Class Consciousness

Stephen W. Potts

Words for the Wise

Words for the Wise

  1. Make sure you have a firm grip on your thesis or overall purpose. State or imply somewhere in your first paragraph the main point you are trying to argue and then stick to it as your argument develops. By the way, a mere list of three points is not a thesis; in fact, in a paper of this length you should have more than three points. Your thesis is an answer to a question you are asking, so treat the thesis as an assertion that needs proof. For that reason, you can’t just say, “In this paper I am going to analyze Beloved” because that doesn’t actually assert anything. Your topic can’t be too broad, and it must propose something that is neither obvious nor inherently unprovable. A poor thesis is the most common reason for a “C” or worse.
  2. Your organization must be orderly and coherent, each paragraph or point following logically from the one before it, each related in some way to your thesis. Do not introduce paragraphs of irrelevant history, biography, or other digressions. Don’t waste time with unnecessary generalities in your introduction, such as reprising the entire history of literature; get to your topic as soon as possible. Each paragraph should handle a logical unit of your argument. Place related points in relationship to one another; avoid redundancy and recycling (e.g., “as mentioned before” or “to go back to the first point”). In your conclusion do not merely summarize your entire paper but provide additional insight and closure. This is a four-page paper, not a five-paragraph paper. A paragraph is on average 100-200 words long, and your paper is 1200-1300 words long. Do the math.
  3. When discussing literary plots, always use the present tense. Use the past tense, however, with historical or biographical facts.
  4. Quotations must be properly tied in to your text. Don’t leave them standing alone. Introduce them with appropriate tags, for instance, “According to Barbara Smith,” or “As one critic observes,” or weave them seamlessly into statements of your own: “Campbell and his followers ‘felt that man was progressing in mastery both of his environment and of himself'” (Gunn 9).
  5. As demonstrated immediately above, citations can be placed parenthetically in the text after the quotation, followed by a period. You need only the page number if you have already mentioned the author; otherwise, use the form (Gunn 9), without commas. Full references should be in your bibliography or “Works Cited” list at the paper’s end. Review a standard stylesheet like the MLA’s for proper form. Every item in your “Works Cited” should actually be quoted or cited in your text.
  6. Underline or italicize the titles of long works, like movies or books (The Bluest Eye); put short works, like short stories, single chapters, poems, and essays, in quotation marks (“The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates”).
  7. American usage dictates that commas and periods go inside quotation marks, semi-colons outside, and single quotation marks inside double marks “when you have a ‘word or more’ quoted inside a quotation.” British usage is opposite, so follow it only if you use non-American English. Don’t confuse commas and semi-colons; they have different functions.
  8. Avoid using “it,” “this,” “these,” “there is,” when nothing specific is being referred to. In fact, always use the most precise, least ambiguous language possible.
  9. Phrases to avoid: “I think,” “I feel,” “I believe,” “In my opinion.” We know you are presenting your judgments; reminding us merely sounds as if you’re unsure of yourself. You want to sound as objective and authoritative as possible.
  10. For a succinct reference on other fine points of English/American usage, consult a standard writer’s reference like The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. MLA formatting is preferred in literature papers. Fortunately, you can find such resources online.
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