The Introduction

The preceding steps have led to the actual writing of the first draft of your paper. There are easily a hundred ways to attack this task. The simplest is to know what you want to say about your topic and then to say it, simply and directly. Clarity is important, too; when the paper is finished, there should be no mistaking its intent.

Start your paper with something to grab the reader’s attention. You might open with a brief quotation that sets the stage for your arguments. You could also begin with some shocking new statistics or evidence challenging the conventional wisdom on your topic. If there has been lively historiographical debate on the subject, a review of that debate could be an effective gambit. You could also simply state your thesis boldly and forthrightly.

Some approaches do not provide a forceful beginning. Avoid the simplistic “The purpose of this paper is . . . .” Don’t simply repeat the title of the paper–that serves no constructive purpose. And don’t needlessly complicate the issues in your introduction. Remember that simplicity and reasonable brevity are cardinal virtues in an introduction.

General Writing Tips

Setting down in order all the material you have gathered is not enough. The writing must reflect YOU! That is to say, it should be enriched with your thoughts on the topic, your questions of the material used, and your intellectual strength in bringing opposite opinions face to face and reaching your own conclusions.

This does not mean intruding yourself into the paper. Focus on the material, not on yourself. One of the keys is to avoid using first person in your writing. Unless it is absolutely necessary, avoid using “I” in your paper.

It is also important to make your writing strong by using the active voice rather than passive. For example, say “The President fired the general,” not “The general was fired.” It is simpler, cleaner, and more forceful. It also obliges you to identify the subject of your sentence, which can sometimes overcome lazy writing and thinking. Avoid over-use of forms of the verb “to be” as the primary verb in your writing. Again, simplicity and clarity are solid goals.

As you write, remember that when you weave quotations, opinions, or statistics into the fabric of the essay, you must both introduce them and acknowledge them in a footnote. Avoid free-standing quotations. For instance, when introducing a quotation from Johnson, Nixon and the Doves, Melvin Small’s book on the Vietnam War, you might write the following: Melvin Small calls the Tet offensive “the turning point in the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans.” This quotation would then be footnoted. Remember that you need to cite ideas, not just quotations.

Your conclusion should not simply review the facts you have presented or recapitulate your arguments. Rather, it should contain your assessment of the material, your considered judgments, and perhaps some suggestions of other topics suggested by your work. Continue to focus on the subject, not yourself, but demonstrate that you have thought through the subject. Make these last paragraphs count by saying something worthwhile.

Presentation

Your finished paper should include a title page with the title of the paper, your name, the course, instructor, school, and date. The manuscript itself should be neatly typed or printed on one side of standard white 8×11 paper. Allow an inch for margins on all sides of your text. The material should be double spaced, which means about 24 lines per page using 12 font. However, quotations of four or more lines should be indented and single spaced; since they are thus set off, they do not require quotation marks as do shorter quotations. Footnotes or endnotes should be single spaced within each note and one-and-a-half or double spaced between. Type page numbers in arabic numerals in the upper right corner of each page except the first. Page numbering can be done automatically using a computer’s “headers” function. If you use endnotes instead of footnotes, they should follow the body of the paper, with the bibliography coming last.

Proofread

Check the paper carefully yourself and have someone else proofread it as well, for it is difficult to catch your own errors. This last step can do more to impress the instructor than almost any other. Studies have shown that some instructors actually grade more on the appearance of the paper than on the content. A paper filled with sloppy, careless mistakes will make it hard for the instructor to appreciate the wisdom and insight of your writing. This last step does require you to plan ahead and not complete your paper three minutes before it is due. Your foresight will be well rewarded.

This document last updated February 17, 2010.