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Research Paper Assignment

The Assignment

Of necessity, the instructions for this assignment are somewhat vague. Each student will have to explore different resources and will need to develop an individual approach to the subject. The goal is a brief but detailed exploration of some narrowly defined aspect of the Humanities during the period stretching from the Enlightenment to World War I. These instructions are aimed mainly at distance-learning students, but local students in Pullman should also find much of them useful. The students working in Pullman who can spend time in the library there have a number of advantages in working on the literary and philosophical topics. Distance-learning students can request journal articles and books by e-mail from the library. For information on how to use WSU’s library remotely, see the Distance Degree Library Services page. The DDLS librarians should be able to help you find materials you can use if you phone them at (800) 435-5832.

Note that this is not an Internet-based research assignment. You are expected to use the resources of the WSU libraries, both books and journals. The “request this item” button in Griffin will lead you to a page where you can request items from WSU to be mailed to you. If you have access to a large public library like Seattle Public or a good academic library attached to a college, you may use that with permission from me; but do not try to rely on small local libraries. They will not have the kinds of specialized materials you are expected to use in your research.

It is crucial that you be in constant contact with me about what you are doing, what you are trying, what is working and what is not. I want to have e-mail from you at least every couple of weeks about how your research is going. Any time you run into a problem or have a question, drop me a line at Do not put this assignment off until near the due date–you will certainly not be able to do a satisfactory job at the last moment.


Suggested research paper topics for which you will probably need a large library:

Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary: its composition and reception in the 18th century.
Voltaire’s thought and reputation and the French Revolution.
Voltaire and deism.
The relationship of Baroque music or art to the political structures of the age of Absolutism.
Émile Zola and art.
Romanticism and the French Revolution.
The relationship between Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Influences of
Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra on the 20th century.
Nietzsche’s relationship to the enlightenment, to the romantic movement.


More general topics which can be done from anywhere
(must be chosen from the artists and musicians listed on the syllabus or in assignments for this course)

Any topic dealing with Goethe’s Faust.
Any topic dealing with Zola’s Germinal.
Any topic dealing with Notes from Underground.
The influence of an artist or musician on others. The history of a particular movement in art or music.
The influence of a literary work on a work of art or piece of music.
The reflection of historical events in a piece of art or music.
Other topics relating to art or music, but avoid strictly biographical papers which simply retell the individual’s life without examining his or her works. Many students enjoy working on operas.

There is a list of opera videotapes you can borrow from WSU’s MMS at it’s new webpage.Look up information about the opera that interests you to make sure it was written between 1700 and 1914–the period covered by this course. Then call the DDP librarian at (800) 435-5832 for help in checking out your opera.

All papers on art and music must examine individual works of art and music the writer has seen reproductions of or heard recordings of and describe how they look and sound. Do not treat operas as if they were plays, paying attention only to plot and dialogue.


Steps in doing the assignment

  1. Select your topic and have it approved by me.
  2. Do some background work to find sources and submit an annotated bibliography (a list of sources, with an explanation attached to each one of why it should be useful).
  3. Do your research USING THE WSU LIBRARY.
  4. Write your paper and turn it in.
  5. After I have marked it up, you must revise your paper following my suggestions to improve your grade

See the syllabus for due dates.


Good reference works to check for information
(Note: “Dictionaries” are often actually encyclopedias in disguise.)


For art
The Dictionary of Art
Art Index


For literature
The Humanities Index
Dictionary of Literary Biography
Oxford Companion to French Literature
Oxford Companion to English Literature
Oxford Companion to German Literature

Especially useful are the following massive sets published by Gale Research. If you are lucky enough to find a library that has them, be warned that they are tricky to use. You can also ask Distance Degree Library Services ( or (800) 435-5832 ) to help you use the copies that are on the WSU campus and photocopy and send you the relevant pages. Ask a librarian to show you how. Which set you use is determined by the death date of the author on whom you are doing research. Zola died in the early 20th century, so for information on him you have to look in the third set.

Literature Criticism 1400-1800
Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism
(Note the inconsistency in this title, “literary,” not “literature” like the others.)


For Music

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (available online through Griffin)
Music Index
New Grove Dictionary of Opera

For Philosophy
Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Philosopher’s Index
The Humanities Index (availablee online through Griffin)

If a library lacks one of these, ask a librarian to show you something similar.



Begin by looking up your topic in the Encyclopedia Britannica, available through the WSU Libraries pages here. Note bibliographic citations at the end of the articles you read; these may be sources you’ll want to track down. Other computer-based encyclopedias like Encarta are inadequate for the kind of research you will be doing.

Go to WSU Libraries. This is a huge and powerful database (which may also be available online or on CD-ROM at a library near you), but it needs some care in using it. Many other libraries have bound, printed volumes of this as well. Here are some tips:

Don’t use the MLA bibliography to look for articles about Voltaire or Nietzsche. It is best for literature, not philosophy (see “For Philosophy,” above).

After you do your intial search, you can use the “limit search” button to restrict the search to articles and books in English unless you are fluent in some relevant foreign language. Or, alternatively, when you first enter MLA, you can click on the button marked “Advanced Search” and narrow the search to English before you start.

Entries are given ten at a time. To see the next ten, click on the “Next Page” button.

Ignore references to dissertations. You do not have easy access to these and they are usually not considered authoritative sources.

Using the on-line version, copy and paste the bibliographic data into a word processing document to save you time. You can reformat it later.

Do not assume that all these books and articles are available in the WSU library; but you may well be able to get some of them through Summit.

In the case of journal articles you want from WSU note that many of the online databases such as Project Muse go back only a few years–you will need to search the last 25 or 30 years for many of these topics.

Similarly, if the item you are seeking is actually a chapter in a book rather than in a journal, search for the title of the book it appeared in, not the author or title of the chapter.

In the case of books, use the Griffin Catalog at to search for the author or title. If you have only a subject, but no author or title yet, note that often a keyword search is more effective than a subject start to get started. For instance, to find the English translation of the source of Bizet’s Carmen you need to use “Carmen” and “Merimee” as keywords (you would have read in Grove or the Britannica that Prosper Merimée wrote the original novel).

The MLA Bibliography online covers articles published since 1963, and in the earlier years, many interesting journals were not indexed. But you can read the bibliographies of the articles and books you find here to discover what the classic earlier works are which discuss your topic.

Do not stop at the first few hits. Not all the information you find will be useful. You need to do some background reading on your subject to get a sense of which sources might be helpful. This is the reason for checking the encyclopedia first, before starting your MLA search.

Finally, local students find your materials in the library, and DDP students use the “Request This Item” button in Griffin.

To begin your library research, start at the DDLS website, in the left-hand frame, click on “Article Indexes/Full Text & More,” then on “General & Multidisciplinary.” There are several databases on this page that may be helpful to you, depending on your topic:

1. ArticleFirst (request articles from DDLS)

2. JSTOR (full-text)

3. Oxford English Dictionary (full-text)

4. WorldCat (request items from Interlibrary Loan, or DDLS)

At the bottom of the “General & Multidisciplinary” page, you will find another link to “Humanities” resources. Click on that link, and you will find the following databases which may be useful:

1. Art Abstracts (request articles from DDLS)

2. Arts & Humanities Search (request articles from DDLS)

3. Grove Dictionary of Art (full-text)

4. Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians (full-text)

5. International Index to Music Periodicals (request articles from DDLS)

6. MLA (request articles from DDLS)

7. Project Muse (full-text)

8. ProQuest Direct (many full-text)

Beware of sources dating back before 1950; most of them are out of date. Normally I will not accept such sources. If you are unclear on how to access any citations you find in the above databases, contact DDLS. ( or 1-800-435-5832)

Another service available through Griffin is WorldCat via FirstSearch. Start at the usual Gateway page and click on “Article Indexes/Full Text & More,” then on “General & Multidisciplinary,” then on “FirstSearch.” If you can’t figure out how to create and use login ID and password, ask a librarian. DDP students write Extended Degree Library Services at or phone (800) 435-5832. Once inside FirstSearch, click on the first “Database Areas” link: “Arts & Humanities. Then, under “General Databases,” click on “WorldCat.” This database will give you mostly books, not articles. Some of them may be very old. Beware of sources dating back before 1950. Most of them are out of date. By clicking on “Limit Search” you can limit your search to books dating 1950-1999, or any other two years you want, and while you’re at it, limit the language to English. FirstSearch may tell you whether the book is in the WSU library; but you may also be able to borrow a book we don’t own from another library near you or through the Interlibrary Loan service of your local library. This latter option, however, can be a very slow process, so you need to plan weeks in advance if you want to try it.

A faster alternative is Summit, a free interlibrary loan service for certain Washington and Oregon libraries only. This can be especially valuable if the only copy of a book you need is checked out from WSU. If you do not find what you want in Griffin, click the green “Search Summit” button. Again, ask your librarian if you have questions.

In looking for books, the obvious place to start is Griffin itself. Remember: you cannot search for article titles or authors within Griffin, only for the titles of journals which contain such articles. The natural temptation is to search by subject, but this is usually a mistake unless you know the precise wording of the Library of Congress description of the subject you are looking for. Instead, use “keyword” searching to type in terms that are associated with your subject.

ProQuest, also available through Griffin, is good for doing research on current events, but is rather poor for the kinds of subjects you will be studying in this class. Because ProQuest only goes back to the mid-1980s it is missing many important and useful articles that are included in the MLA bibliography. In addition, MLA contains books as well as articles while ProQuest is confined to articles only. Its only advantage over MLA is that you may be able to view articles you find either as a whole or in part on your computer screen, without having to wait for them to be sent by the library. Give it a try, but don’t spend a lot of time trying to do serious research there. Librarians will be able to give you advice about which databases are most appropriate for your subject.

Searching the Web

The Web is good for pictures, dates, and basic information; but it should not provide the main sources for your paper. Papers based mostly or entirely on Web research will not receive passing grades. Here are some tips on Web searching to get you started. Serious scholarship on the humanities in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries is spotty at best online. However, there are some extremely valuable sources out there. Here are some tips to guide you as you search.

Be flexible about trying different search terms. This bit of advice applies to all kinds of searches, not just on the Web. If you are searching for Voltaire’s influence on the French Revolution, you will probably also want to look separately for sites dealing with Voltaire and sites on the history of the French Revolution. You might also look for the terms “enlightenment” and “revolution” together.

Google is now the premier search engine because it gives better results for most searches, by finding first the sites to which most other sites have linked. The upshot is that pages that others have found useful bounce immediately to the top of Google’s hit list. Try typing in “influence of the enlightenment on the french revolution” (between quotation marks) in Google and you’ll find a ton of papers on this topic other students have written. Be cautious about using them as sources–they aren’t necessarily experts, but you can certainly get ideas here. Just don’t copy them. Remember, I can find these sources just as easily as you can.

Here’s an important tip. The first time I tried this, I mistyped “enlightenment” as “enlightnement,” and found only five pages whose authors had made the same typing error–all of them useless. If you get an unexpectedly small number of hits, check your spelling.

Asking an Expert

Sometimes the easiest way to find a good Web page is to ask someone knowledgeable; but how do you find such a person?

The obvious answer, is TRY ME! In fact, part of this assignment involves me or a librarian giving you suggestions about what sources to look at. You are absolutely expected to follow up on these suggestions. Papers which turn out weak because suggestions were ignored will receive a failing grade. For instance, anyone who is interested in writing about Voltaire and the French Revolution is always told by me to look at an old but excellent source: volumes 7-10 of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization. These are big fat volumes, so may look forbidding; but a few minutes spent with their indexes will teach you more about your topic than many hours of Internet searching (and they’re wonderfully readable). They also have the great advantage of being in just about any library, even small local ones. But the only way you are likely to hear about these books is from me. Asking for help is not “cheating”; it’s one of the main skills we are trying to teach you.


Doing your research

Step 1: Gathering and selecting information

One of the secrets of a good research paper is gathering much more information than you will actually use at the end. You want to avoid at all cost writing a paper on sources you don’t understand. Let’s look back at an article I once found on “The Influence of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution” at the Mining Co. (now defunct). Looking more closely, I found that it refers us to arguments by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine about the French Revolution. (I also note that the author was not particularly skilled in spelling and punctuation; I wouldn’t want to copy his errors.) In fact, this was a page from a course in which students were reading articles by these two authors. The names are vaguely familiar, but if you look their names up in the encylopedia you’ll discover that the first was an Englishman and the second an American. Therefore these people may have analyzed the French Revolution; but they were not themselves French, or involved in the Revolution directly. We may decide not to use them, because they tell us more about what non-French contemporaries thought about the Revolution than what modern historians think about it. Encyclopedias are great resources for giving us background information to help explain what we are reading.

Suppose you had used Griffin to look for books whose titles included the words “French Revolution” and found Roger Lawrence Williams’ The French Revolution of 1870-1871. But because you have done background reading on the revolution in the encyclopedia, you realize that this book can’t possibly refer to the 1789 revolution. In fact, there were several “French revolutions” of which only the 1789 one is usually referred to as the French Revolution. You have to know enough about your topic to reject irrelevant sources like this.

Step 2: Evaluating information

Judging authoritativeness

If you find a book in a scholarly library or in the pages of a scholarly journal, it has probably gone through one or more screening processes to ensure that it has some degree of authority and reliability. However, anyone can publish anything on the Web, which is filled with amateurish, biased, fraudulent and satirical pages which can damage your paper if you depend on them. How do you decide whether a Web source you’ve found is from a trustworthy source?

  1. Trust brand names. Articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica may not be perfect, but they come from respectable sources.
  2. Look for scholarly authorship. Is the author a specialist in the field working for a famous or distinguished university?
  3. Do other people frequently refer to this source as authoritative? Check bibliographies.
  4. Has it been selected by some thoughtful scholarly group such as the people who run The English Server at the University of Washington ( or created by a well-known institution such as the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (

Judging Comprehensibility

Use a source only if you understand it. Of course you can increase your comprehension by using dictionaries and encyclopedias; but, if even after trying that, much of what you are reading remains obscure to you, move on to another source you can better understand. Trying to use a source which the student author has not understood is a fatal flaw of many research papers.

Judging relevance

Not every item you find by using a key word or subject search will really be relevant to your topic. You need to define the topic of your paper yourself, not let it be defined by a dumb search engine. This almost always means learning more about a topic than you will be able to use directly in your paper. Be ruthless about throwing away irrelevant material.

Detecting bias

Suppose you had found the site called “The French Revolution” which seemed pretty well organized and straightforward. But as you read through it you note numerous Biblical quotations and much discussion of religious issues. You slowly realize that the author of this site has a very definite point of view: he is a conservative Christian attacking the ideas of the Enlightenment as expressed in the French Revolution. You may or may not agree with him, but you need to judge his words in the light of that information and compare what he says with what other historians say. You may also realize that this is mostly a lecture outline and that you would have to attend his course to get the real substance of his arguments. Don’t let yourself be “captured” by a single source.

Getting help

If you are having trouble deciding whether a source you have found is useful, share it with me and let me advise you. Constant communication with the teacher is an essential tool of doing good research. Don’t flounder on your own. If the source is a Web page, send me the URL at

For help with the WSU library, write Extended Degree Library Services at or phone them at (800) 435-5832.

Step 3: Taking notes

Photocopiers and Web browsers have made the gathering and reproduction of raw data much easier; you can even use recent versions of Microsoft Word to open a Web page directly and save it as a document. However, this is not note-taking. Nothing is more frustrating than sitting down on the night before a paper is due to that pile of photocopies and books you gathered weeks ago, only to find that most of it is irrelevant junk and that you desperately need other materials. Spend a good long time in the library or on the Web looking closely at the resources you find to decide whether they are worth copying, checking out, or otherwise reproducing them. A highlighter can be a useful tool in marking important passages (just don’t use one on a library book!), but ultimately you’ll need some real notes. The old file-card system still works well; but if you’re comfortable at a computer you’ll find that organizing your notes in a database or the outline view of your word processing software will work even better. Make sure that every note is securely tagged as coming from a specific source with a complete bibliographic citation (author, title, etc.)

Once you have a good many notes, begin to sort them into groups by topic. Try various arrangments, and a structure for your paper should slowly emerge.

Step 4: Organizing your paper

Always begin with at least an informal outline. Don’t just start writing without any notion of where you are headed.

Create some logical order for your paper. A chronological order may explain how some idea developed. A geographical order may relate a topic across national boundaries.

Digest your sources and use them for your own purposes. A summary of an article followed by another summary of a different article, and so on, is not a paper. It is just a set of notes. You need to compare sources, often referring to two different ones in the same paragraph or even sentence.

Avoid making your big points first and then trailing off into minor ones. Structure your paper to lead up to a strong conclusion.

Step 5: Making Citations

For this class, you will use the Modern Language Association format, which is explained in Arthur C. Banks’ helpful “Guide for Writing Research Papers.” Pay close attention to the section on “Parenthetical Documentation.” Do not substitute APA style, in which only last name of the author and the date of the article are given. This does not work in the humanities. Page numbers are crucial.

Cite only sources you actually use; use only sources you cite.

Call your list of sources “Sources Cited,” not “Bibliography.” A bibliography is a much more ambitious and thorough project than what you will be doing for this paper.


Cite a source not only when you quote from it, but when you paraphrase from it or draw ideas from it. Failure to do so is plagiarism, and can incur severe penalties (typically, failing the course).

Always introduce your sources by name; don’t just start quoting them. For instance: “Jessica L. Rabbit argues in her article on Los Angeles history that . . . (98).” Note when you mention the author of an article or book in this way, you need not repeat it in the parenthetical citation. Later citations from the same source do not always need introduction if they occur soon after the original one, so you can just cite the source as follows: “(Rabbit 72).”

For information on how to cite Web sources, see this Web page.

Avoiding plagiarism

Computers make it easy to copy. Don’t be tempted. Computers also make it easy to track down the sources of copied information. I am ruthless with plagiarists. Persons caught plagiarizing material in their papers will not be allowed to revise for a better grade. All cases of plagiarism will result in a failing grade for the course and a report to Student Conduct.

Other helpful documents

Be sure to check out these before you write your paper:

MANDATORY: Helpful Hints for Writing Class Papers


These contain directions for avoiding my pet peeves.


The minimum length for this assignment (see syllabus) is very, very short for a research paper. Unless your writing is wonderfully concise, you will need to write more. If you cannot stretch your material to this minimum you don’t have enough material or–more likely–aren’t examining it closely enough. Believe it or not, the chief reason people run out of things to say is that they have defined their topics too broadly. A narrow, tightly-focused topic will allow you to get specific and dig into the finer shades of the topic, and finding enough to write about will be no problem. Avoid vague generalizations.

If your paper reads like an encyclopedia article, giving an overview of a person’s entire career, it is too broad. You need to focus on a narrow subject within the general work of the writer, artist, philosopher, or musician. You should not write at all about their birth, childhood, and education unless they are strictly relevant to your topic.

If you are writing about one of the books we study in this class, your paper needs to go well beyond the ideas and facts presented in the relevant study guide. You are supposed to become something of an expert in your subject, and come up with new information and ideas not already discussed in class.

Revising your paper

Almost all the papers in this course should be revised at least once. That is part of the point of the class, teaching you how to write better. Be sure to incorporate suggestions that are made, particularly broad, general ones like “this section lacks focus–concentrate on a single topic.” Merely cleaning up typos and spelling errors is not revision–it’s proofreading, and will not improve your grade.

Be careful about trying to solve problems by simply moving chunks of text around. Usually you have to do some actual rewriting to improve a paper. When a paragraph is moved, it often needs to be adjusted somewhat to fit within its new environment. If I ask you to develop a section further, do not simply cut it out. You get no increase in grade for simply making the specific spelling and grammatical changes I suggest; you have to do actual rewriting for that.

Seeking help

The point of this assignment is not to fling you in the sea of knowledge and stand by to see if you can avoid the sharks; it is to teach you something more about how to do research in the humanities and write about it. You get no credit for struggling silently on your own. Again, please use the resources available to you: For questions about this assignment, ask me. Keep asking me questions and sending me ideas. If you find yourself tempted to tell someone else “I don’t know what he wants,” it means you need to ask me more questions. For help with the WSU library, ask the DDP librarian at or phone them at (800) 435-5832. If you need help with your writing, try the WSU Online Writing Lab at You can send them drafts of your paper and they will help guide you through the process of revising it. You can even arrange to “chat” with a writing tutor in a chat room about your work. Take advantage of this terrific resource.

Step 6: Submitting your paper

Pullman students will hand in printed copy in person, but for DDP students, unlike most of your weekly writing assignments, which can be pasted into the forms in the Bridge, you need to send formally formatted papers through “My DDP.” This method is simple and works quite well, but write or phone DDP if you have any questions about how to use it. Be aware that papers submitted through My DDP may take up to a full working day to reach me.

I can open documents created by any version of Microsoft Word and many other word processors. If you are using Word Perfect, or some other word processor, let me know. I can open most of them, but there are a few I can’t.

I can also open any document that has been saved as HTML or in Rich Text Format (RTF).

Revising your paper

Your first draft will be marked up and commented on, but not assigned a letter grade. You will receive credit and a grade for for this paper only after having revised it. Fixing typos and other small slips according to my suggestions is mandatory, but not an important way to improve your grade. The only way to get a good grade is to follow the suggestions spelled out at the very end of your paper, which may call for more research, narrowing of topic, or reorganization of your paper. Note that this revision is mandatory, and that it must be done in order to pass the course.

Created by Paul Brians, July 2, 1998

Revised May 10, 2005

Helpful Hints for Writing Class Papers

Prepared by Paul Brians

The papers you write for this class are supposed to function as the equivalent of take-home exams for which you choose the questions. The point is to show that you have thoroughly read the assigned material, worked closely with the study guides, and can explain and interpret the material as a result. Your grade will be based primarily on how thoroughly you would seem to have done this work.

Choose a well-defined topic which is clearly identified in your title (you don’t need a mysteriously “catchy” title to get teachers to read your papers–that’s our job). Your first paragraph should state clearly and unambiguously what your paper is about. Then the rest of the paper should stick to the topic, not wandering about to unrelated matters.

Your papers may be thesis-based if you wish, and you can even argue with the authors you are studying, but only in a scholarly way. That is, you must thoroughly and clearly present their thinking first, demonstrating your mastery of the texts before you present your own views. In taking sides in any controversy, you must anticipate the arguments of the other side, consider its likely arguments, and deal with those arguments. Literary criticism is not an opportunity for unfettered self-expression: you need to engage with others whose views you may not agree with.

There are plenty of ways to approach these assignments without a thesis, however. You can compare one text with another, trace a theme through a work, discuss a literary technique as it is used in the work, or discuss the relationship between two characters. You can get many ideas for other kinds of topics by consulting Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Literature.

Avoid excessively personal responses. These are serious, scholarly papers, in which your gut feelings and preferences should play very little role. This is the time to show off your analytical skills rather than your emotions.

Avoid talking about what you don’t understand. The time to express doubts and ask questions (the kind you don’t have answers for) is in class discussion, not in formal papers. Never begin a paper by explaining how hard it was to write. Choose topics that you can handle, not ones that baffle you. Go with your strengths.

Avoid expressing contempt for famous authors, music, or art in your writing. If you write that Shakespeare’s sonnets are stupid, you’ll only be inviting your readers to regard you as ignorant. If you can’t stand the sound of harpsichords, that’s your misfortune, but not something to brag about in a paper any more than you should loudly proclaim that you think burgundy is disgusting swill when it is offered at a fine dinner party. If a work is on the syllabus, many people, your teacher included, think it’s important. Try to learn why. Again, you can express your bafflement or repulsion in discussion; but in a paper you need to take it for granted that you have to treat the material with some respect. If you criticize it, you must do so in an informed, sophisticated manner, not just expressing your personal distaste.

You must directly address the material, not focus on tangential matters it reminds you of. You can discuss the relevance of an older text for modern times, but make sure you are not writing a paper about modern times as such, failing to discuss thoroughly the assigned text in its own context. These papers are text-based. Close reading is required.

A good paper covers all the relevant sections of an assigned work. If you focus only on the opening pages it will look as if you didn’t finish the reading assignment.

If you are using research sources, there are certain important considerations to keep especially in mind. Don’t restrict yourself to Web sites and common reference tools such as dictionaries and encyclopedias unless your teacher specifically allows you to. Normally you are expected to use to a research library and real, paper books and journal articles (though more and more journal articles are available online through library services–talk to a reference librarian to get help with this). When drawing on sources, don’t just string quotations together, or paraphrase what they have to say by changing a few words. Master the material and incorporate it into your own argument, still remembering to cite the source you’ve drawn on whether you quote it or not.

Here’s an example: Suppose Sean O’Malley wrote: “Yeats’ poetry, despite the fact that he is often viewed as a spokesman for the Irish people, is often forbiddingly difficult.” This is not such memorable wording that it’s worth quoting directly. Anyone with half a brain can quote (with a modern computer you can even quote without ever reading what you quote); paraphrasing instead demonstrates that you understand your source. But it would be bad writing, verging on plagiarism (and distorting the source), to tinker with his wording like this: “Sean O’Malley says that Yeats, despite speaking for the Irish people, often writes really difficult poems.” Resist the urge to do minor revisions of your sources like this. Here’s a better approach, which acknowledges O’Malley as a source but has digested what he has to say into the writer’s own material: “Whereas Sean O’Malley suggests that Yeats’ reputation as a spokesman for Ireland is inconsistent with the difficulty of his writing; his most typically Irish writing is not in fact that difficult.” Here we see the writer thinking about and using a source, not just reproducing it.

Here are some suggestions that will help you avoid common mechanical errors in preparing your papers. To avoid simple writing errors, consult my Common Errors in English” at

Most of these details won’t have a big effect on your grade, but following these guidelines will keep me in good humor. Use this page to refer to when interpreting marks on your papers.

  1. If you are not used to writing papers for literature classes, carefully study the first three chapters of Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Literature.
  2. All papers must be typed or printed out on a computer . Double-space throughout, do not put extra space between paragraphs, and use 12-point type.
  3. Allow yourself time to proofread and correct your paper. If you are using a computer, be sure to check the printed output. You will catch errors that you missed on the screen. If you use a commercial typing service, please proofread its work carefully. You are responsible for any errors in the finished product. Pencilled-in corrections ar e always preferable to beautifully typed mistakes.
  4. Always write at least the amount assigned. Shorter papers will receive an F. Quotations, notes and sources do not count in calculating length. There is no maximum length for papers in this class. Always number your pages, by hand if necessary, but you should consult your word processor’s manual to find out how to do this automatically.
  5. Always use 20-weight paper. If you have an ink-jet printer, make sure the cartridge is working properly before the day on which you plan to do your printing. Last-minute printer problems are not an acceptable excuse for turning a paper in on time. If all else fails, send in your paper by e-mail attachment or bring it to class on a floppy disk.
  6. Never put a class paper into any kind of folder , especially those plastic ones with the snap-on spines. Fasten your paper together with a staple or a paper clip.
  7. Be sure to give your paper a specific title which clearly describes its contents. “Modern Literature” or “Humanities 303” is not a title. Nor should you simply use the name of the work you are discussing. “Dead Cats in Tom Sawyer ” is more like it. See Barnet on choosing a topic and a title (26-33).
  8. Learn the proper critical vocabulary from Barnet terms like “setting,” “point of view,” “irony,” etc. Study Barnet’s sample papers in chapters 4 and 5.
  9. Do not underline or italicize your paper’s title or place it in quotation marks. Underlining titles is an old-fashioned form of quotation. You aren’t quoting your own title. When you do quote a title, italicize it if it is a book or a work which could be printed as a book; place it between quotation marks if it is a short poem, short story, essay, or other work which would be published only as part of a book.
  10. Always space before parentheses . It is never correct to omit the space before a parenthesis.
  11. Learn how to type true dashes on your computer (a Macintosh dash is typed by holding down the shift and option keys and pressing the hyphen key). If you cannot type true dashes, use double hyphens, like this (–). Here are examples of dash and hyphen usage: correct: word—word, incorrect: word -word, incorrect: word – word. Never leave spaces around a dash. Do not use dashes where you should use hyphens. Learn how to use semicolons and colons correctly. For instance, quotations may be introduced with a colon, but never with a semicolon.
  12. Learn when to use apostrophes (in contractions, as in “don’t,” where the apostrophe stands for the missing letter–in this case, an “o,”–and in possessives, as in “Harry’s Bar”). The only possessives which do not use apostrophes are the pronouns “yours,” “ours,” “theirs,” “its,” and–of course–“mine,” “his,” and “hers.” People almost never insert apostrophes in the last three; just remember that the first four are treated the same. “It’s” with an apostrophe is always the contraction for “it is.”
  13. Periods go after parentheses which are a part of the same sentence (like this). However, if you are quoting a sentence or phrase which ends with a question mark or exclamation mark treat it like this: “Help!’ he shouted” (7). Or: “Don’t forget to save your document!” (7). Note that you need both the exclamation point and the period. The parenthesis is part of your sentence and needs to be included in it. However, in a block quot ation which is set off, no punctuation follows the parenthesis citing the page from which the quotation comes (see 15 below for set-off quotations).
  14. Double space throughout your paper, even in quotations set off and in notes. This gives me room to make comments and corrections.
  15. Prose quotations of five lines or more and all verse quotations of four lines or more must be set off in a block quotation like this:

    Mary had a little lamb,
    Its fleece was white as snow,
    And everywhere that Mary went,
    The lamb was sure to go.

    Pay special attention to the requirement to preserve the ends of lines of verse just as they appear in the original. If your quotation of verse is shorter, then you need to mark the line ends with a slash: “Mary had a little lamb,/Its fleece was white as snow.” In quoting prose, indent from the left only, not from the right. When you set off a quotation, be sure not to add quotation marks around the material, since setting it off is itself a mark of quotation. If the passage quoted already contains quotation marks within it, they must of course be retained.

  16. Use single quotation marks only for a quotation within a quotation. It is an error to use them simply because the quoted material consists of single words or short phrases. Generally avoid ironic quotation marks like this: “He was an ‘intellectual.'” The temptation to use such marks usually means you have not yet found the precise word or phrase you need.
  17. All modern computers allow you to use accent marks in words such as “fiancé”. Learn how to make them on your computer, or insert them by hand. Never use an apostrophe as a substitute for an accent mark. You can find instructions for typing accent marks at (Macintosh users scroll all the way to the bottom of the page for the relatively simple Mac instructions).
  18. Ellipses are never necessary at the beginning of a quotation, and seldom at the end of one. The main use of an ellipsis is to mark omitted words in the middle of a quotation: “The novel can trace its origins in the distant past to the 12th-century romance” can become “The novel can trace its origins . . . to the 12th-century romance.” The three dots which mark the ellipsis show that some words have been left out. If you are just quoting a brief phrase, you don’t need to show that words surrounding the phrase have been omitted: that’s obvious, so no ellipsis is necessary. When you quote a substantial excerpt from a sentence, however, and the quotation ends your own sentence, you need to type a period after the last word and then follow with the three dots, like this: “He was unable to see the dark ground in front of him. . . . .” To keep the dots of your ellipses from breaking onto two separate lines, learn how to type nonbreaking spaces between them.
  19. When writing passages of plot summary, use the present tense , even when the story itself is written in the past tense. Be careful to be consistent about tense throughout your paper. Do not switch back and forth between present and past. Be especially careful when you continue to summarize after quoting a passage from your source which itself uses the past tense. It may trick you into continuing to use the past instead of switching back to the present.
  20. Introduce all quotations. Don’t just begin quoting a source abruptly. For example: “As Robert J. Brown remarks in The Wisdom of the Ages, Some people are unwise.'” The first time you cite an author, use both first and last names. In subsequent references, use only the last name. Quote only when necessary. Quote material you go on to analyze or discuss. Paraphrase whenever that would be more efficient or clear than quoting, but remember that paraphrases must be cited with parenthetical notes, just like quotations. Avoid ending a paper with a quotation.
  21. Cite all outside sources whether you quote them or merely use their ideas, according to the MLA form. (For a quick guide to MLA citation style, see Do not use footnotes or endnotes. The parenthetical method of citation is very simple, once learned, but make sure you use MLA style and not APA. Your list of sources should be called “Sources Cited” or–if there is only one–“Source Cited,” and these words must not be put in quotation marks or underlined. You will never write anything in a paper for this class which deserves to be called a bibliography.
  22. When citing the main book under discussion as your source, you need not cite the author’s name if it is obvious from the context.
  23. Note that block quotations are cited differently, with the citation beginning in the middle of the page under the last line of the quotation.
  24. In citing long verse works with numbered lines, cite the line numbers, not the page numbers. You may also need to cite act and scene numbers in plays.
  25. Despite what you may have heard, it is not incorrect to use the first person in formal writing, especially when you are expressing an opinion. Another common misconception is the idea that you should avoid repeating words. When a certain word is the word you need, then that is the word you should use. A good rule of thumb is: avoid frequently repeating the same adjectives and adverbs; do consistently use the same nouns and verbs when you are referring to the same objects and actions.
  26. Use your spelling-checker but also proofread manually. It won’t solve all your problems, but it will help. Most papers which receive low grades for sloppy writing are yanked off the printer moments before coming to class. Give yourself time to proofread your final printed copy with care.
  27. The professor’s pet peeve: “A lot” is always two words. There is no such word as “alot,” no matter how many times you may read it in other people’s writing.
  28. Another pet peeve: Don’t write “time period.” It’s redundant. Write either “time” or “period.”
  29. Strive for a clear, simple, direct style. Avoid obscure jargon, needlessly complex sentence construction and flowery language for its own sake. Always use the simplest style which can adequately convey your thoughts.
  30. A common flaw in papers is the lack of a good conclusion. A conclusion should not simply repeat or summarize what you have said before (in a brief paper I am not going to forget what you have said by the time I reach the end). If your concluding paragraph reads a lot like your opening one, strike it out and write a real conclusion.
  31. Never cut class while trying in vain to get your paper to print. If you have last-minute printer problems, send me a copy by e-mail attachment. I can convert and print from just about any computer format. If even that is impossible, still come to class and ask for my help.

Last revised April 9, 2006.

Writing for Electronic Submission

If you are submitting papers electronically for grading, you should keep in mind the following points.

  1. You need to learn how to “attach” documents to e-mail messages sent to me at This is how you will be submitting your papers. Different e-mail programs use different methods. Read the documentation for your particular program to find out the proper method for attaching documents. If you are using a UNIX-based e-mail program like PINE, attachments can be attached only using advanced computer skills. If these are beyond you, let me know so we can work something out.
  2. Attachments are the most common carrier of viruses. I use advanced virus-protection software on my computer, so I am well protected and unlikely to infect your computer with my replies. But if you are not using such antiviral software, you may be spreading infections every time you send out an attachment. In recent versions of Word’s General Preferences you can check “Macro virus protection.” The wisest course if you own Word is to turn off its Macro feature altogether and never use it. The vast majority of viruses in circulation today are Word macro viruses.
  3. Because they create little extra attachments to clutter up my disk, I ask that you not include a signature with a “v-card” attachment. (Don’t worry about it if you don’t know what that is.)
  4. I can read documents created in almost any version of Microsoft Word for Mac or Windows. Other word processing programs, especially Word Perfect, may cause problems. The best solution for people using such programs is to save their papers in Rich Text Format and send those to me. Always use the suffix “.rtf” for the name of RTF documents. You can usually find this option by choosing “save as” after completing your document.
  5. I may also have to return your papers to you in Rich Text Format. It is crucial that you learn how to open RTF documents properly. DO NOT DOUBLE-CLICK ON THEM TO OPEN THEM. Start up your word processor, and from its “File” menu choose “Open” and open the RTF document there. You should find the document in your attachments directory or folder. The document should be converted and opened, but it may take several seconds to do so. Be patient.
  6. If you use Windows, you should probably conform to the old pattern of giving documents names consisting of no more than eight characters followed by three designating the program they were written in (“.doc” in the case of Word). Newer versions of Windows allow longer names, but sometimes your e-mail program will truncate the titles when you create the attachment so that what you created as “humpaper3.doc” arrives at my computer called “humpape~.doc” and I can’t distinguish it from one you also wrote called “humpaper2.doc.” Those who have successfully sent documents with long titles elsewhere and Mac users needn’t worry about these restrictions (the latter can ignore the suffixes except in the case of RTF documents).
  7. Always give your papers names that let me distinguish them as yours. Put your initials or at least part of your name early in the name. If I get ten papers called “voltaire.doc” or “termpaper.doc” I can’t tell one from the other without opening it. Worse, in moving things around, one student’s paper may entirely wipe out another’s. A good name for a paper by Paul Brians about Voltaire would be “pbvolt.doc”. You can look at the list of students in the Speakeasy Café to see whether anybody shares your initials.
  8. All modern computers can produce such characters as curled (“smart”) quotation marks and apostrophes and true dashes. It’s worth learning how your computer does it. Many word processors allow you to turn these features on automatically. In Word 98 this option is under “Auto Format” and “Auto Correct as You Type.” You can also choose “Insert Symbol” to find out how to type special characters like this.
  9. If you learned to type before computers became common, you may have some left-over bad typing habits which cause problems when papers are transferred from one computer to another. It is important to learn how to use your word processor properly, not as a kind of electronic typewriter.
    • A sure sign of somebody not having made a full transition to computer typing is the tendency to hit the return key at the end of lines instead of at the end of paragraphs only. This may look fine on your screen or printer, but by the time the document reaches me, it is likely to display differently. To maintain the proper wrapping of text, remember to hit the return key only at the end of paragraphs.
    • At the top of the page of your word processing screen you should see a ruler on which you can set the indent for the beginning of paragraphs (usually using a little arrow that can be slid along the ruler). Do not hit the space bar a number of times to create indents. Tabs will usually work, but do not create proper indents either.
    • In your bibliography, you will have to use an overhanging indent. Do not try to simulate this by inserting a carriage return at the end of the first line of the bibliographic entry followed by a tab or spaces. Instead, learn how to use the overhang indent tool in your word processor. In Word, you hold down the shift key while pulling the lower of the two indent arrows to the right.
    • Note that you can change the indents, margins, and tabs from paragraph to paragraph. Use the margin and indent tools to create set-off block quotations. Do not use a combination of carriage returns and spaces or tabs. Just remember that your cursor needs to be in the paragraph to which you are trying to assign a particular margin or indent.
    • To align columns of words in tables, use your word processor’s table tool or tabs. Do not align columns using the space bar.
    • Create more elegant tabs by learning how to set the tabs you want rather than using the automatic default ones and tabbing repeatedly across the page.
    • Although in the old days people were told to make two spaces between sentences, this is considered improper with modern computer fonts. Try to get into the habit of hitting the space bar only once between sentences. You’ll save yourself a lot of keystrokes in the long run and produce a better-looking product. Until this becomes second nature, you can check for absent-minded mistakes by automatically searching your document for two contiguous spaces and replacing them with one.