Most decisions about how to present your paper become easier if you think about the audience for whom you are writing. Unless your teacher tells you otherwise, it is useful to think of your audience as consisting of other members of your class. You don’t need to explain matters that are well known to anyone who has completed assignments and attended class; you do need to explain your own ideas and acknowledge any debts you have to others. You should be consistent in your format so it is easy for your reader to tell your own words from words you quote. A title helps your reader anticipate the argument of your essay; numbered pages make it easier for a reader who wants to comment on your paper to identify the passages under discussion. Fastening the pages together helps your teacher avoid confusion in a stack of papers; putting your name, and the number of the course, on every page serves the same purpose. Proofreading your final printout avoids distracting mistakes. None of these practices guarantees that a paper will be thoughtful, informed, clear and persuasive—but these practices make it easier for your reader to attend to your ideas and to respond to them as you would wish.
Here is a useful checklist:
- The first page of your paper should include your name, the course number, the instructor’s name and a title that reflects your ideas, not just the name of the work or subject under discussion. For example, “The Dead” is James Joyce’s title, not yours. “The Ironies of Irish Nationalism in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’” is a title that reflects your own thinking.
- Subsequent pages of your paper should include your name, the course number and a page number. If you wish, you can set up your computer to incorporate this information as a header.
- Acknowledge your debts. If you use words or ideas that are not your own, give credit where it is due and make it possible for your reader to find the source you are using. In a short paper that does not involve research beyond assigned readings, you may simply acknowledge an idea in parentheses, like this: (Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to Richard III in our Shakespeare anthology suggested the importance of prophecies in the play.) In a research paper, you will want to use footnotes and append a bibliography; your teacher will direct you to sources of information about appropriate formats for documentation. Good guides can be found in the “Writing and Citing Tools” section of the Mount Holyoke Library Web site.
- Titles of published volumes such as Paradise Lost or Lyrical Ballads should be italicized. Names of single poems in a collection, such as “Resolution and Independence,” or of single stories in a collection, such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” should be in quotation marks.
- When quoting three or fewer lines of verse, incorporate the quotation into your text. Example: Queen Margaret says, “Poor painted Queen, vain flourish of my fortune,/ Why strew’st thou sugar on that bottled spider” (1.3.239-240). Note that a slash indicates the line break, and the act-scene-line citation appears in parentheses after the closing quotation mark and before the period.
- When quoting more than three lines of verse, use block form, like this:
Poor painted Queen, vain flourish of my fortune,
Why strew’st thou sugar on that bottled spider
Whose deadly web ensnareth thee about?
Fool, fool, thou whet’st a knife to kill thyself.
Note that you do not enclose block quotations in quotation marks.
- When quoting prose, do not preserve line divisions, but follow the same principles to let the length of your quotation determine whether to run the quotation into your text or to use block form.
- Don’t let confusion about the right format for acknowledging a debt keep you from being intellectually honest. If necessary, append a paragraph to your paper saying where your ideas came from, such as “I got the idea of discussing the imagery in Richard III from reading G. Wilson Knight’s The Wheel of Fire. My roommate suggested the parallels between 15th century English politics and the Nixon administration.” If you can’t figure out how to make your word processor number your pages, insert the numbers by hand.
- After you print out the final copy of your paper, proofread slowly and carefully. You can correct mistakes by hand if you don’t have time or resources to reprint the paper. Remember, your goal is to be clear, honest and kind to your reader.