Essay Writing Guidelines
Why lose marks for inattention to grammar, punctuation, and spelling? Here you will find tips on the preparation and writing of essays that are meant to help you avoid common mistakes.
Getting Started (Where To Go for Help and Advice)
The following website is full of good tips on style:
Composing a Term Essay, by John Porter, a Greek and Roman Studies professor at the University of Saskatchewan. This readable guide was written with students in the field of Greek and Roman Studies in mind. He gives advice not only on grammar and style, but on the whole process of writing a paper, including where - and when - to look for help. You may want to pay particular attention to his guide to the Use of Secondary Sources.
Dr. Jack Lynch at Rutgers is the author of the continually evolving Guide to Grammar and Style. He lists points of style alphabetically, and grammatical questions and common errors. The site is much more useful than this description makes it sound, and is fun to browse. He has also written a guide (unfinished but still useful) to Getting an A on an English Paper. His advice is directed towards English students, but anyone who wants to write a good paper will find it helpful. Dr. Lynch's site includes a page of links to useful (or just interesting) information elsewhere on the web (Resources for Writers and Writing Instructors). Every imaginable sort of resource is included here, for academic and other writers; have a look!
We highly recommend William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. This is a tiny, very readable classic, available at the UVic Bookstore in paperback (price approximately $9.99). If you read and re-read this book at intervals, it will work miracles on your writing style.
We also recommend Deborah Wright, 101 Punctuation Tips.$5.00 in UVic Bookstore.
Something more humorous but equally helpful: The Writer's Block Calendar. This little desk companion comes out every year courtesy of two professors in the English Department, Kim Blank and Michael Cullen. As they say, "Get rid of wordiness; get the rules; get motivated; get writing; get this calendar".
If you're really serious about writing, consult the Chicago Manual of Style.You can buy it ($!$!$!) or use library copies.
Another book we've found useful is Joseph M. Williams' Style: Towards Clarity and Grace (Chicago 1995). This book is for those who have the time to devote to making a serious effort to improve their writing. Williams addresses in turn problems in sentences, paragraphs, and connected prose, with truly atrocious examples of each, helpfully explained, revised and elucidated.
Provide a title page or cover sheet that includes your name, or student number, or both.
Underline or italicize all titles.
Underline or italicize all foreign words, e.g., kleos or kleos. Use macrons rather than acute accents to mark the long vowels on Greek or Latin words.
Single space and indent quotations of more than three lines. Avoid lengthy quotations. Take the time to re-phrase the source, and to demonstrate your analytical skills.
All pages must be numbered and NOT by hand.
Footnote marks must be in Arabic numerals not Roman in superscript, and outside punctuation. If the latter is not possible, put the footnote number in parentheses, outside punctuation. E.g.:
Written during the late Republican period and thought to be composed by Turia's husband, the laudatio speaks eloquently of Turia's selflessness, her unfailing loyalty to her husband, and her 'artless elegance and simplicity of dress'.(1)
Words: Two Danger Zones
Split infinitives. To avoid using a split infinitive, be sure to place the 'to' immediately adjacent to the verb form. E.g., "to boldly go" is a split infinitive. It is more correct, if less exciting, to say "to go boldly". Or you can be correct and exciting at once with "boldly to go".
Dangling participles (modifiers). If you begin a sentence with a participial phrase, it must refer to the subject of the sentence.
WRONG: Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.
RIGHT: Being in a dilapidated condition, the house was sold very cheaply.
(But even better, avoid the participial phrase entirely: Because it was so dilapidated, the house was sold very cheaply.)
Spelling And Punctuation
Choose one form of spelling (either British or American) and use it consistently. E.g.: 'summarise' (British) or 'summarize' (American), 'labour' (British) or 'labor' (American).
The Mother of All Spelling Errors: 'it's' does not mean 'of it'. 'It's' is a contraction for 'it is'. To express 'of it' use 'its', without the apostrophe. This is not our fault; it is (it's) a rule of English usage.
Greek names of more than one syllable ending in 's' form their possessives with only an apostrophe, e.g., Xerxes' army, Achilleus' horses. Names of one syllable form the possessive with apostrophe 's', e.g., Zeus's decree.
Citations, the Use Of Written Sources, and the Use Of The Internet as a Source
When you include a quotation from a text, DO NOT ALTER THE ORIGINAL WORDS. Instead, reframe your sentence so that the quotation can be included as it stands.
Any secondary sources cited in your paper must appear in a bibliography. The use of interpretative material from published sources without citation is plagiarism. If you are unclear on what constitutes proper citation please consult your instructor before you write your paper. You may also consult our departmental guidelines for the integrity of term papers.
Use either footnotes or endnotes, but be consistent.
Provide only a list of works cited (this is standard practice in Greek and Roman Studies). Do not pad your bibliography.
Ancient literary sources are cited in the text, not the footnotes of your paper. For example, if you cite a particular passage from Pliny the Elder on ancient art, the reference appears in parentheses at the end of the sentence as, (Plin. NH. 36.5). Translation: Pliny the Elder, Natural History (the title of his work) book number, chapter number. Include the line number if appropriate. A complete list of abbreviations for ancient authors and titles appears in the Oxford Classical Dictionary (in the Reference section of the library).
Internet resources do not take the place of solid library research. If you do use internet resources, you must cite them completely in your bibliography. Excessive use of such material will be penalised.
Internet sources should be cited as follows:
Provide a URL in angle brackets. Give the means of accessing the site, e.g. http, telnet, etc.
For websites, use the date of last revision as the publication date. End your citation with the date you accessed the source to cite it.
For further information on the use of electronic sources see Gordon Harvey, Writing with Sources. A Guide for Students (1998, pp. 53-56), and, again, John Porter's Use of Secondary Sources.
Some Special Tips
Write simply and clearly. Avoid using words whose meanings you do not fully understand. Choose less complex words which will express your thoughts accurately.
Confusions: if you are not absolutely clear about a word, check its meaning in a dictionary. Eg.: know the difference between affect and effect; know that humane and human and humanistic all have different meanings.
Write in complete sentences. A sentence must have (at the very least) a subject and a verb.
Link your ideas so that your thought processes become comprehensible. You may achieve this sometimes simply by connecting sentences with appropriate words and phrases, such as: for ..., as a result ..., in contrast ..., although ..., but ..., in addition .... At other times vary the sentence structure to link ideas more forcefully.
Avoid vague, general statements such as, "This is important." (or interesting or significant). Give evidence for your assertions; support them by citing lines from the text.
The following is a humorous presentation by William Safire of common mistakes in writing that may help you remember your rules of grammar and prose composition, and which reiterates some of the points we've already given you.
Remember to never split an infinitive. The passive voice should never be used. Do not put statements in the negative form. Verbs have to agree with their subject. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing. A writer must not shift your point of view. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.) Don't overuse exclamation marks!! Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of ten or more words, to their antecedents. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing. Always pick on the correct idiom. The adverb always follows the verb. Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague, seek viable alternatives.
For Literary Essays Especially
Use the present tense when summarizing the action of a play or poem, e.g., "Achilles harshly denies Hektor proper burial rites." Do not shift tenses unless the action requires it, e.g., "Achilles is enraged because Agamemnon has taken Briseis."
Do not (ever!) simply summarize the plot.
Proof-read your essay, or better still have a friend proof-read your essay.
Remember that computer spellcheckers are not infallible. Please click here for a humorous account of spellchecker disasters.
When You Get Your Essay Back
Read the comments your professor has provided for your edification.
When marking essays, many of us use the following abbreviations:
- 'awk.'= 'awkward phrasing, expression, or syntax
- 'u.c.'= upper case letters required, e.g. "the Emperor Augustus"
- l.c. = lower case letters required, e.g., "emperors come and go"
- coll. = a colloquial expression, better rephrased
- sp. = spelling mistake
- uncl. = unclear, clarify