How to write an undergraduate essay; research, sources, library tips, web search, writing, organization, outline, footnotes, bibliograpyhy

One should speak the truth not talk at length - Democritus

It takes two to speak the truth--one to speak another to hear. - Henry David Thoreau

It is now necessary to warn the writer that her concern for the reader must be pure:  She must sympathize
with the reader's plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time)
- E.B. White {modified paraphrase}

Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
- Gene Fowler

As we shall discuss, the Department of History offers a number of courses designed to provide a seminar experience to undergraduates, most notably the Junior Colloquium.  These course are not  graduate seminars but they do aim to underscore certain advanced skills: critical 'close' reading; written analysis; and research based on primary sources.  As a means to these ends, a key element in this course is the research essay.  This exercise represents the culmination of important skills, specifically critical and creative skills employed in mediating the relations between primary texts and the various interpretations of secondary authors. The problem here is that secondary authors are often at odds, they represent different scholarly schools and historiographic traditions.  They are 'authorities' with often wildly opposing assumptions, motives, and methods. 

Your Research Essay is important.  It must demonstrate skill in identifying important issues, tracing them through selected primary texts, and finally, relating your reading of those texts to selected secondary interpretations. Again, an example would be projectile motion; the texts might be Galileo's writings on the subject; the historiographic traditions would run the interpretive gamut from Boris Hessen the Marxist-'externalist' to Koyré the 'idealist-internalist. 

Quite simply, how is it that the respective interpretations of Galileo's efforts are so different? Specifically, how does the historian best analyze the arguments and evidence for an interpretation? Here again we invoke the same questions associated with the 'critique:' What is the author's thesis? Objectives? Why do you think the author chose this topic or selected this problem? Does the work continue an historiographic tradition? Is there an ax to grind? 

Having addressed the thesis, purpose, and objectives, what are the key claims? Are the conclusions well supported? Controversial? Why? Specifically, identify and analyze--not merely describe or restate--the nature, structure, and quality of the argument and evidence. Are the author's assumptions implicit? Explicit? Are there appeals to authority: Are citations numerous? Do citations refer to descriptive, summary statements; close arguments; direct quotations of contemporary authors? contextual 'historical texts'? Who is the audience? What are the contexts of the various texts you use--essay, chapter, journal, publisher, country, discipline, specialty, etc. Is the writing convincing and persuasive? Relate your evaluation to the thesis, purpose, and objectives; what standards or criteria you are using? Is author's writing descriptive; prescriptive; explanatory? Is it issue-oriented?  Directed toward problem-solving? Is it discussed fairly and adequately? Do you find bias? Jargon?  Blatant ideology? 

As you write your Research Essay remember the following: good writing is an exercise for good thinking. Your job is to communicate; it is a difficult and sometime troubling task. Communicating your research findings will involve translating a carefully identified issue as precisely and powerfully as possible from one person to another. Translating a thought from writer to reader actually clarifies the concept and sharpens your message. George Orwell suggested some difficulties: 

A scrupulous writer in every sentence that he writes will ask himself ... What am I trying to say? What words will express it? ... And he probably asks himself .. Could I put it more shortly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing open your mind and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you--even think your thoughts for you to a certain extent--and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.
Brilliant as our brain-children or pet ideas may seem, introducing them to others through the common family of stock phrases is certain to baffle or bore our reader. Ideas introduced to others should be well-mannered and properly presented: 

        Essentially style resembles good manners. It comes of endeavouring to understand others, 
        of thinking of them rather than yourself--of thinking, that is, with the heart as well as the 

  [Quiller-Couch, The Art of Writing]

Lewis Carroll's Red Queen repeated the point with perplexing clarity: 

'Always speak the truth--think before you speak--and write it down afterwards.' 'I'm sure I didn't mean ... ', Alice was beginning, but the Red Queen interrupted her impatiently: 'That's just what I complain of! You should have meant! What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning?'
Be considerate. Have your intellectual offspring on a leash.  Cling to the belief that even the wildest idea can be handled without domesticating it. But be considerate, concise. As the great stylist wrote: 
 A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. [William Strunk, Jr.]
Remember, concision is the handmaiden of clarity and judgment, and words are primary tools in constructing meaning. Good writers are nothing more or less than thoughtful craftsmen. Be mindful of your tools and instruments: 
 The craftsman is proud and careful of his tools: the surgeon does not operate with an old razor blade; the sportsman fusses happily and long over the choice of a rod, gun, club or racquet. But the man who is working in words, unless he is a professional writer (and not always then), is singularly neglectful of his instruments. [Ivor Brown]
But words are not the only tools we abuse; we often jumble them together with little regard for structure or form. Poor organization can only erect barriers to communication. Recall the King's advice to the White Rabbit: 
'Begin at the beginning, and go till you come to the end: then stop.'
Aristotle suggested good writing has a beginning, middle, and end. If you have not decided where you are going, you will surely arrive somewhere--but quite by chance: 
'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?' [asked Alice]. 'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
Your Research Essay must issue-driven; it must have a central idea, a thesis, a purpose. From the issue(s) identified in primary sources, your task is to identifying alternative interpretations in the historiographic tradition, to apply analysis and your own interpretation. This is a large task; it should be considered a self-imposed challenge. It will demand sustained and mature effort. You will have to pay a certain price. Substance, clarity, and style come at a cost; these skills must be earned, and most readers know when the price has been paid: 
Young writers often suppose that style is garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is non-detachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is himself he is approaching, no other; and he should begin by turning resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style--all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.   [Wm. Strunk, Jr. and E.B.White, The Elements of Style]
Seizing upon an interesting yet manageable topic is difficult for the most seasoned writer. Choose a topic early enough to compose an essay you could comfortably read to the class or to your Mom. Such a prospect requires writing the essay far enough in advance in order to lay it aside and return to it cold--to read it critically, as if someone else had written it. Now the struggle begins. Now your essay should go through several drafts. You will tire, your vision will blur, you will experience blind spots. But good writing is rewritten writing. At its best, writing is nothing less than a ritual for thinking, an exercise in clarity of thought and power of expression. Such labors inevitably invite frustration and self-doubt. Keep encouraged. Remember that perfect expression is impossible, improvement becoming, growth certain.

Recommended Sources on Style & Usage

Fowler, H.W.  A Dictionary of Modern Usage.  2nd ed. revised by Ernest Gowers. Oxford, 1965. Classic for essentials and subtleties of English usage.  {See this WebSite!}

A Manual of Style.  12th ed., Revised. Chicago and London, 1969. Recommended as an authoritative guide to bibliographic style, publishing, and printing. The best single source for serious students. 

MLA Style Sheet.  Compiled by William Riley Parker. Rev. ed. New York, 1951. Brief guide to bibliographic style employed by many publishers and journals. 

Perrin, Porter G.  Writer's Guide and Index to English.  4th ed. Glenview, IL, 1968. Textbook for college writing; emphasizes mechanics of sentence and paragraph construction with hints for writing various types of college papers. 

Strunk, William, Jr., and E.B. White.  The Elements of Style.  New York, 1959. Brief but brilliant classic on--and of--style. 

Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary.  Springfield, MA, 1963. Recommended to students (or anyone) as the best dictionary under 2.5 kilos. 


Finally, the most basic things need to be stated.  Academic writing follows many forms and they start with basic mechanics. The following is purposefully blunt--please don't be offended-- and it should contain matters that appear obvious. However simple, each student must take responsibility for understanding questions of citation, which involves issues ranging from plagiarism to the niceties of footnote citation and bibliography. 
1. Your paper(s) must be legibly 'typed;' whether in the old-fashioned way or by computer, the paper should be white {8.5 x 11 inch} with black ink. The font should be a standard form; the text (save indented quotations, epigraphs, and critical apparatus) should be double spaced. Avoid binders; two staples in the top left corner ensures easy access, integrity, and non-slip stacking. 
2. The title page must include the paper title, your name, course title & number, instructor(s), and the date. Always number the pages; it is a good practice to have either a 'header' or 'footer' including your name. Ensure that all the pages are included in the correct order.  Pay particular attention to identifying illustrations, etc. Always keep a backup copy of your paper, whether hardcopy or electronic. Always proof read your final copy.  Typos are inexcusable.  Correct any errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation neatly in black ink.  If you must, use crayon or lipstick.  But never submit a university level paper without a proper final proof read. 
3. Word-limit essays allow perhaps ten-percent variation; 1000 words means 1100 absolute maximum. There are intellectual and practical reasons for word-limit essays, not to mention questions of fairness. In practical terms, depending on font size, one page is equivalent to 200-250 words. On related matters, reading a 15-minute orally presented paper translates into 6-7 typewritten pages. 
4. Always quote {NB: quote is a verb} your sources and include a bibliography of non-required works. Citation is serious business; make sure that you are informed and sensitive to all aspects of your obligations, courtesies, and the details of proper citation. For most exams, papers, and critiques in my classes use the 'internal short form' of footnote citation for course required readings; this involves: following the quotation {NB: quotation is a noun}, in parentheses, the author's last name; key title word; page(s). For example: 

'... as the quotation ends.' (Kuhn, Structure, p. 42). 

A major rule of citation is consistency. For forms of citation of non-required sources material, for Footnotes (I prefer Endnotes) and Bibliography I recommend and strongly advise: The Chicago Manual of Style.  It is now, arguably, the industry standard for academic writing and publishing. 

5. Running the risk of redundancy, a deadline is a deadline.  Properly speaking, there are no 'late papers' and there is no reason for accepting a paper after the deadline unless there is a medical excuse. If the instructor agrees to mark such a paper, there will be a grade penalty, minimally one letter grade per day. As a rule, please remember the following:  Read the syllabus; If time permits, read ahead; Never miss class; Do not plan on being granted an Incomplete.  If difficult circumstances interrupt your studies please communicate with your instructor at the first opportunity.  You will generally find someone who will listen and who will want to provide appropriate help. 
Webster's:  Plagiarism: an act or instance of plagiarizing; something plagiarized. 

Plagiarize:   To steal and pass off as one's own the ideas or words of another; to present as one's own an idea or product derived from an existing source. 

Thrall, Hibbard, and Holman, A Handbook to Literature:

Literary theft. A writer who steals the plot of some obscure, forgotten story and uses it as new in a story of his own is a plagiarist. Plagiarism is more noticeable when it involves a stealing of language than when substance only is borrowed. From flagrant exhibitions of stealing both thought and language plagiarism shades off into less serious things such as unconscious borrowings, borrowing of minor elements, and mere imitation. In fact, the critical doctrine of imitation, as understood in Renaissance times, often led to what would nowadays be called plagiarism. Thus, Spenser's free borrowings from other romantic epics in composing his Faerie Queene were by him regarded as virtues, since he was 'following' a predecessor in the same type of writing.  A modern dramatist could not with impunity borrow plots from other dramas and from old stories in the way in which Shakespeare did. With plagiarism compare literary forgeries, its converse, where an author pretends that another has written what he has actually written himself. See ghost-writer. 

Lichtman, A. J., and V. French. Historians and the Living Past:

Some teachers tell their classes a story to illustrate the problem of plagiarism. An unmarried, intelligent, and educated woman lived in a society in which job opportunities for women were extremely limited. She wrote a fine book about an important historical question. But, because she was a woman and because she was relatively unknown, only a few copies of her work were sold. Much to her dismay two years later, she read a book by another prominent and male historian dealing with the same question she had treated in her book. She was not upset at finding another book on the topic, for she relished scholarly discussion and debate. What did cause her grief was finding in the other writer's book the same argument she had presented in her study without a single reference to her book. She felt robbed and could not endure to let the intellectual thievery go by unnoticed. She sent the offending author a terse and tart letter. 'Dear Sir', she wrote, 'If you will prevent me from making my living with my ideas, I fear I shall be forced to earn it with my body.' (p.242) 

All students are responsible for understanding University guidelines on Academic Honesty.


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