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Style Sheet

Each discipline has its own writing conventions and expectations. The following standards apply generally to written work in history, although individual faculty may differ in some respects or propose additional guidelines for some assignments. In any case, always check with the instructor for additional requirements.

1. Title/Thesis. Every paper should have a title that states its topic or question clearly and succinctly. An effective paper will then begin with a more complete statement of its thesis or argument in the form of a topical paragraph. While the general topic of the paper should reflect the student’s interests, it will usually help to consult with the instructor about the best way to pose or frame the particular question. An appropriate thesis or argument has more than one debatable side to it; it does not take the form of a true-false statement. Thus the goal of the paper is to persuade the reader that its interpretation is insightful, reasonable, and supported by the evidence, not that it is the only conceivable one.

2. Body of the paper: The main objective here is to present, in the most coherent, effective, and reader-friendly manner, the evidence that supports the thesis or argument. The organization of the material and the “flow” of the paper should reflect a conscious effort to establish logical transitions between the ideas in a single paragraph and between the various paragraphs that make up the paper. Each sentence, moreover, should express one, but only one, complete thought; it should have a subject, a verb, and an object – there should be no sentence fragments or incomplete sentences in a formal paper. Paragraphs in such a paper should always include more than a sentence or two; and longer paragraphs should begin with a topical sentence that introduces the rest. On the other hand, avoid paragraphs that are too long, or that include too many disparate ideas.

3. Conclusion: An effective paper concludes with a final paragraph or two in which the validity of the thesis or argument is reaffirmed in light of the evidence that has been presented. This is not the place, however, to introduce new ideas or material not covered in the body of the paper.

4. Style and Format: Most History papers belong to the category of formal writing, which means that some usages that are acceptable in speaking or in informal writing are not appropriate. This is the case, for example, with contractions (i.e. “wasn’t” in place of “was not”) and such shortcuts as “etc.,” use of the first- or second-person voice ( “I,” “we,” or “you”), and many colloquial expressions too numerous to list. Wherever possible, one should also avoid the passive voice, e.g., “the election was lost by the Democrats;” it is better to say “the Democrats lost the election.” Above all, use the past tense (“Caesar conquered Gaul”), not the “historical present” tense (“Caesar conquers Gaul”), to describe past events, i.e., history. Finally, the entire paper should be typed on one side of white paper, use standard 12-point fonts and one-inch margins, be double-spaced, include page numbers, and be either bound or stapled. Because not even history professors are infallible, save a backup copy of all written work submitted.

5. Grammar. College students should be familiar already with the basic rules of English grammar and punctuation. [Where the student’s first language is not English, it will be up to him/her to bring this to the instructor’s attention.] Among the general rules to keep in mind: verbs must agree with their subjects, verb tenses should remain consistent through a sentence or paragraph, proper nouns should be capitalized, and all words must, of course, be spelled correctly – nor can spell checkers, however useful, be relied upon to recognize all spelling errors. Foreign words and phrases as well as book and journal titles should be italicized or underlined; titles of articles or book chapters belong in quotation marks. Above all, formal written work at the college level needs to be revised more than once, and then proofread carefully to eliminate typographical or grammatical errors.

6. Quotations: Direct quotations are used to support a point made in the paper, not to make the point itself. They should be used sparingly, and not be inserted without introduction or comment; each direct quotation should cite the specific source from which it has been taken. Quotations may be adjusted to fit one’s own text (e.g., to maintain agreement and keep tense consistent), but if words are added, they must be in brackets (i.e., [...]). By the same token, if part of a quotation is omitted, this should be make clear by means of ellipses (i.e. …) Direct quotes of more than three lines should be separated from the regular text, single-spaced, and indented; shorter quotes should be incorporated into the text, but clearly identified as such by quotation marks. Failure to use quotation marks to identify text passages taken from another writer constitutes plagiarism, a serious offense in academe and likely (if extensive) to result in a failing grade.

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