Copyright © 2000-2005 Kimberly Chapman. All rights reserved.

This original work is available for distribution, provided the following: it is only distributed in this complete form, it contains my name and copyright, it is not altered during distribution without my consent, and it is not used to generate income for anyone without my consent. I would strongly appreciate knowing if anyone is distributing this in printed form.

How to Write an Essay

Part 1 - Research

"When you take stuff from one writer it's plagiarism; but when you take it from many writers, it's research."
-- Wilson Mizner (1876-1933)


There are those who say that before you can research or write, you must first choose a focus and stick to it. While that is good advice in some cases, there are times when your focus should change during the research process. For example, you might decide to write on a topic only to discover a more interesting, more relevant, or more easily researched topic while trying to find materials on the original topic. For this reason, you should not submit a proposal for an essay (if required) or otherwise make your focus concrete until you've done some preliminary research. That doesn't mean reading every book on the subject; rather, you should ascertain what sort of materials are available on the subject at all. When you do your basic search, keep in mind the following indications:

Assuming you don't have any of the above problems in your preliminary research, you should now be ready to choose a focus for your essay. In your notes, come up with a brief focus statement to help guide yourself. This doesn't have to be grammatically perfect, and if you wish, it can be in the form of a question. The point is to give yourself a guide by which to judge research as you find it. For example, here is a fake topic (don't fret about what widget watching is, I just made it up):

Notice how the value of the sources change when the focus changes:

Notice that because the topic broadened to cover all of widget watching, the number of good sources increased.

During your research, you may discover all kinds of interesting facts about related topics. In the example above, you might have learned that Jane Doe was desperately but secretly in love with Joe Smith. But unless that love directly affected the field of widget watching, the information is irrelevant to the second focus. It is only relevant to the first focus if it affected Joe Smith; so if he didn't know about it, it probably isn't relevant. You must stick to your focus in your writing, and avoid throwing in random factoids, regardless of how interesting they may seem. Otherwise, the essay becomes too long and disjointed. It can be frustrating to not use what seems to be a good bit of information, but unless you can work it into your focus well, you'll have to learn to set such things aside.

Of course, if a bit of interesting information fits the focus, by all means work it into the essay!

The Nitty-Gritty of Research

Now that you have your focus and have selected a good set of sources, it's time to read and make notes. I'd recommend using paper with a margin, for reasons that will become apparent in Part 3. For the rest of these tips and instructions, let's assume that our focus is the first example, "The life of Joe Smith (1856-1902) and how he contributed to the field of widget watching."

Some sources will only have selected paragraphs, pages, or chapters that fit the focus, so manage your time by reading the relevant information first. If your personal interest in the topic drives you to read more later, that's great, but getting your essay finished on time is important. With general books, such as Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, go through the chapter listing if there is one, and/or the index if there is one. Look for key items related to Joe Smith, such as his name or other elements. For example, Widget Watching of the Late 1800s has no chapter on Joe Smith, but it does list the following in the index:

You should check each listed page for Joe Smith in case it has useful information, but you can make an educated guess that anything with multiple pages (26-29 and 92-105) will probably have more than just mention of his name. Also, by cross-referencing to other elements you know involve your focus, you can find information that you might have otherwise missed, as in the extra pages on the widgetiscope. Chances are, Smith's widgetiscope had an impact on widget watching, so information on it might fit your focus even if it doesn't mention Smith's name each and every time.

As you read through the sources and find useful information, write it down (or type it, if you're using a computer) in your notes as completely as possible. For every note that you write from a source, remember to include where you found the information so you can cite it properly later. It's incredibly frustrating to be halfway through writing an essay and want to use a quotation you've noted but you can't because you didn't write down where you got the quotation from. You either have to flip through all the sources looking for it, or you can't use it because you'd be plagiarising if you used it without attribution.

A good way to make life easier for keeping track of which note is from what source is to keep a separate sheet (or set of sheets) or computer document for each source, and write out the full bibliographic information at the top of the sheet or source. Then just include the page number beside each note. Also, be sure to put quotation marks around things you've quoted directly to make sure you don't confuse them with your own paraphrasings later. For example:

Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, by Michelle Bogus, Publishers Anonymous Inc., New York, 1968

...and so forth down the page...

You may find that some sources disagree with what other sources said. This does not invalidate a source. As you will see in Part 7, you can make your essay even stronger by playing sources off of one another. You should make your notes as complete as possible, noting anything that could be of use in the writing. It's much easier to scrap useless bits later than to sit down to write and find out you're short on information or missing key details.

Keep in mind that any source can be biased or otherwise flawed. Any book, magazine, newspaper, or website may be produced by a person or organization with a distinct bent on things. If you are writing an essay on the U.S. Civil War and all of your sources are staunch Confederates, your essay will have a significant bias. If your essay focuses on parapsychology and all of your sources are tabloid newspapers, you're probably missing some important scientific writings both for and against the topic. It's okay to use a biased source, so long as you recognize that it is biased and counteract it with an opposing or neutral source. If you have good reason to suspect bias, be sure to present that as part of your analysis of what the source has to say.

While you're researching and making notes, if a brilliant way to present something in your essay occurs to you, write it down. For example, you may suddenly think of a wonderful opening or closing sentence, or a great way to phrase a particular element. Put it down in the notes immediately before you forget it. You can always choose not to use it later.

Once you've done your research, you're ready to compile the notes in such a way that will make it easier to eventually do the writing. If you have to write a proposal and haven't already done so, do that now.

Part 2 - The Proposal

If your essay requires a proposal, do not assume you can whip together something quickly and consider it complete. Chances are, if a professor is requesting an essay proposal at all (which means more work for them to do), they intend to actually pay attention to it. It may even have a grade value as part of the overall essay. You will likely be held to promises made in the proposal, so don't state that you'll do impossible things under the assumption that the professor will be impressed.

You should already be well into your research by the time you hand in a proposal. If your proposal is to sound at all informed, you should have already skimmed through some sources to get a feel for the topic. Your research may not be complete, but you should know some of the sources you will use and where your focus lies.

Proposals are usually very specific to the assignment, so be sure to read the assignment carefully. Ensure that you cover all necessary aspects of the assignment in the proposal. Even if you don't fully explain every section - after all, it's not the full essay - do be sure to include the sections you plan to discuss. Also be sure that your list of resources is comprised of books you can actually get and truly plan to read.

Some proposals can be in point form while others are required to be in formal prose. Whichever is the case, do be sure to follow the rules of grammar where necessary, and stick to the other guidelines in these pages. The exception is that most of the time, it is okay to personalize proposals. You shouldn't use "I" and "me" in the full essay, but since the proposal is your personal statement as to your intentions, it is usually okay to do so there.

Here then, is a pretend assignment and a proposal to go along with it (using the fake science of "widgetry"):


The essay for Honours Widgetry 101 is to be a 10 to 15 page work concentrating on some aspect of widgetry as learned in the course. Appropriate subjects would be:

If you wish to cover an alternate topic, it is recommended that you consult the instructor first.

The essay may cover the personal aspects of widgetry, but it is essential to include some scientific content. This may be in the form of explanations of studies done, archeological indications of prehistoric widgets and their uses, or other scientific data. It is insufficient to merely write about widgets in society. The scientific data must be discussed by the student and not merely quoted from references.

Required elements include:

All instances of suspected plagiarism will be turned over to the university administration without discussion. If the administration decides plagiarism has occurred, the student will automatically receive an F in this course and may be expelled from the university. This edict applies to all proposals and drafts. No warning will be given; all students are expected to know how to avoid plagiarism by this stage in their education.


Joe Smith and The Widgetiscope
A proposal by Kimberly Chapman

According to Jean Doorknocker, "In the vast field of widget watching, no one person has made more of a dramatic contribution than Joe Smith" (Doorknocker 37). Widget watching began in ancient Sumeria, but reached its scientific peak in the late 1800s when Smith invented the widgetiscope (Diddledum 203-204). My essay will examine Smith's involvement in and contributions to the field as well as his personal life. Since Smith's adult life revolved almost entirely around his studies (Doorknocker 39), I believe his personal story is essential to understanding how he came to invent the widgetiscope.

Born in Scotland in 1856, Smith was orphaned early due to a plague. He was adopted while still a toddler and taken to the U.S. by his new American parents (Superwriter 4-7). He attended prestigious schools, eventually meeting a teacher named Brian Googlebrains who introduced young Smith to widgetry (Bogus 93).

A socially awkward boy, Smith took to widgetry quickly because it gave him an excuse to avoid bullies in the school playground (Doorknocker 37). His social problems never really abated; recent information suggests that he may have committed suicide when, because of his alcoholism, he was threatened exclusion from his dearly-held association of New York Widget Watchers(Doorknocker 38-39).

Smith's devotion to widgetry is evident in his many publications, which will be individually discussed in my essay. It was his invention of the widgetiscope, however, that truly marked his place in the field. The essay will thoroughly cover the invention process (including excerpts from Smith's diary as found in Bogus' book), how it works, a diagram of the parts of the widgetiscope, commentary from Smith's colleagues on the device as found in several sources, and a discussion of how the invention changed the field from a pastime into a science. For this last part, I will include citations from several sources as well as my own analysis of the state of widgetry before and after the invention.


This proposal is 321 words (not including the Bibliography, which should never be counted in a word or page count anyway), so it falls within the guidelines set by the assignment. Longer proposals may require you to expand on the points to be covered instead of just stating them as I have done here. For example, the instructor may have required that this proposal include specific scientific data instead of just the promise to include it. It is essential that you follow the guidelines for each proposal as set by the instructor. If you are unsure about a requirement, consult the professor well before the proposal is due.

Part 3 - Compiling Your Notes

Now that you've done the bulk of your research, you should have several pages (on the computer, on paper, or both) of point-form notes. In those notes should be full quotations you intend to use or paraphrase later, as well as general notes that you've already summarized or paraphrased. If you sit down to write the essay with this pile of unsorted stuff, inevitably you'll have trouble deciding where to begin and you'll keep leaving things out. It is much easier to group the notes, plan the essay, and then write, rather than trying to stick random bits in as you go.

This is where a good supply of coloured pens or highlighters comes in handy (on the computer, you can make use of a word processor's various coloured highlighting tools). If these things are unavailable, you can still make do by coming up with notations that indicate the different sections and writing them beside the individual points in the notes.

Look at your focus. Chances are it has several different elements to it, and now is the time to break out those elements separately. Don't worry about what element should come first or last, that will be sorted out in the planning stage next. For now, you're just going to group your notes according to where they fit into your focus.

For our pretend focus of "The life of Joe Smith (1856-1902) and how he contributed to the field of widget watching," we would pick out the following subtopics:

In some cases, the subtopics themselves may contain further subgroups, so break those out as well:

Now, assign colours and/or notations to the subgroups right on your written list, so you don't forget what you meant later. Your choices here will vary according to your personal preferences. You may wish to use letters representing the group that are simply alphabetical, or that directly represent the word. Most of mine represent the word:

If I didn't have highlighters available, I probably would substitute by putting letters representing the main groups before the ones representing subgroups, such as PERS-D indicating a note about his death, CONT-NY indicating a contribution relating to the New York group, or WW-D indicating a widget watching definition.

Now go through the notes and attack them with the highlighters and/or letter descriptions, so you can tell at a glance whether each page has something relating to a part of the essay, such as shown in the following graphic:

Graphic snipped from printer version. Click here to get it.

The same notes on the computer might look like this:

Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, by Michelle Bogus, Publishers Anonymous Inc., New York, 1968

You will have to decide whether some points better fit one group than another, but do decide now rather than accidentally repeating yourself later. If you change your mind later, make note of it directly on the page. You will also find that some notes don't fit any category. Chances are, these are things that should be left out. You still have them written down if you decide to include them, but don't try and make every note fit your groups.

In going through the notes this way, you may find that you have managed to completely forget to look up information on a section, or the information you do have is too little. Doing this at an early stage allows you time to go back and find more information, if possible.

Once you have your notes thusly in order, you're ready to start planning out your essay.

Part 4 - Planning Your Essay

"When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing."
-- Enrique Jardiel Poncela

You've gone from an idea, to research, to a pile of random notes, to categorized notes. You're now ready to start planning how the essay will fit together.

Formal essays differ from informal essays in several ways, most of which will be covered in the section on writing. During the planning stage, you need to know whether or not the essay is going to be a formal one. If the teacher or professor didn't specify, they probably want it to be formal. An informal essay is one that doesn't necessarily rely on structure to make its point, such as an essay explaining how you personally feel on a given subject, or what you did last summer. Formal essays must have an underlying structure that makes sense so the reader doesn't have to wonder where you're going with your points.

For most of these instructions and tips, we'll assume you're working on a formal essay.

Start by putting the subgroups that you pulled out of your focus into a logical order. Consider the reader's point of view: they may not have read all the sources you have on your topic, and might need definitions first. If you're discussing a person's life and contributions as in our example, it's probably more logical to describe the person and their life before bringing in the bits about their contributions. If your subject is a historical overview of anything, it usually makes sense to move chronologically.

If you'll eventually be typing the entire essay on a computer, now would be a good time to move from written notes to computer documents. Here is how I would begin planning our example essay with the subgroups:

Next, plan in the introduction and conclusion, and make sure each fits with the outline so far. In our example, I would include the widget watching information in an introductory paragraph, so I'll absorb that into the introduction in the outline:

Now it's time to add in the notes. Go through your notes and type in (or cut and paste, if they're already on the computer) the highlighted bits. Don't worry about their order yet, just make sure you get everything into the outline for now. Of course, I'm just making up the following for an example, and the outline could be much longer for a real topic.

Now go back through that list and cut-and-paste the elements within each subgroup into an appropriate order. When you've finished, read over the entire outline from start to finish. Does it make sense? Is there a reasonable flow? If there are gaps, you may need to go back to your notes or do more research to fill them. If you're having trouble deciding on an order in a subgroup, make it work as best as you can, and it may straighten itself out logically next in the writing phase. If something really doesn't fit, perhaps you should consider removing it from the essay, because perhaps it's unimportant and would just jar the reader.

Part 5 - Writing the Essay

"Do not write so that you can be understood, write so that you cannot be misunderstood."
-- Epictetus

Now that you have a solid outline, it's time to knit the point-form bits together into formal prose. Part of this will just be creating proper sentences out of the notes, but much of it will be putting in your analysis and segues. It is this second part that makes the difference between a ho-hum regurgitation and an essay that actually has something to say. In my opinion, it is the main difference between a B paper and an A paper. Anyone can read and regurgitate, but it takes skill to analyse and bring things together to make an overall coherent point.

Writing your essay is like building a brick wall: if you leave gaping holes all over the place, the entire structure will be weak at best, and may crumble entirely. Even though you're now educated on your topic and think much of it is obvious, it is essential to assume your reader doesn't know much about the topic, unless otherwise specified in the assignment. You should assume your reader knows what the average layperson knows about the subject and write accordingly. This means you should explain what things do, who people are, and how it all fits together instead of just assuming something about your topic is common knowledge. It is better to have a couple sentences that are obvious than to leave the reader confused.

But writing to be understood takes more than stating all the facts. It means your prose itself must be clear and uncomplicated. You can explain very complex ideas without having complex text. This does not mean you should dumb-down your vocabulary. It means that you should make sure you're using words correctly in proper grammatical sentences. If you don't know what a word means or how to use it, look it up or don't use it. Your prose should be free of ambiguity. Sentences should not be choppy, but neither should they run on beyond a single idea. Paragraphs should be logical structures, not random space breaks. If you must say something in a complicated way spanning several sentences, try adding a sentence to summarize the idea. In other words, make every effort possible to be clear about each point in the essay.

(Notice that the last sentence of the above paragraph does precisely what the second last sentence suggests.)

How you say what you say is as important as what you're saying. Instead of providing a list here of things you should or should not do in your writing, I've included examples of good and bad writing in Part 8, and links to grammatical and style help on the links page.

Just because one of your sources uses bad grammar, hyperbole, or other examples of poor writing, that doesn't mean you should replicate the error. This is especially true of web sources, many of which are not reviewed and edited with the same attention to detail that books are. Some sources may be written for an audience familiar with the topic, and as such are very complicated. It is your job as the essay writer to take the information and present it in a clear fashion for your readers.

The best way to test your essay for readability is to give it to a friend to read over, particularly one not in the same class. If they don't understand it, find out why and fix it, then ask them to read it again. Tell them to mark on the pages anywhere where they are confused by your wording. They don't have to be grammatical experts to realize that there's something inherently wrong with a sentence. I'll expand on this suggestion in the next section.

For now, let's just get the thing written in the first place!

Assuming you're working on a computer, keep your outline document in an open window and begin a new document for the writing. This is to protect your outline in case you change things around as you write, but then decide it isn't working and want to backtrack. Furthermore, if you work directly from your outline, you run the chance of accidentally not typing out a point form note properly. For example, when writing my book Sorrows of Adoration, I was working from a 45 page outline and more than once I took something like this:

...and in rewriting it from the outline, ended up with this (errors in bold):

In the evening, Kurit came to my rooms, ready to fight. I took a deep breath to calm myself, knowing that losing my temper with this man would accomplish nothing.

"Well this is just splendid," he began. His words were slightly slurred, and I knew he was quite drunk. "You've got my people worshipping you, saying prayers at your statue and praising you as a living Goddess. You've got my cousin and best friend despising me, and now you've got my son choosing Jarik over me. How else would you like to destroy me?"

"I thought perhaps I'd take your armies to Wusul and add a province or two to Keshaerlan. Then I shall change the direction of the River Kal just to spite you," I said coldly.

Kurit: "Oh you're very funny, Aenna. I'll fetch you a set of jester's toys and you can juggle them whilst standing on your head at the next Council meeting."

She sarcastically says, "If that's what your Majesty wishes," I said with a voice dripping of forced sweetness as I rose briefly to curtsey.

His eyes narrowed in fury. "I won't let that overgrown Champion of yours steal my son," he growled.

So don't work directly from the outline. Instead, begin writing your opening paragraph and then follow through the essay, writing as you go and occasionally cutting and pasting the full quotations into your text. If there is something in your outline that you have already written as a proper sentence, cut and paste that in at the appropriate time as well.

As you're knitting the points together, think about them. What do the points mean? What are you saying overall by including this point? How does it all relate to the overall topic? Don't be redundant and restate the focus in every paragraph, but make it clear where you're going with each point.

And an invaluable tip for computer users: get into the habit of saving after EVERY paragraph. It's awful to come up with a wonderful way of knitting points together just to have a computer crash or power outage and lose six paragraphs' worth of thought. You can't ever seem to get the same good flow back again.

Let's now go through our example and illustrate how to knit the points together in a skillful, intelligent way, section by section.


Don't be cheesy in the introduction and conclusion. Don't kiss-up to the teacher or professor by saying how wonderful the topic they're teaching is. Don't elaborate on how exciting you find the entire thing, unless it's an informal essay. Don't use hyperbole. Simply introduce the topic and explain what you're going to write about, without using 'I' at all. You may wish to begin with a blocked quotation if you have found one that really sums up your focus point well. Don't use one just for the sake of starting that way, though. Compare the following examples of how we could start our widget watching essay:

"By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of widget watching was the widgetiscope" (Bogus 93).

Although the field of widget watching is ancient, many people don't know about it. Now that I am taking Widget Watching 101, I have learned that it is a very worthwhile study. The field was changed forever by the invention of the widgetiscope by Joe Smith in the 1800s. This essay will talk more about Joe Smith, his life and times, and his contributions to widget watching. I plan to outline his life and contributions, as well as provide some basic information on widget watching.


"In the vast field of widget watching, no one person has made more of a dramatic contribution than Joe Smith" (Doorknocker 37).

Widgets are [insert paraphrased dictionary definition] (Oxford 408). According to Diddledum, widget watching is the scientific study of widgets and their behaviour in laboratory conditions (27). In the late 1800s, the field was burgeoning with associations of widget watchers in New York, London, Paris and Cairo (Diddledum 203-204). But it was Joe Smith, a man whose life was dedicated to widgetry, who elevated the science to new heights through his contributions.

The second one clearly sounds more like a formal essay introduction.

Of course, it's still a bit awkward, mostly because of the heavy reliance on quotations. Sometimes you can't avoid the quotations, because you don't want to risk plagiarising. An introduction doesn't have to be done in one paragraph, and definitions don't necessarily have to come first. Let's try to make the introduction better by removing some of the initial citations and giving the words some breathing room. We'll keep the introductory quotation, though, because it's a good, solid statement summarizing why the reader should care about Joe Smith.

"In the vast field of widget watching, no one person has made more of a dramatic contribution than Joe Smith" (Doorknocker 37).

In the late 1800s, widget watching was a burgeoning science, with widget watcher associations springing up in New York, London, Paris and Cairo (Diddledum 203-204). A member of the New York chapter named Joe Smith elevated the science to new heights through his contributions. Smith's lifelong dedication to widget watching produced several publications as well as his crowning achievement: the widgetiscope.

Widgets are [insert paraphrased dictionary definition] (Oxford 408). According to Diddledum, widget watching is the scientific study of widgets and their behaviour in laboratory conditions (27).

This introduction gives the reader the essential information fairly quickly, but draws them in first before hitting them with the dictionary. It also establishes the fact that Smith's life story is relevant, and thus hints that his life will be discussed in the essay. Furthermore, it introduces the concept of the widgetiscope as something important without getting into the nitty gritty of why it is important.

The Main Body

Now we knit in the next section according to our outline. Don't just plunk down the next set of facts. Try to relate each paragraph to the next in some fashion. In longer essays, you can also use subtopic structures to break up the prose and avoid having to segue between all sections. Let's do that in this essay, but still put in sentences that give some kind of overall link:

Widgets are [insert paraphrased dictionary definition] (Oxford 408). According to Diddledum, widget watching is the scientific study of widgets and their behaviour in laboratory conditions (27). When Joe Smith was born in 1856 (Superwriter 4), this scientific version of widget watching was also in its infancy.

Smith's Childhood

Smith was born in Scotland to Amelia and John MacLeod. A plague in 1858 killed Amelia and John, leaving two-year-old Joe an orphan. With no nearby relatives, Joe was placed in an orphanage, where he was luckily discovered by Nancy and Arthur Smith. The Smiths were an American couple visiting Scotland for Arthur's research on castles. The orphanage happened to be housed in what had once been a castle, and the Smiths fell in love with the precocious Joe while there. They took the child back to the U.S. with them in 1860. (Superwriter 4-7)

Note that it isn't necessary to attribute every single sentence in a simple paragraph such as this one if the entire paragraph is attributed as indicated. The reader can safely assume the facts presented in the paragraph are a paraphrased version of several pages of history from Superwriter's book. This makes for easier reading that is also properly attributed. The attribution is outside of the final sentence. If it was inside the sentence, there may be confusion as to whether it was only that sentence being attributed, or the entire paragraph.

Be careful, however, to not leave long gaps between attributions in this manner. A paragraph is fine, but several are not. Also, you cannot pull the attributions to the end of the paragraph if there are multiple sources cited within the paragraph. When in doubt, cite each sentence.

We would then continue in this fashion, knitting the points together into well-written prose, until the end of the section on his childhood and schooling. Let's skip to the next section, then:

Later Life

According to both Superwriter and Doorknocker, Smith never married, apparently choosing instead to bury himself in his passion: widget watching. As will be discussed in the next section, he may have had some friends in the New York group, but "his complete absorption into his studies resulted in him being a sad, bitter old man in his later years" (Doorknocker 39). His death in 1902 was long thought to have been caused by a heart attack (Superwriter 86), but recent research indicates that he may have in fact committed suicide by swallowing some widgets (Doorknocker 39).

When we get to the next section, we can begin by describing what the New York group was to Smith, and then reintroduce the contradiction between the authors.

The New York Group

Smith's involvement with the New York Widget Watchers provided him with continual funding (Bogus 27), and may have also served as a surrogate family in his later years. Superwriter states that, "Smith's comrades in New York were closer to him than anyone else, including family" (54).

New evidence, however, indicates that if the relationship with the New York association once was harmonious, it eventually decayed. Doorknocker has unearthed memos from the group dated shortly before Smith's death in 1902 that make mention of the possibility of throwing him out of their ranks due to increasing drunkenness. A particularly unpleasant display at the group's Christmas party may have been the last straw (Doorknocker 39).

Although it isn't a certain fact, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that Smith did commit suicide because of his impending loss of financial and scholarly support. If this is true, it indicates how deeply passionate Smith was about widget watching; if he could not continue his studies and was separated from his colleagues, he seemingly felt that he had no reason to live.

Here we see analysis without overstatement and the presentation of contrary opinions without negating the essay's focus. When you cannot be certain of something you're stating on your own, be sure to include couching words and phrases so it cannot be assumed that you are stating absolute facts. If your analysis can be stated as fact, however, do not use couching words, because they will minimize the impact of your analysis. When deciding whether or not to use couching words, ask yourself: can I prove this? Is this a fact or speculation? Is this a possibility or a certainty? Don't get caught declaring something is true if you can't prove it.

Continue through the rest of the outline, knitting the pieces together as above.


In your conclusion, follow the same rules as the introduction: don't kiss-up, don't use 'I,' and don't be cheesy. Also, don't declare the future for certain, tempting though it might be to make grandiose statements about how your topic will be viewed in the future. Here again is a bad example followed by a good example:


From all this, it is clear than Joe Smith changed the field of widget watching by inventing the widgetiscope. My life is enriched for knowing about this wonderful man in this amazing field. Joe Smith will forever be remembered as the greatest widget watcher that ever lived.


Clearly, Joe Smith's contributions changed the field of widget watching. His widgetiscope helped to turn previously vague theories into provable laws of widgetry. Smith may have suffered loneliness and ultimately death due to his dedication to his studies, but the field today recognizes him as one of history's great widget watchers.

Notice the difference in each example's mention of the widgetiscope: the first example just tosses the mention of the device in, but the second one summarizes why it was important. The conclusion is your final chance to tell the reader why they should care about your topic, so don't just use it as a summarizing cut-off. The second example mentions the fact that he is recognized in the field without going over the top and playing future-psychic.

Notice also it mentions the interesting new conflict you discovered in your research, emphasizing the interesting part without jumping up and down screaming "Lookie lookie! I learned this!" Tying the facts together like this legitimizes why you bothered to mention his life at all.

Use of Quotations

While quoting sources is a major element of this level of essays, your essay shouldn't merely string a bunch of quotations together, even if they are strung in a well-ordered format. Paraphrase long, awkward, or complicated quotations down into words that better suit your essay - but don't forget to cite a paraphrased comment! You don't make it your thought merely by rewording it.

Your essay should reflect your interpretation of many sources, not be a summary of what the sources said.

Too many quotations looks like laziness on your part. It also may hint that you don't really understand what your sources have said, but you're just going to throw their words in there to impress the instructor. Never put two quotations back-to-back; either paraphrase one or both, or find something to go between them.

Long quotations can often be broken up by putting ellipsis (...) between relevant phrases. Only use the part of the quotation that is necessary, and put ellipsis in place of removed portions. BUT BE CAREFUL! If removing part of the quotation changes the meaning of the quotation, don't do it. Here are two examples; one is fine, the other is wrong:

Original Quotation: "Smith spoke to several members of the association, including David Jones, Gertrude Fingle, Barry Backwater, Paul Dingleberry, Melinda Wossname, and Jane Doe, in order to promote his widgetiscope idea." (Bogus 47)
May be quoted as: "Smith spoke to several members of the association... in order to promote his widgetiscope idea." (Bogus 47)

Original Quotation: "Smith did not want to invent the widgetiscope, but felt that someone had to." (Bogus 3)
May NOT be quoted as: "Smith did not... invent the widgetiscope..." (Bogus 3).

Keep in mind that quotations longer than two normal lines of the page should be put into blocked form. A blocked quotation has the margins indented on both sides, does not use quotation marks, but does require the same attribution as any other quotation. Here's a sample:

Smith's initial experiments found that the widgetiscope results varied based on how the entire device was set up, and whether or not it was placed on a level surface. The widgets would sometimes slip on the slide, making the watching a challenge. The materials used in the construction of the widgetiscope itself also seemed to affect the outcome of the experiments. Smith's diary reflects how stressful the invention process was:

My housekeeper has chastised me for the fifth time this week, for I continually forget to eat the food she places by my study door. She was most perturbed when she discovered I had not even touched the stroganoff she had prepared for my birthday, as that is my favourite dish. I, of course, had lost track of time so badly that I did not even know my birthday had come and gone. (Bogus 207)

Smith's total dedication to his project would finally pay off, however, when he discovered that...

If you use too many blocked quotations, your essay becomes disjointed. Only use quotations this long if there's something special, significant, or particularly brilliant about the way the source wrote it or spoke it. For example, an essay on a great speaker such as Churchill, Lincoln, or Gandhi would have reason to include large portions of their speeches, and rewording those quotations could trivialize them. But there's no real reason to cut-and-paste unwieldy paragraphs from average sources into your essay if they would fit better when paraphrased.

Overall Length

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."
-- Mark Twain

What Twain meant is that it takes effort to write something concise, but it's fairly easy to babble on endlessly.

Most essay assignments come with a specific word count in mind: some a minimum, some a maximum, some both. I have found that most essays tend to easily fall within the required word count range naturally. The exceptions have been, frankly, on essay assignments that were poorly constructed by the assigning teacher or professor, or on open-topic assignments where the topic chosen was too broad or too narrow to properly fit the assignment. If in doubt about your topic, you should consult your teacher/professor.

Some assignments are given page count requirements instead of word count. A normal, typed, double-spaced essay without footnotes is said to yield approximately 250 words per page. Page count requirements are open to cheating by doing things like extending the line height, widening all four margins, increasing the font size or using a wider-style font, using footnotes, and other style elements that help spread the content over the pages. While this may satisfy the requirement, keep in mind that your instructor is expecting a certain level of content in the essay, and an incomplete essay stretched over the required amount of pages is still an incomplete essay. Conversely, an essay that blathers on will still seem to blather even if the student creatively crams more words into a smaller space.

If your essay is thoroughly researched, it should be difficult to fall below a word count target. In fact, if your research was very good, you may have more difficulty staying below a maximum word count. You have to find a balance between fitting in the information you deem essential and not making the essay sound disjointed and choppy. Too often, students write the same points over and over again, wasting space and making the essay boring. Consider the following paragraphs:


Smith invented the widgetiscope. He invented it in 1891 (Bogus 16). It was an important invention. "By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of widget watching was the widgetiscope" (Bogus 93). The invention was completed in New York. The New York Widget Watchers helped pay for it. The widgetiscope works by placing the widget on the slide, adjusting the focus, and then monitoring the behaviour of the widget (Bogus 93).

The sentences are choppy and jarring to the reader, and facts are repeated for no reason. The bit explaining what the widgetiscope does should probably be in a separate paragraph from the historical information about it.


"By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of widget watching was the widgetiscope" (Bogus 93). Smith invented the widgetiscope in 1891 in New York, thanks in part to the financing by the New York Widget Watchers (Bogus 16).

The widgetiscope works by placing the widget on the slide, adjusting the focus, and then monitoring the behaviour of the widget (Bogus 93). [insert more about the relevance and workings of the widgetiscope to flesh this out]

The changes, not including the other widgetiscope information to be added, result in nine less words. That doesn't seem like much, but consider that a page on average will contain four paragraphs. That means a possible saving of 36 words per page. For a standard 10 page essay, that's 360 words, which can make a significant difference when trying to stay below a word count maximum. Furthermore, it reads better the second way.

Repetition can be useful when trying to drive a point home. For example, in an argumentative essay, you may wish to structure it like this:

The hypothesis would be repeated throughout the essay to hammer the point that it is true. There is also repetition of proofs; the proof is explained at one stage, then reintroduced to combat a contradiction later. This is not only acceptable, but a very strong way to structure an argumentative essay.

But this kind of repetition is not necessary when your essay is simply presenting a case study or set of facts. Our example essay on Joe Smith isn't really trying to argue anything. If our focus had instead been "Joe Smith was the most important scientist that ever lived," we would have taken a completely different approach. I recommend a site called Writing Argumentative Essays by Bill Daly for more information on how to write such an essay.

Once your essay has been written and fits within the required word or page count, it is time to add the finishing touches.

Part 6 - The Finished Product

Reading Your Essay Over

It seems no matter how many times students are advised to do this, they keep ignoring it. It is probably the single most important thing you can do to improve your essay: READ IT OVER TO YOURSELF! That means actually read it, don't skim it. If you find that your brain inadvertently skims it, try reading it out loud and listen to how it sounds. Do the sentences sound jarring? Does it make sense? If you hadn't researched it, would you understand it?

To improve further, GET A FRIEND TO READ THE ESSAY as well. They may find inadvertent errors such as spell-check failures (i.e. "from" when you mean "form" and vice versa), bad edits (i.e. Smith went to the a store (forgot to remove "a" or "the")), repetitions (i.e. He said, "Blah blah blah," he said), and other elements you may miss after staring at it for so long. Furthermore, if your friend is completely confused as to what you mean by a particular sentence, paragraph, or the entire essay, you know you have done something wrong. You don't have to accept every bit of nitpicking advice from your friend, but keep in mind that if they don't understand your phrasing, your teacher or professor may not either.

Cleaning Up

If you're using a computer and don't bother spell-checking your essay, you deserve marks off for every spelling error you make. It only takes a few minutes, and an essay rife with spelling errors looks sloppy and unfinished.

Go over the essay for consistency. After writing these pages, I realized I had sometimes capitalized widget watching and sometimes not. While it probably should be capitalized when it's part of a name (i.e. New York Widget Watchers), the rest of the time it should be lower case, so I went through and changed it. You can use your word processor's 'find and replace' function for this kind of thing, but beware that it will change every instance unless you make sure that it doesn't. Other consistency issues could be how you deal with numbers (I use the standard journalist format of spelling out only numbers less than 10), how you refer to people (usually use only the last name after the first instance unless there are references to different people with the same last name), whether subtitles are bolded, underlined, or both, and the style of attribution.

Make sure the pages are formatted according to the teacher/professor's instructions. Standard essays are double spaced (meaning blank lines between written lines) with one inch margins all around, and page numbers. Some professors might require headers on all pages with your name, that certain pages begin halfway down, etc. (In fact, putting your name on every page, whether in a header or perhaps written neatly on the back of each page, is a good idea in case the pages come apart.) Other formatting guidelines can be found at the Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. If you didn't include formatting considerations while writing, be sure to apply the formatting required now.

If you have used tables or graphics in your essay, after you've finished all the necessary formatting you should check that the table or graphic is still where you wish it to be. Formatting moves things around quite a bit, and you may find that things are now on the wrong page. Also, if you have a table of contents or any other reference to specific pages, make sure the page numbers still match.


As mentioned throughout these instructions, it is vitally important that you attribute anything you have taken from another source. Plagiarism is a serious offense, and one that many universities will expel you for. You do not have to attribute basic facts, nor do you have to attribute your own analysis and thoughts. But if you didn't come up with it and you're not sure if it's basic, attribute it. Keep in mind that if you thought of something yourself and then found it confirmed in a source, you must attribute it to the source. They get credit for publishing it before you did. You can indicate to the instructor that you did think of it yourself, however, by phrasing it this way:

As confirmed by Superwriter, the field of widget watching was barely noticeable before the advent of the widgetiscope (53).

Attribution can also be useful aside from protection against accusations of plagiarism. If you're presenting a controversial point and can attribute it to a respected source, the reader is less likely to suspect you of saying something ridiculous. In our example, if we had written:

Superwriter states that Smith died of a heart attack (86), but that probably isn't true. New evidence shows that he actually committed suicide.

the instructor might wonder what the evidence is. By not attributing the second sentence, not only would we be plagiarising Doorknocker, but we'd also be leaving ourselves open to doubt.

Attribution styles vary between fields of study, countries, schools, and even professors. A very picky professor will probably give you an indication of how to attribute in essays for their course. Follow it, even if it's not your normal method. If no instruction on attribution is given, use a standard format such as MLA. If you don't use a standard format, at least make sure whatever you do is consistent throughout your essay. When in doubt, ask your teacher or professor for guidance.


Almost all high school and university formal essays require a bibliography. This is a list of all quoted sources as well as other influential sources. You don't have to actually cite the source in order to include it in your bibliography, but don't include source that you didn't even read. If the assignment requires that you have a bibliography of, say, 10 sources or more, don't include sources that you didn't read just to flesh it out. Not only is that dishonest, but you may find that the instructor is very familiar with a source and questions a paper that is missing key details from that source. In our example, if you didn't actually read Doorknocker's article but included it in your bibliography, the instructor may be suspicious when you fail to mention the new revelations about Smith's demise.

As with attribution, there are many styles of bibliographies, and your instructor may give you a specific format to follow. The most important thing is to make sure all of the information necessary for someone to look up the source is there. MLA and other styles have specific formats for writing entries in the bibliography. When in doubt, follow one of those styles.

Title Page

Even if it's not a stated requirement, it's a good idea to have a title page on your essay. It looks good, and serves as identification should the essay be misplaced (and if you've seen the inside of a typical professor's office, you can understand how this could easily happen). Again, some instructors might give you guidelines for a specific format and information. Otherwise, follow this model, centred on a clean page:

Joe Smith: His Life and Contributions to Widget Watching

by Kimberly Chapman
Student Number: 154 696

For Professor Corran Webster, Office CBC B306
Course: Honours Widgetry 101

September 29, 2000

Congratulations! You should now have a solid essay worthy of a decent grade. But to continue to learn how to improve essays, go on to the next sections.

Part 7 - Extra Touches

"Creativity often consists of merely turning up what is already there. Did you know that right and left shoes were thought up only a little more than a century ago?"
-- Bernice Fitz-Gibbon

"Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
-- Thomas Edison

The difference between a good essay and a great essay often lies in elements that take it above and beyond what most students hand in. Sometimes it is as simple as avoiding common things that detract from formality, such as hyperbole and colloquialisms. Sometimes it's adding extras, such as contradictions or extra research. Here are some tips on improving essays:

Avoid Hyperbole

"Hyperbole \Hy*per"bo*le\, n. [L., fr. Gr?, prop., an overshooting, excess...](Rhet.) A figure of speech in which the expression is an evident exaggeration of the meaning intended to be conveyed, or by which things are represented as much greater or less, better or worse, than they really are; a statement exaggerated fancifully, through excitement, or for effect."
-- Hypertext Webster Gateway

When a wise instructor sees hyperbole in an essay, they know that the student is overstating something in order to appear more convincing. Overstatement, however, does not equal proof. If your essay relies on hyperbole instead of proof, it is a weak essay.

Consider the following examples of hyperbole:

Your instructor does not want to read hyperbole. They do not want cheesy diatribes declaring your topic to be superior to all other related topics. That is irrelevant and distracting. Don't do it.

Your high school teachers may have rewarded hyperbole because it can masquerade as proof. At the university level, it is amateurish.

Avoid Libel

Libel is the act of writing something about someone that is false and can injure that person's reputation. Libel can also be against a group or company. Students usually do not intend to commit libel, but in an effort to be dramatic they sometimes accidentally do so. Libel in essays often comes out of hyperbole; as a student overstates something, they may inadvertently overstate to the point of being injurious.

It is not libel merely to say something negative about someone. It becomes libel when the statement is false or cannot be proven to be "fair comment." It is fair comment to say that Adolph Hitler was anti-Semitic. It is not fair comment to say that George W. Bush is anti-Semitic for not choosing a Jewish running mate as Al Gore did in the 2000 U.S. presidential election. Calling Bush an anti-Semite in that regard would most certainly be libel.

Chances are, no student will ever actually be legally challenged for writing libelous statements in their essays, because no one other than the professor is likely to see the essay. Still, you should be careful to avoid it, because it looks very bad on your part to declare false statements in this manner.

Avoid Colloquialisms

"Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very;" your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." -- Mark Twain

"Colloquialism \Col*lo"qui*al*ism\, n. A colloquial expression, not employed in formal discourse or writing." -- Hypertext Webster Gateway

If your assignment is to write about your personal experience in an informal fashion or to write fiction, feel free to use colloquialisms to add colour. If, however, you're writing a formal essay, avoid colloquialisms entirely. Never do any of the following in a formal essay unless it is part of a direct quotation:

Avoid Personalization

Again, if you're writing an informal essay or a story, using "I" and "You" are perfectly acceptable. In a formal essay, however, they are bad form. Don't do the following, unless it's part of a direct quotation:

Avoid Gender Limitations

You can be gender inclusive without resorting to political correct redundancy. Use "he" when referring to a specific individual who is male, and use "she" when referring to a specific individual who is female. Do not use a gender-specific pronoun when referring to a non-specific person. Using "they" instead can be awkward, especially since it is often supposed to mean more than one person. PC constructs like he/she or s/he are also awkward and jarring to the reader. When possible, rewrite the sentence in such a way as to make the pronoun unnecessary, as in the following examples:

Bad: If a widget watcher sees the widget behave in this way, he must record it in his journal.
Good: A journal entry must be made if the widget is observed behaving in this way.

Bad: The average widget watcher doesn't like to see her research go unnoticed.
Good: Widget watchers don't like to see their research go unnoticed.
In this case, we've pluralized the subject, so it's okay to use the plural "their."

Bad: Widget watching is a stressful science, and a student should think carefully before he dedicates his life to it.
Good: Widget watching is a stressful science, and a student should think carefully before becoming dedicated to it.
Or go fully plural: Widget watching is a stressful science, and students should think carefully before dedicating their lives to it.

If you absolutely must use pronouns, it is probably better to alternate between he and she rather than to use he/she or s/he. Below is a post I made on to demonstrate how alternation works, assuming the reader does not attribute meaning to the pronoun:

Originally posted at

RE: He, She, It
Posted by KaCee on Sunday, September 10th @ 05:22:15 PM EDT

Variating doesn't break the flow if the pronoun is truly irrelevant.

For example (this is quickly made up on the spot and shouldn't be associated with any specific RPG):

A player who wishes to have his character trained by a master should prepare to have the character out of adventuring for one to two years in world time. During this time, the character will make no money nor gain experience points, but will gain the skills of the master. If the player does not want to sacrifice the time because, for instance, the race of the character requires a short lifespan, she can decide to take the skills individually at a point cost equivalent to any other character.

I've variated whether the player is a he or a she. I've been inclusive now. How does that variation make this paragraph complicated? I read it aloud to my husband and didn't tell him what I was testing. His questions were about whether it made sense that the master wouldn't be paying the student and other comments on the nature of the game itself (which of course is irrevelvant since I just made it up and it has no context). He didn't even notice I changed gender. When I told him that was the point, he came over, read it to himself, and agreed that the variation in the gender of the player has no bearing on the comphrension of the instruction.

I'd like to call for a vote by anyone reading: if this was confusing to you on the basis of a changed gender, say so. If the gender thing was irrelevant to you, say so.

Now, if you are assuming the player is male and thus the "she" throws you off, you have attributed specific meaning to "he" and are NOT considering it a universal pronoun. That then means you are making an assumption that the players are all male or female players are not being referred to. That's sexist.

If a writer can't express themselves clearly and inclusively, that's a fault of the writer.

-- Kimberly "it's really not that hard" Chapman

Avoid Using The Same Word Repeatedly

Unless you're using the same word repeatedly to make a point, try to vary your words. If you read over one of your paragraphs and find the same word being used several times, try to think of a different word that can be substituted. For example, if our example essay had the word "widgetiscope" in a paragraph too often, we could substitute one or two instances with alternate phrases like "the device" or "the scope" or "Smith's invention."

Do make sure, however, that whatever substitution you make is an accurate one. Too often, students make liberal use of a word-processor's built-in thesaurus without consulting the dictionary to see if the so-called synonym fits the given context. For example, let's say that we've used the word "number" too often. In the sentence: "Smith's number was 555-1234, which he thought was an interesting random assignment," MS Word's thesaurus gives us synonyms for number such as "total," "aggregate," "amount," "collection, and "sum total." Obviously, our use of "number" has the specific context of being a phone number, so none of the synonyms fit.

Contradiction and Argument

As shown in the widget example with the contradiction over how Smith died, discovering that your sources contradict each other is not a bad thing. In fact, it allows you to introduce contradiction into your essay easily, which is more interesting to read. It also may give you the chance to analyse both sides of the issue and indicate which side you think to be most correct. This can lead to a better grade since you're demonstrating independent reasoning instead of simply quoting a bunch of sources.

An essay need not be argumentative overall in order to have one argumentative element, such as one that arises out of a contradiction. Furthermore, you are entitled to debate your sources even if they are in agreement, so long as you can do so logically and eloquently. Be forewarned, however, that while some instructors are pleased to see a student who boldly takes on a debate of their own accord and does it successfully, there are some that see this as an argument against their own ideals. In subjective courses such as the social sciences and liberal arts, instructors have been known to strike down essays that don't happily conform to the standard presentation. It might be best to consult with the instructor first to get a feeling for whether they'd accept sound refutation or if they'd prefer you just follow along.

In general, however, showing that you're aware of a conflicting viewpoint amongst sources is a good thing, and showing that you can deal with it within the essay is the mark of a good writer.

Extra Research

As stated before, it's not a good idea to pad out your bibliography with texts you didn't really read. It is, however, almost always useful to go beyond the recommended reading list to find other information. The only exception is if you're specifically instructed not to go beyond certain sources.

Part of this is knowing what other sources exist. There is, of course, the standard selection of library resources, including reference books (encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.) and focused texts. Most students today are also aware of Internet resources, although it should be mentioned again that Internet sources carry a greater risk of invalidity since anyone can web-publish anything. What many students seem to miss are periodicals and newspapers. Newspapers tend to be fairly current, but if your library stores old papers (often on microfilm), you can access old articles that can significantly benefit your essay. For example, for an essay I wrote on the racism inherent in the Quebec Separatist movement, I was able to cite several newspaper articles in which Separatist leaders made clearly racist remarks, as well as instances when the party issued anti-Native edicts or spoke out against certain ethnic groups that weren't "French enough." Without those articles, I only had a couple of anti-Separatist sources to work from. By adding in those direct bits of evidence, I made the essay's hypothesis difficult to dispute.

Finding newspaper and periodical articles involves knowing how to use things like their respective indices. If you don't know how or where to do this, ask your librarian. Any reasonable-sized library, particularly at a university, should have a subscription to a periodical index that will list, year by year, all of the articles printed in listed magazines. You then find the magazine in storage and read the article. Some magazines and newspapers also have searchable web archives, but most still do not at this time.

There may be other sources that you aren't aware of, particularly in a big university library. Many such libraries run short, free courses on how to do research and where things are in that particular building. Taking such a course might seem like a dull way to spend a few hours, but the reward of much improved essay grades should serve as incentive.

Graphics and Tables

Graphics and tables can enhance your essay by adding a visual element to explain complex concepts. Here are some examples of how they can be used well, so long as they are relevant to the essay:

The essential question to ask yourself when considering using a graphic or table is: is this directly relevant to my essay's focus, or is it just a neat way to fill some space? Only include it if it helps the reader understand your points better. Never use a blurry, faded, or otherwise hard to read graphic or table. That is pointless and irritating. In our example of Joe Smith, it might be relevant to include a labeled diagram of a widgetiscope. It would be superfluous, however, to include a picture of Smith's childhood home, unless there was something about the architecture that was directly relevant to his life.

Do not use a graphic or table in place of writing. Only use it to enhance a written explanation. For example, if your essay assignment requires you to demonstrate a mathematical proof, it is not acceptable to photocopy a text book's page on the subject. Your instructor wants to see that you understand what you're talking about, not that you're skilled at using a photocopier, scanner, or word processor.

Clipart has its uses in visual presentations, but almost never belongs in a formal essay. Essays are primarily linguistic presentations, and visual elements should be minor enhancements, not major detractions. Resist the urge to use every nifty clipart graphic you can find. Similarly, resist the urge to use different fonts all over the place or different colours of font. These things are fun to play with, but they make an essay very difficult to read. You don't want to do anything that takes attention away from what you're saying.

If you do use a graphic or table that isn't your own creation, you must attribute it as you would any other quotation. Copying a picture from a website into your essay without attributing it is plagiarism, regardless of whether or not the website had a legitimate claim to the picture. Photocopying a picture of Smith's notes from his biography and including it in your essay without attribution is plagiarism. It implies you gained access to his notes yourself, and denies credit to the author of the source that legally reproduced it.

Use of Humour, Puns, and Clever Twists

Sometimes your essay topic will lend itself to puns and twists galore. For example, in an essay on the circulatory system, it might be difficult to resist the temptation to declare that you're going to get to the "heart" of the matter. Try hard to resist such puns. Most of the time, they're gags your instructor has read far too often, and they ceased to be funny long ago (assuming they were ever funny in the first place).

That being said, humour can add to an essay in some cases. Don't use humour at all if your essay is on an unpleasant topic such as the Holocaust or hunger in Africa. But if the essay topic is light and you conceive of a bit of humour that would genuinely add to it, go ahead and put it in. To test if the humour is effective and worthwhile, however, have a friend or two read the essay first. If they groan about the humour or miss it entirely, take it out. What you thought was a clever twist on some element of your essay may be so referential, so obscure, or so vague that nobody else gets it.

If you do use humour, use it sparingly. Dave Barry and other professional humour writers can get away with a joke every paragraph, but if you do this in your essay it is likely to come off as flippant as opposed to funny.

If you can truly make your instructor laugh with your well-placed, well-constructed humour, you're likely to earn a good grade. You're also likely a good enough writer to not have needed this entire set of lessons in the first place.

The best way to illustrate some of these qualities is to look at good and bad examples from real essays, and discuss how the bad ones could be improved.

Part 8 - Examples of Good and Bad Writing

Learning to write often works best by example. The following are excerpts from nine first-year student essays. Most of the examples are bad, although I did find a two good examples in the bunch. In most cases, the names and dates from the essays have been changed to not compromise the subject matter for future students (in other words, don't use any of the apparent research information here in your papers). I have tried to categorize the errors as best as I could. Errors or bad portions are usually bolded to help you identify them.

Good Examples

Smith was a religious, Christian man. His notion of monads included contextual references to God. He believed that God controls the harmony of life through these monads.

The essay then goes on to discuss these monads in a Christian context. Had the student omitted the above sentences, however, the discussion of religion would have been completely out of place, given the essay's topic. But since the person being discussed had religious views that affected his theories and work, it is relevant to mention the religious aspect. Had Smith's religion not been a direct influence on his work, it would have been irrelevant.

Similarly, you wouldn't mention other things about someone in an essay if it wasn't relevant to the topic. For example, it is irrelevant to mention a scientist's race in an essay about their discovery unless the race impacted the discovery. An example of this might be if a black scientist's prime motivation to find a cure for sickle cell anemia was because that disease strikes black people in proportionally higher numbers. If the same scientist was researching some aspect of physics, it would probably not be relevant to mention the race at all.

An introductory paragraph:

On March 4, 1849, John Smith was born to Anna Bradcock Smith and James Smith. Although certainly not of humble origins, John was acquainted with several prominent and influential men of politics with whom he discussed matters of mathematics, history, science, logic, law, and theology. Smith was brilliant in each of these fields, but he became known particularly for his contributions in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, and logistics. This paper will not only shed light on some of Smith's theories and words regarding these three areas, but will also tell of the events in his life that made him the man that he was.

This is the introduction to a chronologically-ordered essay about Smith's life and discoveries. As such, the choice to begin with his date of birth is a good one. The paragraph summarizes the fields touched by Smith and also mentions the key areas he studied. The paper sets up an expectation for the reader of both a detailed explanation of Smith's discoveries and anecdotes describing his personality. The sentence structure is grammatically sound and flows well.

Bad Examples

Bad Grammar

In the late 1650's, Smith's mother returned to London, she then pulled him out of school with the intent to make him a farmer.

  1. Apostrophes indicate possessiveness or contractions, not plurality. The decade is the 1650s.
  2. The sentence is a run-on. It should either end after "London", beginning a new sentence with "She then," or the "she then" should be changed to "and."
  3. To make someone a farmer is to create a farmer for them. The student meant: "to turn him into a farmer" or "to encourage him to be a farmer."

Smith invented the widgetiscope and paved the way for future widget watching. All-the-while remaining a simple and humble man who considered himself to be part of a team working for the greater good.

  1. The bolded part is not a complete sentence. The entire thing should be one sentence.
  2. "All-the-while" does not require hyphenation.

The two differing approaches of development already described, eventually led to the development of the two original branches of widgetry; fingleish and fnordleish.

This sentence is mispunctuated. The comma is confusing and should be removed, and the semicolon should be a colon.

Awkward Wording

Another of Smith's ideas was the method of differentiation. The university re-opened after the plague in 1667. Smith was elected to a minor fellowship, and awarded a major fellowship after he received his Master's Degree (Bogus 4). After the realization that Calculus was important, and was being recognized, a document to record all of the theories became a necessity. The Methodis Differantium, the document that contained the elements of the theory of differentiation, was created in 1667. Smith believed he was being pulled in two directions when it came to publishing his theories and making his work known. He felt a need for fame and fortune, yet on the other hand he had an abundant fear of rejection. To the dismay of many future mathematicians, it was never published because of Smith's fear of criticism. Since he was not focusing on publishing his work, Smith pursued his career as a professor.

This so-called paragraph is an utter mess. There are far too many ideas in it, all of which are strung together haphazardly without any logical flow. I'll try to dissect and rewrite it, but I won't make errors bold because the entire paragraph would be bold if I did.

First, let's pick out the different topics being addressed:

  1. the method of differentiation
  2. the university re-opening after the plague
  3. Smith's ascension through the university ranks
  4. the need of a document detailing differentiation, which was eventually created
  5. Smith's mental state, desires and fears

Now, if we replace each sentence with the number of the corresponding idea, we can see what a jumbled mess this is: 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 4, 3.

Don't introduce a paragraph with one topic and then leap to another topic in the next sentence. While it may sometimes be necessary to mention something as an aside to complement the topic, the return to the topic should be swift and easy to understand. Don't bounce around within the paragraph as this student has done.

Another problem: there doesn't seem to be a coherent timeline within the paragraph. Did the university re-open in 1667, or was the plague in 1667? Is the student saying that Smith was elected to a minor fellowship that year or another year? Similarly, when did the major fellowship and Master's Degree come in? It's unlikely to have all happened in one year, though it is possible. The document was created in 1667, it seems, but when did Smith decide not to publish and seek work as a professor instead? Also 1667? It sounds like that was a very busy year for poor Smith!

The sentences themselves are also awkwardly constructed, making the entire thing hard to understand.

I'll make some assumptions regarding the confusing date information. Here is how this information should have been presented:

Smith's ideas on the method of differentiation were gaining recognition in the mathematical community, which made it necessary for him to produce a document detailing all of his theories on the subject. Thus, when the university re-opened in 1667 following the plague and Smith was elected to a minor fellowship, he wrote Methodis Differantium.

Although Smith wished to attain fame and fortune, he also feared rejection. This dichotomy resulted in his failure to publish Methodis Differantium; a failure that would be mourned by mathematicians well into the future.

Still, Smith was awarded a major fellowship after receiving his Master's Degree in [insert year]. Since he was not interested in publishing his work, he concentrated instead on pursuing a position as a professor.

Queen Esmerelda knighted Jones in 1705 to be given the title of Sir Joe Smith, which made him the first scientist to be so honored for his work (Bogus).

  1. The phrase "to be given" is awkward here. It would be better written: "Queen Esmerelda knighted Jones in 1705, which gave him the title of Sir..."
  2. Who else could be honoured for Smith's work other than Smith? It should say: "...which made him the first man to be honored for scientific work."
  3. There probably should be a page number listed in the citation.

Jones had a main idea of analytic geometry.

What does this mean? Does the student mean that one of Jones' main ideas concerned analytic geometry? Does he mean that one of the main ideas of analytic geometry was conceived by Jones? Or does he mean something else entirely? This makes little sense and is very awkward.

Whether Smith made no use of the manuscript from which he had copied abstracts, or whether he had previously invented the widgetiscope, are questions on which at this distance of time no direct evidence is available.

  1. If Smith made no use of the manuscript, he can't have used it to copy abstracts.
  2. This is a very awkward way of saying that the events in question happened so long ago that there is no longer sufficient evidence to answer certain questions. It would be better written:

Questions as to whether Smith made further use of the manuscript from which he copied abstracts or whether he had previously invented the widgetiscope are rooted so far in the past that it is impossible to gather sufficient direct evidence to provide answers.

This is still a bit awkward. It's best when broken up into smaller sentences:

There are still questions as to whether Smith made further use of the manuscript from which he copied abstracts or whether he had previously invented the widgetiscope. Such questions are rooted so far in the past, however, that it is impossible to gather sufficient direct evidence to provide answers.

Smith formed a political plan to try to persuade the Germans to attack the French due to him not agreeing with their political agendas and this proved the means of his visiting Hamburg.

  1. "Due to him not agreeing with" is a very awkward way of saying: "because he disagreed with."
  2. The second bolded part should be a separate sentence.
  3. "Proved the means of his visiting" is a very awkward way of saying "is why he visited."


Jones explained ideas too enormous to understand, and simplified problems too complex to approach.

Not only is this hyperbole, it's also logically impossible. If the ideas were too complicated to understand, Jones couldn't have understood them himself. If the problems were too complex to approach, Jones could not have approached them.

More samples of hyperbole can be found in the collection of items with several errors.

Mismatched Words, Phrases, and Pronouns

After marrying Elizabeth, Smith's father fell ill for several months. After no sign of recovery, a lawyer was summoned to the manor. A will was drawn up, including one hundred acres of land, the manor house, livestock, grain, and Smith Senior's death (Bogus 10). His mother gave birth to Smith three months after Smith senior died. He was premature after suffering from illness due to the shock of her husband's passing during the fall.

  1. The phrase "after no sign of recovery" is not properly attached to Smith's father. Instead, it is saying that the lawyer did not recover from something.
  2. A will does not include land, a house, etc. It states to whom such things are bequeathed. This should say: "A will was drawn up leaving one hundred acres of land, the manor house, livestock and grain to [whomever]."
  3. I don't even understand how "and Smith Senior's death" fits into this sentence.
  4. "His" in the sentence "His mother gave birth..." refers to the antecedent "Smith Senior." Thus, Smith Senior's mother gave birth to Smith Senior's son. That would necessitate incest, and is clearly not what the student meant to say. They should have simply said "Elizabeth gave birth..."
  5. Who else but someone's mother gives birth to them anyway?
  6. Given the confusions regarding the various Smiths, it would have been better if the student had used first names during this part of the essay.
  7. There is inconsistency in capitalization. It is Smith Senior once, and Smith senior another time.
  8. The "he" in "he was premature" again refers to the wrong antecedent. Smith Senior was not premature.
  9. Smith did not suffer illness due to the shock of Smith Senior's passing. Elizabeth did. This sentence says that Smith suffered the illness.
  10. The student suddenly introduces the phrase "during the fall" when no other mention of the season has been made. This could be confused with Smith Senior dying from a fall.

Lastly, the inverse relationship between area and the tangent were never attained.

"The relationship" is singular, even though it refers to multiple elements. Thus, the verb "were" should be singular as well, and changed to "was."

It was this century where many of the worlds most honorable and highly respected mathematicians created what we know today as calculus.

  1. A century is not a place, it is a section of time. Say it is a "place where..." or a "time when..." In this case, "It was this century when..."
  2. Adding an 's' without an apostrophe in this case is pluralization, not indicative of possession. The student means "world's."

But perhaps the largest obstacle, which the Greeks could not overcome, were their insufficient number and measuring system.

"Were" is plural, but "obstacle" and "system" are singular. It should be "was."

Tragically at the age of six, Smith's father died.

This says that Smith's father died at the age of six. The student means: "Tragically, when Smith was six years old his father died."

Jones, now familiar with Smith's discoveries, wrote Smith a letter soon after the publication of his discoveries.

After the publication of whose discoveries: Jones' or Smith's?

Misused Words and Phrases

Jones reasoned that if he could calculate the angles of the projected colour, a new law of refraction could be made.

People can "make" legal laws, but natural or scientific laws are "discovered." To "make" a new law of refraction, Jones would have to alter physics.

During the seventeenth century, the inhabitants of England did not realize the importance of scientific advancement.

  1. "Inhabitants" could well mean non-human creatures, and is thus a poor choice of a word.
  2. Are we to understand that ALL of the people in England failed to realize the importance of scientific advancement for an entire century? It would have been better if the student had said "most people in England."

At the current time, the dominant belief was that light traveled in wave.

  1. The current time is the moment the reader is reading the sentence. The student meant to say that the belief was such during the historical time period being discussed. "Current" should be omitted.
  2. The phrase "in wave" has an error. It should either be "in waves" or "in a wave." Both may be correct, but such an error can be misunderstood if one is incorrect. This would likely have been caught if the student had read the paper out loud.

Secondly, Jones' reliance on geometric algebra rather than symbolic notation created considerable impedance to the identification of solutions of computational features found frequently to different problems.

Here is an example of a student not knowing the proper meaning of a word. Impedance means opposition to the flow of electric current. It does not mean the same as to impede, which is to be an obstacle. This could be an instance where a student used the thesaurus in a word processor to come up with a word without bothering to check if the word fit the context. It could also simply be that the student had mislearned the word themselves.

Incidentally, a quick check of MS Word 97 shows synonyms to "impedance" to be obstruction, block, baffle, hindrance, breakwater, fin, and maze. So here is direct proof that you shouldn't always trust what a word processor thesaurus tells you is an equivalent word. Be diligent and look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary before using them in your essay.

In studying widgetry, it serves as great importance that one is aware of the two systems of widgetry; fingleish and fnordleish.

Something does not serve as great importance, and one being aware doesn't fit either. This is a student trying to sound fancy but instead making no sense. The sentence should read:

In studying widgetry, one should be aware of the two systems of widgetry; fingleish and fnordleish.

General Sloppiness

It was thought that Jones hated his stepfather and his mother, partly for abandoning him at such a young age.

  1. Who thought so?
  2. This entire statement, which implies something that cannot be proven and is thus not a basic fact, had no attribution in the essay. Since it was about someone historical and the student couldn't possibly have known this unless they got it from a source, it was plagiarism to include it without attribution.

Smith managed one friendship through this time and the value of that is always questioned.

  1. Who is questioning the value? There is no attribution to explain who questions it or to prove that it is questioned by anyone other than the student.
  2. What precisely is being questioned? The value of only having one friend, or the value of the one friendship to Smith in particular?

...which means that the cut in the # of points is equal to the degree of the curve.

Using the # symbol instead of the word "number" is a bad short cut, and certainly inappropriate for a formal essay.

Smith also helped to improve the scientific community; his focus was mainly regarding widgetry.

How does a focus on a subject help to improve a community? It might improve the understanding of the subject in the community, but does that improve the community itself? This is a badly worded assertion. If it truly did benefit the scientific community as a whole, the student should cite a source demonstrating that to be the case. No attribution was present.

In one day, John's attitude towards school changed for the better. A boy ranked just above him kicked him in the stomach. At the end of the day John challenged the boy to a fight. Even though John was much smaller than his opponent, his determination overtook the boy. Winning the fight was still not enough. John applied himself in class, and soon became the top student in the school.

  1. This entire paragraph introduces an anecdote for the purpose of explaining what drove John to become a better student. Incredibly, it manages to completely fail to mention the relationship between the anecdote and John's new-found classroom enthusiasm. The relationship is implied and the reader can guess that John wished to beat the boy in more than just a physical fight, and thus worked hard to outrank the boy in the classroom, but that is not stated.
  2. The paragraph is very choppy and the sentences do not flow well. Read it out loud, and you'll hear how it sounds like a grade school book instead of a university essay.

During this time, Smith constructed a water clock. He constructed the clock out of an old box.

This is choppy. It could be easily combined into one sentence.

Jones became began to study motion.

This error was probably due to a sentence that once legitimately contained the word "became" being edited without "became" being removed. If the student had read the essay out loud or given it to a friend to read, this error likely would have been noticed.

Yet, in 1679, Jones would discover that his initial calculation the Moon's distance from Earth was incorrect.

Here is another example of a simple error of omission that could have been caught if the student had read the essay aloud or given it to a friend to read. The word "of" should be between "calculation" and "the." That one small error makes the entire sentence awkward and confusing. If the instructor has to reread the sentence to try to understand its meaning, the flow of the essay is interrupted. If this happens often enough in the essay, it gives an overall bad impression on what otherwise might be a very good paper in terms of research.

More examples of errors that could have been caught if the students had bothered to read their essay:

According to hi diary...

One of Smith's main contribution was his use of...

Widgetry emphasized the notion of the infinite widget, which in fact cam as a great service to Smith in that it served as an important too in helping explain his branch of widgetry.

Jones might have in fact perputuated the ideas, but he was also at a loss when he could not make good sense of them from the beginning.

Admiration for Smith grew in the filed of widgetry.

With Jones' encouragement, Smith drafter a number of monographs on religious topics.

Smith considers out universe to be a gravitational system...

On August 10, 1777, Jones was ent a letter from...

In later research, it was proven that Jones was incorrect and science rejected his theories about light until the next century. Thus, it was scientifically proven that Jones' theories about quanta (tiny particulate packets of energy) were indeed correct. The wave formulation was also correct.

  1. When was this "later research?" Who performed the research? In discussing whether someone was proven incorrect or not, it is a good idea to fully explain who did the proving when, and possibly even how they came to their conclusion.
  2. These sentences contradict each other. Was Jones proven incorrect or correct? Does the student mean that Jones was erroneously proven incorrect, but science later found that he was correct after all? Or was Jones correct about some things and not others?
  3. The use of "Thus" implies causality. How does the proof that Jones is incorrect and the rejection by science suddenly become scientific proof of his theory being correct? Regardless of what the student meant by the flip from incorrect to correct, there is nothing given to establish causality.

Regardles of whether...

It's disappointing to see such sloppiness as this in an essay. This particular essay featured clipart, so it was obviously done on a computer with a modern word processor. It clearly wasn't spell-checked. Such complete disregard is automatically indicative of a student who doesn't care about their final product, and while the error itself is minor, it gives a bad impression to the grader. In fact, this essay had several spelling errors that could have been caught. That's inexcusable at the university level.

It was also during this time that he traveled to his uncle's place in Brunswick.

"Place" is colloquial. Use "home," "apartment," "residence" or other such appropriate word instead.

Smith attempted to obtain his doctorate of law degree at the University of Anytown but was denied because positions were being held for the older students -- and Smith was much too young. Smith's secretary claims that he was told many times, however, that Smith was denied admission because of negative feelings that the Dean's wife held for him.

  1. Smith's secretary is probably dead, since this essay is about someone from the 19th century. Therefore, they no longer claim anything. It should be past tense.
  2. Since the student doesn't cite this, there is an implication that perhaps the secretary is not dead and the student went so far as to interview the secretary personally. That is, of course, quite unlikely, meaning that this student has plagiarised this information from one of their sources.

The following are a few concepts that form the basis of Leibnizian calculus: [followed by three bulleted paragraphs comprised mostly of direct quotation]

Using bullets in a formal essay is rarely appropriate. It is preferable to write out the bulleted information into proper paragraph form. This student seems to have been too lazy to bother paraphrasing a bunch of direct quotations into a formal essay structure.

Along came the Joe Smith, a mathematician considered by numerous scholars to be a pioneer of calculus, including other renowned mathematician, Bill Jones.

  1. "The" Joe Smith? There has only been one?
  2. The student means "another," not "other." Sloppy.

The first page of the essay starts with:

have been developed (5).

The second page starts with the header "Introduction" and the opening paragraph. Clearly, the student stapled the pages out of order. What a sloppy mistake! Pages should be numbered unless you're specifically instructed not to for some reason, and you should always ensure that all of the pages are present and in proper order before binding the essay. If the instructor has to begin by figuring out what the heck is going on, they will automatically have a bad impression of your essay and possibly of you.

Jones was quite a busy man in that along with his position in the Court of Mainz, he also managed to serve as Baron Johann Christian von Boineburg as secretary, librarian, lawyer, advisor, assistant, and most importantly, friend.

  1. "Quite a busy man" is a bit colloquial. "A busy man" would do.
  2. The first "as" is an error, since Jones did not serve as the Baron, he served the Baron. This may have been caught if the student had read their essay out loud.

Several Errors Combined

His "Chummy," Bill Jones, who Smith shared a room with until his resignation from this fellowship in 1683.

  1. "Chummy" should only be included if it was Smith's actual word for Jones. If this is the case, it is a quotation from a source and should be cited. If not, it is colloquial and should just say "His friend Bill Jones..."
  2. "Who" should be "whom" in this case. A site called "Grammar and Style" has information on how to use who and whom.
  3. This isn't even a complete sentence.

Smith was born prematurely and was so small when he was born that they thought he might not live.

  1. Repeating that he was born is redundant.
  2. Who does "they" refer to? Doctors? Parents? Relatives? Townsfolk? It is a pronoun without an antecedent.

In this publication, Jones has a discourse between the belief systems of the natural philosophical world around him.

  1. "Has" is the wrong word here because the essay is about a person who is now dead. Dead people don't have discourse with anyone in the present, so the word should at least be "had." But even "had" is awkward, and a better word would be "wrote."
  2. "Discourse" means to converse, especially orally. One does not speak orally in a publication. It is written. This word should be omitted.
  3. "Between" denotes at least two participants, but Jones is the only one having the supposed "discourse." This too should be omitted.
  4. "Natural philosophical world" is confusing. Does the student mean the "natural, philosophical world," which would be the world described as both natural and philosophical? Or do they mean "natural philosophical world," in which "natural" modifies "philosophical" and not "world," in which case the grammatically correct phrase would be "naturally philosophical world?"

This would be better written as:

In this publication, Jones wrote of the belief systems of the natural, philosophical world around him.

or, depending on the answer to the fourth point:

In this publication, Jones wrote of the belief systems of the naturally philosophical world around him.

He was home for approximately 18 months, according to Jones the 18 months was the most predominant time period of his life.

  1. This is a run-on sentence. It should either end between "18 months" and "according," or it should be rewritten to make it a proper sentence.
  2. "18 months" is repeated for no reason.
  3. "18 months" is plural, so it should be "18 months were" not "18 months was."
  4. "Predominant" means superior especially in power or numbers. Something cannot be "most superior." "Most" should be omitted.
  5. "Predominant" is not the best word in this case anyway. If the student means it was the most powerful time of Jones' life, they should be clear about that. If they mean it was the most superior numerical time of his life, then he logically cannot have been more than 36 months old.

Simpson was content after his ability to reproduce Smith's experiment. Jones was not that easy, the two men fought constantly.

  1. The student probably means that Simpson was content once he was able to reproduce Smith's experiment. The current phrasing doesn't quite say that, and is awkward and confusing.
  2. Jones was "not that easy" to what? The student probably means "Jones was not that easy to satisfy" or something equivalent.
  3. This is a run-on sentence. It should end after "easy," or be rewritten to be grammatically correct.
  4. Which two men? Simpson and Jones or Smith and Jones?

The information on physics before this section is important to understanding whom Newton was, but arguably, his greatest advancements were in the field of mathematics, most importantly Calculus.

  1. Incorrect use of "whom." Should be "who." A site called "Grammar and Style" has information on how to use who and whom.
  2. There should not be a comma between "arguably" and "his."
  3. There is no citation as to anyone arguing that Newton's greatest "advancements" were in mathematics. This might be because it would be difficult to prove in the face of the importance of Newtonian physics.
  4. "Advancements" is probably the wrong word. "Achievements" or "discoveries" would be better. Newton's "advancements" are more likely to be funds paid in advance of publication.
  5. The addition of "most importantly" is awkward. "Particularly" would have been a better word.
  6. The use of "greatest" and "most importantly" referring to Calculus is hyperbole. Given that this essay was for a Calculus class, it sounds like a kiss-up. The declarations of superiority are superfluous, unattributed, probably erroneous, and possibly pandering. It's all very ugly.

A concluding sentence:

Smith's great work, theories, and studies will continue to live on forever in the ever-changing world of science and mathematics.

  1. How can the student know that Smith's work will "live on" forever? That's an impossible assertion to make.
  2. Work, theories and studies don't "live." They exist, but they are not organic creatures.
  3. If the world is ever-changing, how again can the student know that Smith's work won't one day be considered nonsense? Or lost entirely?
  4. "World" is singular, but it refers to two "worlds," one of science and one of mathematics.
  5. This conclusion reeks of hyperbole. (So does the phrase "reeks of hyperbole," but this is not a formal essay.)

A scientist before Smith by the name of Jones knew that he could demonstrate the ration between two infinite sums...

  1. The phrasing here is a bit awkward. It would be better phrased: "Jones, a predecessor of Smith, knew that..."
  2. "Ration" is the wrong word. The student meant "ratio." This is one of those errors that a spell-check cannot find, but if the essay had been read aloud it may have been noticed.

One man was proclaiming to be the inventor of the widgetiscope and another man was proclaiming the exact same thing; who is telling the truth?

  1. The main problem here is the change in tense. You can't go from "was" to "is" if the subject remains fixed in time. Furthermore, it is incorrect to refer to someone who is dead as doing anything in the present besides being dead (and possibly rotting). A dead person is not telling anything right now, but they were in the past.
  2. Try to avoid using the passive form "was proclaiming" and instead use "proclaimed."
  3. This particular statement is also bad because of the subject matter. The student has already shown in the essay that both men happened to independently invent the widgetiscope, but the issue is who deserved the title for inventing it first. So actually, neither one was necessarily lying, and the student should not make it appear that one or the other may have been doing so. You must be careful not to libel people.
  4. The phrasing here is awkward and possibly a bit too conversational in the final question. A better way of writing this would be:

    Two men proclaimed to be the inventor of calculus, but only one could be given the credit.

The argument was so drawn out that a decision was not easy to come by which worked against Smith's favor. Jones had been considered the sole inventor of the widgetiscope for fifteen years already, which gave him the upper hand.

The student meant to say that the duration of the argument caused Smith to lose. But because the student failed to put the necessary comma between the bolded words, this sentence actually says, by means of a complicated string of multiple negatives, that it was not easy to come to a decision against Smith, meaning he won. This sentence would be better worded this way:

Because the argument took so long, Smith lost.

But then, at the beginning of the next paragraph, the student writes:

The argument took years to unravel and never really came to a definitive decision.

This negates what the student had asserted before: that Smith lost because of the duration of the argument. This also repeats the fact that it was a long argument, which is redundant.

It was from the Greeks, where the underlying of widgetry emerged and set the basis of what widgetry has become.

  1. The Greeks are a people, not a place, so things come from "whom," not "where."
  2. The comma in this sentence should not be there. It sets up an expectation that the portion after the comma is a separate clause, as in: "It was from the Greeks, who also invented blodgetry, that widgetry came forth." Note that because the "who" is in the separate clause, it should not be "whom."
  3. The underlying what? You can't just say the underlying of widgetry. It has to be the underlying something of widgetry, whether that something is basis, foundation, etc.

Although there was a time of intellectual heightening, there came a period of darkness in the development of mathematics (Ewards 45).

  1. "Intellectual heightening" is an icky, awkward phrase. "Intellectual development" would have been much better.
  2. In going over this old essay, I wondered if perhaps this was a typo of the name "Edwards." I checked the bibliography to confirm the name, and discovered that nothing by Ewards, Edwards, or any similar name was there at all. Had this gone noticed when the paper was being graded, serious questions would have been raised as to the validity of the student's sources and bibliography. Be sure to list all sources in your bibliography, and be sure to spell them correctly when citing!

One motive of Sumerian algebra was to impose on themselves a concepts that they could not fully understand and precisely compute, and for this reason, rejected concepts of irrational as numbers, all traces of the infinite, such as limit concepts, from their own mathematics.

  1. "Motive" applies to "Sumerian algebra," not "Sumerians." Therefore, that motive cannot be imposed on "themselves." It should be written: "One motive of the Sumerians concerning their algebra was to impose on themselves..." although that is still an awkward phrase.
  2. "Concepts" should not be plural. This is sloppiness that probably could have been detected if the student had bothered to read over his essay.
  3. The sentence should end after "compute." A new sentence should begin, "For this reason..."
  4. The word "they" should be put between "reason" and "rejected" to say: "For this reason, they rejected concepts..."
  5. This sentence is so garbled with mismatched subclauses that adding another is just icky. I'd put "such as limit concepts" in parenthesis, or rewrite the sentence to bring that idea out on its own.

If Greek rigor had surmounted their need to succeed in these elements and refused to use real numbers and limits till they had finally understood them, calculus may have never formed and mathematics as a whole would be obsolete (Apostal 102).

  1. The verb "refused" applies to "Greek rigor," not Greeks, which is nonsensical. Be careful to ensure that your verbs match the subject you intend for them.
  2. Don't use "till" when you mean "until." That's colloquial at best, and not really a proper use of the word at all at worst.
  3. The proper phrase is "have never been formed." To say something never formed begs the question: What didn't it form?
  4. Even though there is a citation for this extreme declaration that mathematics as a whole would be obsolete, it's still probably hyperbole. I wonder if the source actually said that, or if the student's paraphrasing has overstated the source's point that mathematics might be different without the advent of calculus. Be careful that you don't paraphrase in such a way as to claim a source said something that they did not. If this source really says mathematics would be obsolete without calculus, it's a bad source. Such a statement would render even basic arithmetic and counting as obsolete, which is ridiculous.

Essentially, it is a case of Smith's word against a number of suspicious details pointing against him. He acknowledged possession of a copy of part of one of Jones' manuscripts, on more than one occasion he deliberately altered or added to important documents before publishing them, and a material date I none of his manuscripts had been falsified (1675 had been changed to 1673)(Bogus, 78)

  1. "Essentially" isn't technically incorrect here, but students do have a tendency to use words like "essentially" and "basically" too often. It's somewhat conversational, and possibly colloquial. Try to avoid it unless something is truly essential.
  2. "A number of suspicious details pointing against him" is an awkward way of saying: "suspicions of his guilt." But what the student means is not suspicions, but points of evidence.
  3. When you list several examples of something you've indicated, the way to punctuate it is as follows (note the placement of the colon and subsequent semicolons):

    [Point being made]:[proof 1];[proof 2];[proof 3]; and[proof 4].

    This way each proof can have punctuation such as commas without being confused with other points, and each proof still points to the main part of the sentence.

  4. The "a material date I none of" doesn't seem to make sense at all. I think the whole thing is there in error, but for all I know the student was trying to say something different. I can't believe the student read this over and found it comprehensible.
  5. The parenthetical comment is important enough to be in the sentence properly. The student likely put the information in parentheses because the sentence was too awkwardly full of commas and clauses already. Had the student properly punctuated the list of evidence, they would have been able to put this date information in as part of a proof segment.
  6. The sentence has no period, which is sloppy.

This entire thing should be rewritten to say:

It is a case of Smith's word against the evidence of his guilt: he acknowledged possession of a copy of Jones' manuscripts; on more than one occasion he deliberately altered or added to important documents before publishing them; and his manuscripts had been falsified by changing 1675 to 1673 (Bogus, 78).

After quoting a dictionary definition:

The editors of the famous dictionary are probably unaware of the fact that they have just committed a cardinal sin in the mathematical world, in that they only described fingleish widgetry, and failed to include an explanation of fnordleish widgetry.

  1. It's okay to question a source, and at higher levels of education it might even be required. But if you're going to do it, be careful to do it well and with evidence. This just sounds presumptuous. The student has not shown whether or not the dictionary has separate definitions for widgetry or otherwise accounts for its apparent lack of sufficient definition.
  2. Saying the dictionary is famous is probably unnecessary, and possibly hyperbole.
  3. A "cardinal sin" is a sin of fundamental importance. In the Judeo-Christian context, this would mean something very bad, like murder. Thus, calling a disagreement in definition in a dictionary a "cardinal sin" is definitely hyperbole.
  4. Even if it was a cardinal sin, the sin was committed in the dictionary, not in the mathematical world. The student meant "against the mathematical world."

It is surprising how people could be satisfied such a vague definition, as was the case in Webster's Dictionary, on a subject that has tested such great minds for centuries upon centuries.

  1. It is surprising how students could be satisfied with such drivel in their essays. That sounds nasty, doesn't it? That's because it is. Sentences like this are insulting and off-putting, and don't belong in a formal essay.
  2. "Such great minds" requires an example. The word "such" should be omitted.
  3. "Centuries upon centuries" is redundant. Just say centuries and leave it at that.

Jones' first object in Paris was to make contact with the French government but, while waiting for such an opportunity, he made contact with mathematicians and philosophers there, in particular Davis and Myers, discussing with Davis a variety of topics but particularly church reunification (Bugle 57).

  1. An "object" is a thing. The student means "Jones' first objective..."
  2. This is a bad run-on. It should be broken up like this:

Jones' first objective in Paris was to make contact with the French government, but while waiting for an opportunity to do so, he made contact with mathematicians and philosophers such as Davis and Myers. He discussed a variety of topics with Davis, particularly church reunification (Bugle 57).

Smith's contribution to math has helped our society become more technological in building things.

  1. In this particular case, Smith made many contributions, not just one.
  2. "Math" is the colloquial version of "mathematics."
  3. Did Smith's contributions only help "our society?" What about other societies?
  4. "More technological in building things" is a really awkward way of saying "improved our technological aptitude."

Undoubtedly, Jones was one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived and this paper will demonstrate that, starting from his childhood until his death.

  1. Smith may have been a genius, but to blow that up to "one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived" is hyperbole. Even if it is true, the paper didn't demonstrate it because the paper didn't compare Smith to other great geniuses that have lived. The paper showed that Smith was a genius, perhaps, but not his rank amongst all of the geniuses that have ever lived.
  2. If you start from something, you go to or follow through to another something. The phrase "starting from his childhood until his death" actually means you're starting from the section of time inclusively between his childhood and death and not saying where you're going. Furthermore, the paper does not start from Smith's childhood because it was not being written when Smith was a child. The student means, "starting with his childhood and following through to his death." That is still awkward, and the sentence would be best written:

Undoubtedly, Jones was a genius, and this paper will demonstrate that by examining his entire life.

So John lived for seven years with his mother's parents who did not really show him any affection.

  1. "So" in this context is colloquial and should be omitted.
  2. This really should be cited. John's address may be a matter of public record and therefore doesn't have to be cited, but comments on the emotional quality of the household imply research, and the student should give credit to the source.
  3. "Really" is colloquial, and should be omitted.

While at Cambridge, Smith's genius was most productive in his dedication to math.

  1. Who is Smith's genius? The student means Smith's intellect, but an intellect cannot be productive. It facilitates productivity, but it is not productive itself. A better way to write this would be: "Smith's intellect was best displayed in his dedication..."
  2. "Math" is colloquial. It should be "mathematics."

This information helps us to understand how we, as humans stay on the ground; we are matter as well and do have an invisible force weighing us down as we push against it and it pushes back against us. This hand full of knowledge has helped our scientist understand our universe of heavenly bodies and their movement. It has also allowed scientist to delve further in exploring our galaxy.

  1. Does gravity only affect humans? Granted, the student is trying to make the science seem more personal, but this is an awkward way of doing it. It is also something that seems to indicate an essay geared to children. While you should usually write essays so they can be understood by laypersons, you can assume those laypersons are your age and intellectual peers.
  2. The description of the invisible force is very awkward. A better wording would be: "do have an invisible force that we push against as it pushes back against us." Gravity does not, in fact, weigh people down. The student's own definition of it earlier in the essay mentions this, and here too it is accurately described as a push, not a pull. To add in the bit about it weighing us down is contradictory.
  3. The student means "handful." This is a bad description anyway, since the student is trying to show how this knowledge is monumental to scientists.
  4. Both instances of "scientist" should be pluralized.
  5. One delves further into something, not in it.

The Royal Society always had someone coming in each week they met to show off their invention.

  1. "Always had someone coming in" is colloquial and awkward. It should say: "The Royal Society hosted a guest each week..."
  2. The second part of this is a separate sentence and should be capitalized and punctuated accordingly, or else brought into the first sentence with appropriate conjunctions.
  3. "Show off" is colloquial. "Demonstrate" would be better.
  4. Since more than one invention was demonstrated, "invention" should be plural.

A concluding paragraph:

Jones was a great man who made an impact in all of our lives. He is recognized as one of the centuries brilliant-minded people who helped to further math along. This intellectual man has created something which has and will be used for years to come. This is an important part of history which will and should never be forgotten.

  1. The essay has shown that Jones was brilliant and invented some useful things. It has not, however, demonstrated that he was a "great man." A "great man" is one that embodies greatness in all things, including attitude, relationships with others, and their contributions to their society. Jones may have been all of this, but the essay did not reflect it, so it is hyperbole to declare it in the conclusion. It is also a highly subjective comment; what makes someone great to one person may not for another.
  2. "Centuries" is the plural of "century," not the possessive. The student means "century's." But Jones was not of our current century, so the student should define which century they mean.
  3. Impacts are made on, not in.
  4. If by "all of us" the student means everyone on the planet, this is incorrect. Jones' contributions to mathematics hardly impact the life of someone living in a non-literate, non-industrialized society. Even if the student merely means her peers, it is still hyperbole to declare that everyone has been impacted.
  5. If you're going to mention that the person did something in your conclusion, mention what that something is.
  6. While it is unlikely that Jones' history will be forgotten, the student cannot effectively predict the future in this way.

Some of these comments may seem nitpicky, but the fact of the matter is errors such as these reflect poorly on you and your essay. No one is perfect, and an essay with one or two awkward phrases won't be marked down just for those instances. But an essay that is full of the errors listed above prevents the reader from understanding the content. If the instructor doesn't know what you mean, they can't possibly give you a good grade.

Last updated in February 2005.

Copyright © 2000-2005 Kimberly Chapman. All rights reserved.

This original work is available for distribution, provided the following: it is only distributed in this complete form, it contains my name and copyright, it is not altered during distribution without my consent, and it is not used to generate income for anyone without my consent. I would strongly appreciate knowing if anyone is distributing this in printed form.