Tips on Essay Writing

Tips on Essay Writing
) You must learn to reference things properly. If you use a direct quotation from a primary
(historical) or secondary (modern) source, you must identify the author in a footnote.
However, even if you do not directly quote the author, but use one of their ideas, you must
give them credit. So remember, even when paraphrasing, you must footnote the author. For
example: {Prior to the military reforms of Marius, the Roman army was solely made-up of
the propertied classes.1} This is not a direct quotation from Livy, but the facts came from
him, therefore he must be credited. The page number in the note below refers to the page
number in the edition of the work that you are using, and this must be clear in your
bibliography. For modern authors, the same rule applies, if you use their ideas, footnote
them like this.2 The note refers to the full citation of the work which is only necessary in
your bibliography, and should look like:
Davidson, James, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Times. London:
Fontana, 1998.
) In terms of secondary sources, unless you are really challenging an author’s point, there is
rarely a need to say, ‘Jones says …’.
) Capitalise only proper nouns. Names of persons and places, and specific groups, like the
Praetorian Guard. King Philip of Macedon is capitalised, but just referring to the king or a
king does not require capitalisation. Organisations which are non-specific, like the middle
class, the Greek thetes, or the Roman publicani, do not take capitals.
) Never use contractions in an essay (be warned, I especially hate this).
) Do not use etc. in formal writing, it is a sign of laziness.
) Watch spelling of historical places and names.
) Quotations of less than three lines should placed in quotation marks. More than three lines
should be separated from the text, single-spaced, and indented on both sides.
) Quotations have their greatest force when used sparingly. I want to read things in your own
) The first person has its greatest force when used sparingly; it hammers a point home if it is
rarely used.
) It is much easier for readers to follow your arguments if you make your points in the form
of statements, not questions (‘It has been argued that the CIA was aware of the fact that Iraq
was not harbouring weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 American invasion’ or ‘It
is likely that the CIA was aware of the fact that Iraq was not harbouring weapons of mass
destruction prior to the 2003 American invasion’, rather than ‘Did the CIA know whether or
not Iraq was harbouring weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 American
) Know what plagiarism is and never ever do it.
) Write out all cardinal numbers that can be written in two words or less (‘four’; ‘fifty-eight’;
‘one thousand’) (excluding dates, decimals, and percentages), and all ordinal numbers
(‘fourth’ instead of ‘4th’).
) Italicise all foreign words and titles of books (e.g. Hamlet is a play, Hamlet is a character).
Titles of articles go in quotation marks.
) Structure you paragraphs like small essays, state your purpose in the opening sentence, argue
it in your body, then restate it in your concluding sentence.
) Do not change tenses in the middle of an essay (you should generally use the past tense for
historical essays).
) Be consistent is terminology, spelling, and usage (e.g. Use either BC/AD or BCE/CE, not
both. Use Montreal or Montréal, not both).
) Be very careful when using phrases like ‘I think’, ‘I believe’, and ‘In my opinion’; if the
ideas are contained in one of the secondary sources then this is plagiarism, since you are
masquerading someone else’s ideas as your own.
) Quote is a verb (to quote a passage) while quotation is a noun (to read a quotation).
) Its is the possessive plural of it, while it’s is a contraction for it is.
) Know the difference between a plural and a possessive (e.g. Latins is plural, meaning you
are referring to more than one person from Latium; Latin’s is singular possessive, meaning
something belonging to a Latin person; Latins’ is plural possessive, meaning something
belonging to more than one Latin or to the Latin people as a whole).
) Their is the possessive form of they; there is an adverb showing a place or position; they’re
is a contraction for they are.
) Affect is a verb meaning ‘to make a difference’ (‘The new law will greatly affect us’), while
effect is a noun describing something’s consequences (‘What will be the effect of the new
) Than is a comparative conjunction (‘She is better than me’; ‘This rather than that’), while
then is an adverb meaning ‘at that time’ (‘We will meet then’) or ‘shortly afterwards’ (‘What
will happen then?’). It can also indicate the following in a series (‘First then second’) or,
when used with but, offset the previous clause (‘The research was inconclusive, but then I
never expected it to be otherwise’).
) Avoid irrelevant qualitative judgements (‘The Spartans were brave’; ‘The Romans were
loyal’; ‘Julia was emotional’; ‘Constantine was spiritual’). Not only are these points almost
always immaterial to your central thesis (If you are arguing that the Spartans were usually
victorious in battle, does it really matter whether they fought out of loyalty or out of
coercion?), but are most often unprovable because we cannot get into the heads of historical
figures. We cannot judge the motivations or emotions of others. Stick to only what you can
prove via the evidence.
) ‘God’ refers to the Christian God, whereas ‘god’ refers to pagan deities.
) A period ends a complete sentence. (Cicero was not as influential as he thought.)
) A comma links two or more dependent or independent clauses together by using a
conjunction. (Cicero was not as influential as he thought, and he failed to win over
) A semi-colon links two or more independent clauses not joined by a conjunction. (Cicero
was not as influential as he thought; he failed to win over Octavian.)
) A colon introduces a list or a clause that explains, amplifies, or restates what has gone before.
(Cicero was not as significant as he thought: his influence was not felt in the long term.)
) Double-space and spell check!
) Staple your work.

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