Tips for writing good essays and discussions (My Rubric)
Some of you have probably written dozens of essays before. Others may have written only a few or possibly none. Below are a few suggestions on how to proceed. If you have questions, please ask your instructor.
Structure and Planning
Organize and outline your thoughts before you write. It will keep you on track and help make sure that you do not miss an important point.
Make sure that you answer every part of a question and that you have covered each part of the question in a level of detail proportional to its importance. In other words, do not write a page on a minor point and cover the central point of the question in a short paragraph. If you are writing a term paper on a topic of your choice, it is still useful to think of yourself as answering a question. You simply get to make up the question on your own, and your answer to your question will be your thesis.
Do not simply summarize a lecture, the textbook, or other sources. You should be drawing your information from many different sources and synthesizing and analyzing this material. Do not simply say what happened; explain why it happened. Under no circumstances should you build your paper out of long quotations.
When writing a short history paper or answering an exam question, it is rarely a bad idea to present ideas in chronological order. Whatever order you use, you must develop your ideas in a logical fashion.
Unless it is an exam, plan to finish your paper before it is due. That way you can show it to your instructor as a draft and receive feedback. It is also a good idea to print out your paper and then ignore it for a day or two. Then, look at it with a fresh eye. You will be surprised at how many mistakes you catch and how many places you find in which you can make improvements.
Read the directions for the assignment! Failure to follow directions, especially as to the sources you use and the focus and content of your paper, will be severely penalized.
Grammar and Style
Avoid a conversational tone. Do not over-personalize the essay, talk about your feelings, explain why you picked your topic, mention your mother or other relatives, or use the pronoun I.
Do not discuss your research process, the troubles you had finding sources, or anything similar. You need to stay focused on your topic and thesis.
Write about history in the past tense (because it happened in the past).
Be clear and concise. Make sure that what you are writing makes sense. Do not take several sentences to say something that can be explained in one. Do not litter your sentences with useless phrases such as: seems to, the man called x, etc. Get to the point quickly and prove your point. Avoid vagueness at all costs.
Avoid writing in the passive voice. The following is an example of passive voice: Memphis was destroyed. The actor is missing from a passive voice construction, and this leaves the reader confused as to just what happened. Who destroyed Memphis? Terrorists? Space aliens? Giant mutant insects? Godzilla? Eliminating passive voice constructions will force you to specify who is acting and why, and it will dramatically improve your writing.
Do not use colloquialisms in formal papers (because they are formal).
Use your spelling and grammar checkers, but use them intelligently. Your computer can only guess at your intended meaning, and your reader should not have to guess at all. Not using your spelling checker at all and turning in a paper littered with typos is a good way to signal your instructor that you do not care about your grade.
Be sure to use sources appropriate for a college-level class: journals written for an academic audience, books published by the university or other academic presses, primary sources appropriate to the topic, etc. While the Internet contains a wealth of information, much of it is poor, incomplete, biased, or just plain wrong. If you use materials published only on the Internet, that is material not previously published on paper, do so very carefully. Wikipedia is a particularly poor source, littered with errors, and you should avoid it.
Mark and cite the source for all your quotations. Choose one particular style of citation, and stick with it. Footnotes, endnotes, or MLA-style parenthetical citations are all fine for a lower division history course. Upper-division and graduate students must use full footnote or endnote citations. If you are uncertain how to format your bibliography or works cited page, look it up! A correct citation includes the author and title of a book or article, its date of publication, its publisher, and the relevant page numbers.
Do not plagiarize! Your work on any paper or exam should be your own. Any quotations or ideas borrowed from others, even if put into your own words, must include a citation specifying the original source. If you have any doubts, check the plagiarism policy or ask me.
Be sure to use your textbook and primary source material! Cite all sources with full citations!
An Unfinished Nation Vol. 2 7th, 8th, or 9th edition by Alan Brinkley.