Essay Writing Tips
Methodologies for Research
Essay Writing Tips
Presentation of Written Work
Some information on the format of your document can be found in the handout "Citing Authorities in an English Essay"; what follows in this section is a supplement to this, and to information provided by your instructor.
- Written work should be submitted double-spaced, preferably typewritten or computer-printed, although legible handwriting will also be accepted.
- The paper should be standard 8 1/2 x 11 inch (letter size) paper. Use one side of the paper only.
- Use 1 inch margins for all four edges of the paper except the top, which should be a 1/2 inch margin to accommodate a "Header" (see below); the first line of your title (first page only) or text should, however, still be 1 inch below the top of the paper.
- Each page should be numbered consecutively in the top-right hand corner of the page. You may, if you choose, use a "Header" that gives your name as well as page number, aligned, again, to the top-right hand corner of the page.
- Use a font size that will permit no more than about 250 words per page (12 point Courier is good, although you may also use Times New Roman or Times Roman, or any other font that is easy to read).
- Submit the work fastened by a paper clip rather than by staples; do not have it "bound" in any way.
- Do not use justification on the right margin: text should be justified only to the left margin.
- The text of your essay should always be double-spaced (including inset quotes). The MLA Handbook also suggests double-spacing for notes and your list of works cited.
- Footnotes should be separated from the main text by at least two lines; endnotes appear on a separate page, headed "Endnotes."
- Use underlining or italics in your paper for the title of works that were originally published separately (quote marks are used for works that originally appeared in, or appended to, another work). Never use bold, unless it appears in the text that you are citing. Never use different sized fonts.
- When quoting or using words that normally include diacritical marks (accents, etc.), make sure that you reproduce these as well, either by hand or with your printer (e.g., école, not ecole).
- Foreign words that are not themselves in normal English usage should be underlined (or in italics) (e.g., jeu, not jeu, but repartee, not repartee).
- The guidelines for layout that appear in the more recent editions of the MLA (Modern Language Association) Handbook are recommended. This resource is available in a cheap printed editions, and is a highly recommended purchase for anyone contemplating a programme in English literature. For a visual sample of an English essay formatted according to the MLA guidelines (and written by a particularly promising student of English literature), consult the Sample Essay in MLA Style available on this site.
Your thesis statement is far and away the most important part of your paper: if this is flawed, all else that follows will seem incomprehensible. Make sure that you spend some time developing it.
A thesis is an assertion about a work or subject that you have undertaken to prove to the reader. As such, it should not be a mere opinion, which ultimately owes more to your personal taste than to more "objective" critical criteria. "John Donne is an excessively dull writer" is not a thesis; neither is "Paradise Lost does not deserve its central position within the canon of English literature." "John Milton sucks" would probably earn you an "F" (and put into very serious doubt your discernment and literary taste).
As well, it should not be something so obvious that it does not require demonstration. "Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit details a young woman's struggle to create an identity for herself in the face of pressures to conform" is not a thesis because it is too obvious; similarly, "Pope's Rape of the Lock shows that women in the eighteenth-century were marginalized" is not a good thesis because it seeks to demonstrate what any reasonably well-educated reader already accepts as a given. On the other hand, a thesis statement can use a self-evident truth as a starting point. For example, "Alexander Pope's employment of the mock heroic mode in Rape of the Lock demonstrates his indebtedness to the methods and approaches of John Dryden" does work as a thesis, because it seeks to demonstrate a more specific, and somewhat more arguable point. Similarly, "Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock masks its misogynist perspective behind a veil of apparent sympathy for Belinda, whose lifestyle is representative of the role of women in his culture" is at least potentially a good thesis, because it deals in specifics, and makes a point that is not necessarily obvious to the reader.
Be careful not to produce an essay that is purely descriptive. Apply the "So what?" test to your thesis: ask yourself why your conclusions are important to understanding the work in question. A good example of a purely descriptive (and hence flawed) essay is one that catalogues features about characters in a narrative, suggesting, for example, that they all employ artifice to mask themselves. In and of itself, this is probably not a thesis: were one to ask "So what?" no good answer would be forthcoming, because no attempt has been made to explain why this characteristic is important. Description of this kind is the starting point for, and foundation of, a proper thesis. To use the following example again, a thesis might argue that "the characters of this work are the targets of a broad satire upon the prevalence of materialistic concerns in society." Such a thesis goes beyond merely describing a feature of the text, and explains why the reader should care.
Remember: when writing a thesis statement, ask yourself the following questions:
(a) Can it be proven?
(b) Does it need to be proven?
(c) Why is this significant to understanding this work?
There is no particular number of secondary sources that you should employ for a research paper, unless guidelines have been provided by your instructor. A minimum for a good undergraduate research paper might be at least one book and two articles consulted.
Similarly, there is no minimum or maximum to the number of in-text citations (footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical references) that should appear in this second paper, although it would seem logical to expect that there should be at least one for each source consulted. The simple rule of thumb is this: if an idea or fact comes from a secondary source, it should be acknowledged as such (see Plagiarism below).
A frequent method employed uses parenthetical citation of frequently cited works, combined with endnotes. As a general rule, the first citation of the text that you are discussing should appear in proper form, with the following note appended: "Subsequent references to this text will be given parenthetically where they occur" (assuming, of course, that there are subsequent references to this particular text). Thereafter, use a simple parenthetical format, such as that recommended in the MLA Handbook, for your text (for example, author and page or line number).
Formats for citation can be found in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. There are also a number of online resources that provide summary versions of the MLA style; the two below are recommended.
Guidelines for Properly Citing Sources [MLA Style Tips]. This resource was produced here at the Western Department of English, and should be your first choice of reference. It is reasonably comprehensive, and easy to use.
Online! A Reference Guide to Using Internet Resources [Bedford/St. Martin's] This resource focusses upon citing online material; its section on MLA style is a useful supplement to the Department's MLA Style Tips pages (above).
Other style guides are also available through UWO online resources. These can be found at the following address:
Your essay should include a proper list of "Works Cited" (or "Consulted"), separate from your notes; generally, neither notes nor bibliography count towards the word limit set for essays. Your list of "Works Cited" should include every text or article that you consulted for your paper, excluding only such standard reference works as dictionaries (unless it is actually quoted in your paper), thesauri, and style guides. Please remember that this includes the text that you are actually writing about: your instructor needs to know what edition you are using. If every work that you have listed is actually cited in the paper, entitle this section"Works Cited"; if not, it is entitled "Works Consulted."
All other considerations aside, of course, proper and adequate documentation is always required when another's words or thoughts have been employed in the writing of your essay. To fail to acknowledge such aid through proper documentation is to commit plagiarism, a most serious offence. I quote from the Department of English's "Information for Students":
Plagiarism (the unacknowledged use of another person's work) is one of the most serious academic offences, since it involves fraud and misrepresentation. In plagiarizing, one is in effect claiming another person's words or ideas or data as one's own work, and thus misrepresenting material subject to academic evaluation. It is necessary, therefore, that plagiarism carry appropriate penalties. These are within the discretion of the instructor in consultation with the Chair of English Undergraduate Studies, but may include failure of a course or a grade of zero on an assignment, without the privilege of resubmitting it.
STUDENTS FOUND GUILTY OF A SECOND SERIOUS OFFENCE WILL BE, AND HAVE BEEN, EXPELLED FROM DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH COURSES.
Students must acknowledge each printed or electronic source (including study guides such as Cole's Notes) by author, title, date and place of publication, and page number if: (a) they quote from it directly; (b) they paraphrase its ideas; (c) they are conscious of any influence its ideas may have had on their own work. Every source (including websites) that students have consulted (whether they refer to it directly or not) must be included in a bibliography (Works Cited). Some instructors may require that students provide copies of material downloaded from the Internet.
It is not always possible to identify the sources of inspiration of one's own ideas with total accuracy. A reasonable and conscientious effort is all that is required. However, it is entirely the student's responsibility to be aware of the nature of plagiarism. If students have any questions about plagiarism, they should ask their instructor. If students have any doubts about the documentation of their own essay, they should see the instructor before it is handed in. Information about correct forms of documentation may be found in the MLA HANDBOOK For Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (New York: Modern Language Association).
Students found to have submitted the work of another person as their own work will automatically fail the course. Any students who know their own work has been used improperly have a responsibility to inform the Department of that fact; otherwise they will be considered collaborators.
While the fine line dividing the legitimate from illegitimate use of someone else's ideas can, on a theoretical level, sometimes seem difficult to define, it is, in practice, really not too hard to determine when some form of documentation is required to acknowledge the use of another's work. Some simple but handy guidelines can be found in the MLA Handbook:
In writing your research paper . . . you should document everything that you borrow - not only direct quotations and paraphrases but also information and ideas. Of course, common sense as well as ethics should determine what you document. For example, you rarely need to give sources for familiar proverbs ("You can't judge a book by its cover"), well-known quotations ("We shall overcome"), or common knowledge ("George Washington was the first president of the United States"). But you must indicate the source of any appropriated material that readers might otherwise mistake for your own. If you have any doubt about whether or not you are committing plagiarism, cite your source or sources.
Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 5th ed. (New
York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1999) 33.
Ultimately, the final responsibility for what you submit lies with you; at the same time, do not hesitate to ask if you are unsure whether or not documentation and proper citation may be required in any particular case.
Methodologies for Research
Using Secondary Sources
Use secondary sources to support, rather than carry or prove, your argument: remember that you are trying to produce original insights into a work, rather than merely summarize what others have thought or said. For this reason, it is often the best strategy to define a rudimentary thesis before you begin to look at secondary sources; this will help ensure that you are not merely regurgitating the ideas of others.
Do not cite secondary works merely to inflate the number of references in your paper: cite the opinions of others only when, and where, they are relevant to your own argument. There is no minimum or maximum number of footnotes or endnotes required for these papers: use them only when they are useful, interesting, or necessary.
Ideas, opinions, and information found in secondary sources may be used in a number of different ways:
1) Most obviously, secondary sources can provide support for an opinion that you are expressing. Note, however, that this opinion should not be your actual thesis (which is to say, you should not be endeavouring to prove something that someone else has already argued). Rather, use secondary sources as additional support for an opinion that is a component of your overall argument.
2) Secondary sources can provide useful factual information that supports your argument, as, for example, biographical information about your author, an interesting point relating to a given genre or literary type, a prevalent characteristic of the work of your particular author, or a relevant point of social or political history. Such information can be found in works of literary criticism, biography, and, of course, history.
3) It is also useful, on occasion, to cite opposing views: if you do so, however, make sure that you adequately refute or respond to them. Citing opposing views is often a good way to begin your essay: your introduction can then employ this "erroneous" opinion to launch your counter-argument (which is usually, of course, your actual thesis). Note that if you do employ a contrary opinion as a "hook" in your introduction, you must be sure to return to that opinion, however briefly, in your conclusion. Note too that any contrary opinion from a secondary source cited in this manner is not the main focus of your essay: ultimately, you are still trying to prove something about the literary text you are discussing, rather than engaging in debate with another critic.
Beginning Your Research
The place to begin your search for secondary sources is, of course, the UWO Library computer catalogue. You can access this catalogue directly, at the following address:
Searches by subject can sometimes be tricky, but a search by author will generally pull up materials relating to your subject writer. Keyword searches, however, are often the most effective means of finding relevant books, as these will search through all elements in a catalogue entry. It is not a bad idea to "practice" searches on the computer catalogue: experience with the search engines will make you much more adept at finding materials. Do not be afraid to ask a librarian for help with a search. Librarians are familiar with the catalogue and with the collection, and will often find materials you might overlook. Moreoever, they are invariably delighted to assist; I have yet to be bitten by one (although I'm sure they've been tempted). Librarians are an important resource: do not hesitate to use them.
Beyond the Library Catalogue
While a search through the library catalogue will often find a wealth of materials, particularly if one is researching a well-known subject, work, or author, it should be viewed merely as the first step in the research process. Conventional searches for materials relating to works or authors that are more obscure will often produce little or nothing. What is more, searches that do result in many "hits" will usually only be scratching the surface of available material: there is almost always more to be found. For this reason, treat a search through the catalogue as merely the first logical step in the process of compiling a list of materials.
One of the best sources for works about an author is the bibliographies and notes found in other works on the subject. As well, editions of plays, poetry, or novels will frequently include brief bibliographies of standard critical studies and articles. Similarly, biographies or briefer biographical entries usually include lists of secondary or further reading.
Another indispensable source of information is to be found in the various computer databases available through the University Library system. For literature, the best of these is the MLA (Modern Language Association) Bibliography: this is available on-line. In most cases, a key-word search for a given author or title will produce a wealth of entries dating back to the early 1960s.
Access the MLA Bibliography from a university computer or a proxy server
Access the MLA Bibliography through EZProxy
Another worthwhile place to search for secondary sources is in Proquest's Literature Online (LION) database; along with electronic texts, this resource allows for literature searches from its main menu, as well as providing a (somewhat less useful) list of secondary materials for each author included in the collection.
Access Literature Online from a university computer or a proxy server
Access Literature Online through EZProxy
A similar if more limited resource is the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, although this database tends to focus upon reviews and abstracts. And, of course, a simple subject or key-word search of the computerized library catalogue will also reveal many of the relevant secondary sources, as will a visual search of the shelves around the work being studied.
Access Arts and Humanities Citation Index from a university computer or a proxy server
Access Arts and Humanities Citation Index through EZProxy
Other resources for locating secondary sources (particularly articles) can be found at the following address:
It will be possible, of course, to find essays, reviews, etc., for many of the authors and texts that we will be studying, on the Web. While it is entirely permissible to use such sources (provided, of course, they are properly acknowledged and cited), be aware that quality-control in cyberspace is virtually non-existent: while much good information can be found at reputable sites, there is a great deal of garbage masquerading as scholarship on the Web. See Web Resources.
Annotated bibliographies for many major authors have been published: these can be very useful, in that they frequently summarize the arguments of the individual sources listed. It may not be possible to find book-length studies, or even articles devoted to some authors and/or works. This does not mean that nothing has been written on these subjects. Frequently, such authors or works will have been dealt with in more general or thematically-organized books. Remember too that a book or an article on a subject that relates to your subject can be of assistance even if it makes no specific reference to your author, or the work that you are writing about. For example, a good general book on pastoral is likely to be useful with reference to any "pastoral" text you may be researching, regardless of whether or not that text is specifically dealt with.
Should you find yourself having a difficult time locating materials, try using keyword searches (in the MLA Bibliography or Weldon computer catalogue) for thematic subjects. For instance, if the work you are researching is a satire, try entering "satire" in a search; if it is a pastoral, try "pastoral"; if it is by a woman writer, try "woman and writer," or variations on these, particularly if you are interested in the gender aspect of the work about which you are writing. Such searches will frequently bring up large selections that you can, if necessary, shorten by further refining your search. The Western Libraries have put together a very useful page of reference materials relating to English studies, at the address I have given above, which I will here repeat:
Using Web Resources
What follows is a very select list of web sites devoted to, or containing materials relevant for, the study of English literature. Most of these include, in turn, links to other web sites not included in this list.
The Web is, of course, a valuable information resource, and one that is becoming more useful almost daily with the addition of new materials. At the same time, students should remember that there are dangers associated with relying upon the Web for their research. Most of what can be found on the Web has not been refereed; this is to say that it has not be "vetted" by anyone for accuracy, intelligence, credibility, etc. before online publication. Much of what you may find is likely to have been produced by qualified and careful scholars; much else, however, will not have been.
The sites listed below are those that are generally the most reliable, useful, and relevant. However, due to the nature of the Web, and the constantly changing contents and links of these sites, inclusion below is not a guarantee of quality or reliability. Note: Ultimately, the student is responsible for the quality of the material cited in an essay or seminar, regardless of its origin.
Evaluating Web Resources
As will be evident from the comments above, some caution is advisable when employing materials to be found on the Web. A vital first step is evaluating the Web site. This can best be achieved by determining the answers to some fairly rudimentary questions:
- Who authored the site? While the author need not be an academic to make useful contributions to the interpretation of a literary work, one who is in the profession, and who has received an appropriately specialized postsecondary or graduate education, is certainly more likely to be well-informed and up-to-date.
- What are his/her qualifications? As above. It is not uncommon to find undergraduate papers published on the Web; these are not always identified as such. Such papers, however fine as undergraduate papers, are not likely to be as reliable as research resources as those produced by more qualified authors.
- Has material been properly referenced, with notes and bibliography? A properly referenced paper allows you to "follow the paper trail," verifying information where desirable, and following up leads for further information. Papers that are not properly footnoted and documented are not merely less reliable, they are also much less useful.
- Is the site associated with an identifiable (and reputable) academic institution? Again, while affiliation with a "reputable" academic institution is neither a prerequisite for, nor guarantee of, quality research and analysis, it does serve as a useful signpost. Materials prepared by or for a professional scholarly institution are simply more likely to be reliable.
- Does the site contain many obvious errors or problems (as for example typographical errors) that may indicate carelessness in its construction? Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and even simple typos can indicate that insufficient care has been taken to ensure that the content of a Web site is reliable. If the format is flawed, there is a better chance that the content too may be faulty.
- How old is the site? Is it likely to be up-to-date in its assumptions, approaches, and ideas? Most Web sites will include some kind of indication as to the date of the content. Older Web sites, or ones that have not been updated recently, may contain much worthwhile information, but they will not, of course, be on the "cutting edge" of current thinking. They will not, for example, take account of new scholarship or critical approaches.
Sites that provide no answers to the first two of these questions should be treated as somewhat suspect for this very reason. As a general rule, those sites that are most open and forthcoming with the answers to these and similar questions are most likely to be reliable.
In conclusion, remember that it is important to approach all secondary materials with a critical eye: publication, either in conventional formats, or on the Web, is no guarantee of quality. Train yourself to read critically always.
The Voice of the Shuttle
(The Voice of the Shuttle is one of the most popular and useful general "arts and humanities" web sites/databases. It has been running since 1995, from the University of California, Santa Barbara. It features an enormously varied and wide-ranging set of links to sites on literature, history, and other disciplines in the humanities.)
(Like The Voice of the Shuttle, a very comprehensive, wide-ranging and useful site, featuring links to an enormous assortment of web resources for the humanities.)
English Literature Resources
(This is an enormous site, run by the London School of Journalism in London (England), and designed as an aid for its distance-learning courses. It includes a lengthy, and rather eclectic, collection of links to sites for electronic texts, reference materials, histories of the language, literary theory, and literary criticism. Also included is a list of links for the Restoration and eighteenth-century, with some links for individual authors, including Bunyan, Swift, Pope, Fielding, Boswell and Johnson, Goldsmith and Sheridan. (I am indebted to Jessica White for directing my attention to this site)
(With particular thanks to Dr. Roger Graves and Elan Paulson . . .)
(A site designed to provide assistance to students in the Writing Programme at Western. A good first place to look.)
The University of Western Ontario Writing Program
(The Home Page for Western's Writing Program. It includes a number of great links under "Resources for Writers," including some listed here.)
The University of Toronto Writing
University of Victoria Writer's Guide
(Easy-to-navigate guide to writing essays, citing sources, defining literary terms, and understanding correct grammar usage. Check this site for essay marking symbols.)
Guide to Grammar and Writing
(Somewhat more comprehensive, award-winning guide that includes Principles of Composition and interactive grammar quizzes. Hosted by the Capital Community College Foundation.)
Online Writing Help
(This site offers a number of useful studying and writing tips. UWO students can also email their writing-related questions to writing instructors at Student Development Services.)