It’s—the contraction of “it is”
Its’—this word does not exist!
Effect—accomplish or produce
Imply—to suggest strongly
Infer—to draw from, to understand
Also—never begin a sentence with "also." Use "moreover," "likewise," or “furthermore”
Everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody—these are singular words and, thus, have a singular pronoun (her/his) reference
Buy and use a dictionary, thesaurus, and a style manual.
Write an outline before writing your paper. Then write a rough draft and edit it; then write the paper.
Develop a system for keeping notes which works well for you--note cards, computer notes, etc.
Take a writing course.
Use a computer.
Have someone else proofread your final copy.
Use the MSU Denver Writing Center! (KC 415)