Essay style and form expectations

Many traditions exist concerning college writing, and most professors will expect that you know them.  What follows is a list of some of the most commonly expected stylistic and form-related expectations.

  • Use present tense, except when another tense is absolutely necessary.  When you write about literature, you should write as though the actions in the text take place right now (for example: “Hamlet sees his father’s ghost.”).  Also, be consistent in your tense; avoid slipping into the present progressive tense (“she is arguing”) and instead use the simple present tense (“she argues”).
  • Use an author’s first and last name when you mention him or her for the first time (“William Blake”).  After that, refer to the author by last name only (“Blake”).  The same is true of any real person.  For fictional characters, you can do the same, but you will not receive the last name of many fictional characters (so, in those cases, first names — or whatever names you are given — are just fine).
  • Avoid dictionary definitions unless you’re using a definition that differs from the conventional one. C.S. Lewis summed up this issue nicely: “Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense. Otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so.”
  • When you start a new paragraph, don’t use pronouns to refer to a character or person (“He further asserts …”).  That can get confusing.  Instead, mention the person or character’s name (“Smith further asserts …”).
  • Spell out numbers (“twenty-two,” not “22”) for numbers smaller than 100.  Do not spell out numbers when providing specific dates, however (“August 20, 1987” is a specific date, but “nineteenth century” is not).  The only exception to this is if you quote something that uses a number rather than spelling that number out — do not change the quote.
  • When using a quotation, remember that you are quoting the text; “quoting” means providing someone else’s direct wording.  Do not write that an author quotes something (“Wordsworth quotes ‘we have given our hearts away'”  is incorrect usage).
  • If you want to use an acronym, provide its meaning when you first reference it, followed by the acronym in parentheses.  That would look something like this: “Andrews will take a position in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) next year.”  Then, every subsequent time you want to use that phrase, you can use the acronym.
  • Avoid use of “you” in formal writing.  It’s often not applicable (“It’s the sort of video game you play when you’re frustrated” won’t work in any essay written for one of my classes, for instance, because I don’t play video games), or it at very least might be inapplicable.  Try to avoid “I” as well — unless the assignment specifically calls for personal experiences or reflections — so that your essays don’t read as though you think you’re the center of the universe.
  • Use proper formatting when mentioning titles of stories, movies, essays, or other texts or works of art.  Names of movies, plays, books, newspapers, and television shows should be italicized (The Godfather, Seattle Times, Family Guy).  Names of short stories, short poems, or essays take quotation marks (“The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”).
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