Professor Celia A. Easton
Department of English State University of New York College at Geneseo 

Read a successful essay on Thucydides written by a student in my Fall 1999 section of Humanities 220.

Conventions of Writing Papers in Humanities

The first thought any writer should give to a paper is not "What am I going to say?" but "Who is my audience?"  You can think of the audience of your Humanities paper as an informed and intelligent fellow student.  Ultimately, of course, most essays are evaluated by a professor, but that professor is not a bored or sneering reader looking for a single interpretation.  The professor is interested in the same work that you are writing about, probably knows a good deal about it, and wants to be persuaded by a claim that you make about your topic.  You are writing to someone who knows the work at least as well as you do, so do not fill up your paper with plot summary.  Your job is to remind your audience of passages in the text that provide evidence for the argument you want to create about your topic.

Organization.  All college essays need an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.  In your Humanities paper, the essay's introduction invites your reader into your analysis and provides a thesis that describes the direction of your argument.  The essay's body is composed of a series of close, interpretive readings of passages from the Humanities text that support the assertion of your thesis.  The essay's conclusion thoughtfully reflects on what you have presented in the paper.  It does not simply repeat your thesis.

1.  START:

Introductory pitfalls.  The following are errors that inexperienced writers make when writing introductory paragraphs.

Praising the bard.  Frightened at the blank five or ten pages they have yet to fill, some students rely on a warm-up sentence that goes something like this: "The great Renaissance poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, masterfully wrote his famous play, Hamlet, just as the sixteenth century drew to a close."  Rarely do opening lines like this have anything to do with the thesis of the paper, and they should be edited out in the final draft.  Your professor and your fellow students are doubtless aware of Shakespeare's (or Locke's or Woolf's) well-received reputation and have no need for information extraneous to your topic.  Only include such phrases if they startlingly contrast commonly received ideas.  E.g., "Many have praised Shakespeare as the greatest of poets writing in English, but he is far surpassed by the exquisite wit and expression of the stand-up comedian Andrew Dice Clay."  Be prepared, of course, to defend your extraordinary claims.

Lab talk.  The noun "essay" is derived from a French verb that means "to try" or "to attempt."  When you write an essay, you are yourself using a literary form.  An essay is an extended work of prose composed to explore or examine an idea.  It is not a scientific proof, and the rhetoric of the laboratory has no place in your Humanities essay.  In poorly written essays, such "lab talk" shows up in a sentence like this: "In this paper I will prove that Gulliver maintains his ironic role through the end of the fourth book of Swift's Gulliver's Travels"  You may, indeed, follow a scientific route in crafting an inductive argument, one that gathers examples and draws conclusions by examining them together.  But inductive arguments, as any scientist will tell you, are never exhaustive.  Claims of proof about an object of interpretation will not lend your paper any authority.  You gain authority through the originality, thoroughness, and intelligence of your analysis.

Therapy thesis.  Most people have had the experience of being personally moved by a literary work.  Harry Mulisch's novel, The Assault, or James Baldwin's novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, might parallel a self-discovery experience you have had.  Reading a poem like Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" might force you to face your love and grief for a parent or relative who has died.  The cathartic power of art has been appreciated since the days of the early Greeks, and an emotional response to a work of literature is a legitimate response.  When Odysseus bows his head to hide the tears he sheds in listening to the singing of the poet in the court of the Phaiakians, however, he is not writing a Humanities essay.  The fact that a poem or a play touched a raw nerve is great.  But not every response we have to a text is an appropriate response for a college essay.  You need not deny your feelings in your essay; you simply need to take care that they  do not assume the place of analysis.  Make sure you discuss the primary source, rather than simply focusing on what it reminds you of in your life.

Good Starts. It is as impossible to prescribe a formula for the opening line of a Humanities essay as it is to tell a philosopher, historian, or novelist what the first line of her work should be.  If you believe that your purpose is simply to satisfy an assignment that scarcely interests you, feel free to start your essay with a sentence that will allow your reader to share your boredom.  But if your object is to attract the interest of your reader, craft a sentence about your topic that introduces it in a dignified, yet unexpected, manner.  An essay's topic is the narrowed down idea you have decided to discuss as it relates to the text you are considering.  E.g., you might choose to write about scatological references in Gulliver's Travels.  Somewhere within your first paragraph you want to include a sentence or two that describes your thesis.  A thesis is your assertion about your topic, a statement that indicates to your reader what the direction of the argument in your essay will be.  Just as you want to avoid hubristic claims of "proof" in your thesis, you should also avoid shy qualifications.  There is no need to muffle your thoughts with phrases like, "I believe that" or "In my opinion."  Your reader assumes that everything you write that you do not attribute to another author is your opinion.

2.  GO

In the body.  Whether your essay is three pages or twenty, you want to use your space to make a case for your thesis.  While you may be required to bring in extra-textual information that has a bearing on your argument, your essay will be most successful if you pay very close attention to the primary work.

Writing analysis.  "To analyze" means to pull something apart to carefully examine the pieces.  When you analyze a treatise, a satire, a novel, or a document, you select lines or passages to INTERPRET and make a claim about the whole work.  Sometimes you analyze the author's mode of expression: Why is this choppy? clear? tongue-in-cheek? replete with biblical references?  Sometimes you interpret the objects the author has written about: Is size important?  Does Locke know anything about native Americans? Is an exploding stove symbolic of psychological repression? Is a cigar just a cigar?  Sometimes you explain the patterns of imagery and metaphors the author has created: Why is Gulliver obsessed with his excrement?  Why does Fake Ploeg start a sanitation company?  What does it mean to go "to the lighthouse"?  All of your analytical passages combine to support your essay's thesis.

Creating your own organization.  It is not necessary to imitate the chronology of the work you are analyzing.  Since both you and your reader have completed a reading of the text you are discussing, you can draw upon examples from all sections of that text in whatever order best suits your argument.

Limiting Description.  When writing about a treatise, a satire, a novel, a document, etc., remember that your reader already knows the plot or substance of the text.  Concentrate on how the author expresses what happens.  You can refer to events and ideas without describing them as though they were completely new to your reader.  E.g., rather than telling your reader, "Jefferson argues for the American colonies to break away from the domination of Britain," you can say, "Jefferson's argument that the American colonies break away from the domination of Britain combines inductive reasoning with an emotional rhetorical appeal."  From there you would provide textual examples, and comment upon each one you select.

Using Secondary Sources.  Secondary sources  include textbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries, books on a subject, journal articles, AND introductions and notes included with a primary source.  Cliffs Notes and other "study guides" are unacceptable secondary sources for a college-level Humanities paper.  The works assigned for this course, except for the optional history text, are all considered "primary sources" for the purposes of the essays you write.

When you are required to incorporate secondary sources into your essay, you must make sure that you are not simply writing a report.  Your essay is still governed by your thesis.  Never let a secondary source dominate your essay.  It offers supplementary information to your interpretation of the primary text.  ALL information that you derive from a secondary source must be noted.  Please use the parenthetical documentation style that appears below.

Using quotations.  Here is an oxymoron on the use of quotations: sparse bounty.  It is hard to claim that you are interested in the way an author expresses himself if you fail to demonstrate that expression in your essay.  On the other hand, you want to make sure that the passages you quote, whether in a primary or secondary source, need to be quoted.  Quote only passages that would lose their effectiveness if they were paraphrased.  Never use a quotation to substitute for your own prose.  Your prose must control your essay.  This is particularly important when you draw upon secondary critical sources.  Unless you are going to analyze a long passage of criticism, you should paraphrase what the author has to say.  ALWAYS INCLUDE A TAG LINE ON ANY QUOTATION YOU INCLUDE IN THIS ESSAY.  For example, a minimal tag line might be

 In The Second Treatise of Government, John Locke claims, " . . . ."

Is this clear?  Handbook writers call quotations without tag lines "dropped quotations."  A quotation should never appear in the prose of your essay without some of your words attached to it.  Don't just borrow someone's else's words because they sound good (even if you provide a citation).  Writing is hard work.  Do it.

Plagiarism.  When you use secondary sources, and when you refer to the primary work, you must be sure to cite your source properly or you may be guilty of plagiarism.  You will find formats for citing sources at the end of this document.  Whether you intend to cheat or not, if your paper does the following, you will--at the very least--receive a failing grade for your essay (usually a zero).  The College defines plagiarism this way: "(1) Direct quotation without appropriate punctuation and citation of source; (2) Paraphrase of expression or thought without proper attribution; (3) Dependence upon a source for a plan, organization or argument without appropriate citation."  Other forms of cheating, such as representing someone else's work as your own, will be punished in consultation with the Dean of the College.

There are also positive reasons to cite sources.  Your reader will certainly want to know the context of your quotation or paraphrase.  If a secondary work sounds interesting, your reader may want to know where to find it.  Finally, it is important to distinguish another writer's ideas from your own so that you get credit for the original thinking you have done.

3.  STOP

Weak conclusions.  The following are inappropriate ways to conclude a Humanities essay:

Sudden stop.  One way to avoid the task of reflecting upon what you have just written is to omit your conclusion and simply end your paper with your last example.  Both you and your reader will find this unsatisfying, however.  A conclusion makes you responsible for what you have claimed.  Think of it as the opportunity to assert something about your topic that you could not have asserted before you presented your examples.  Most writers find that they have made discoveries about their topic in the process of writing their essays.  This is why an essay takes at least two drafts.  Instead of an abrupt stop, indicate the kind of discovery your interpretative examples have made possible.

Apology.  Some writers do not like such responsibility.  Insecure writers may end their papers with sentences such as these:
"I really do not know what to make of this."
"I ran out of time and I could not draw this together."
"I was very upset while I was writing this and I hope you will take that into consideration while you are grading it."
"I'm sorry this isn't any better than it is.  I didn't budget my time well."
Don't apologize.  If your paper is indeed as dreadful as your apology suggests, your whining only underscores its inadequacies.  If your paper is actually not all that bad, an apology could undermine the favorable impression you have made.  Apologetic lines have nothing to do with your argument, so they do not belong in your essay.  Do yourself a favor, as well, and keep them off post-it notes and index cards attached to your essay.  Apologize to yourself if you are unhappy with your performance, and take responsibility for the work you hand in.

As a famous writer once said. It is tempting to end your paper with a quotation.  Weary after five or ten pages of your own prose, you turn to a pithy, artistic phrase to stop the show.  Again, you may be neglecting your responsibility here if you try to let someone draw your conclusion for you.  Take the time to reflect on what you have written and explain those reflections to your reader.  Use a quotation to complement??not to substitute for??your thoughts.

As I've just said.  Any writer can be proud of completing five or ten pages of thoughtful, well executed prose.  Writing is time-consuming, hard work.  Remember, however, that it will not take your reader nearly as long to read your work as it took you to write it, and most readers can remember what they have just read in a brief essay.  In a college essay, if you weigh down your conclusion with a repetition of what you have just said, you risk insulting your reader's intelligence.  Use the key words you have focused on in the course of the essay to trigger your reader's memory.  In some science writing, a conclusion does conventionally repeat what has been stated in the body.  Remember to distinguish Humanities essays from science essays.

Good endings.  Put your pen down.  Take your fingers off the keyboard.  Think about why you care about this topic.  Without looking at the words you have written, but fully informed by the examples you have provided in the body of the essay, write a draft of a concluding paragraph.  Start a few sentences this way: "This approach to this novel is important because _______."  "I now understand ______ about this topic, because _______."  "After spending time with this philosopher I can see that he ________."  When you compose your final draft of this concluding paragraph, edit out these phrases and keep the assertions in the blanks.  The draft sentence, "After spending time with this philosopher I can see that he is not really religious but he includes many biblical quotations in his essay to make himself sound more credible" BECOMES in a final edited version, "John Locke infuses the Second Treatise with biblical quotations to gain rhetorical credibility rather than to demonstrate religious faith."   You remind your reader of your discussion, and you conclude with a well-founded claim.  Expand in a few more thoughtful sentences, and you have your conclusion.

Format.  The following examples of documentation style follow the MLA Handbook.  Always check with your professors to find out what documentation style they prefer.

Paper set up: (For Professor Easton's students) Use a typewriter or printer with a clear black ribbon/ink, etc.  If you use chemically treated paper, turn in a photocopy rather than the original.  If you have trouble controlling the margins of your printer, use scissors and tape, then turn in a photocopy rather than the original.  The papers I receive should have:

  • approximately one inch margins on all sides
  • page numbers in the upper right hand corner of each page (you may do this by hand; do not number page one)
  • your name, the course number, your professor's name, and the date typed in the upper right hand corner of the first page of your paper (no cover sheet).
  • one staple or paper clip to hold the pages together (no report covers)
  • a final page (which should be numbered but does not count in your total pages) headed with the title "Works Cited."  Do not put that phrase in quotation marks.  List all books you have cited, even if there is only one book in your list.
  • no footnotes or endnotes, unless they are explanatory (all citations will be parenthetically noted in your text).
  • Center the title of your paper at the top of the first page of your essay (beneath your name, etc.).

    Here is an example of a parenthetical citation for a primary source:

    Fielding satirizes the hypocritical intellectualism of the clergy through the utterances of Parson Barnabas in Joseph Andrews.  Pushed for an explanation of spiritual requirements by Joseph, who believes he will die shortly, Barnabas defines by tautology: "Joseph desired to know what [Christian] forgiveness was.  'That is,' answered Barnabas, 'to forgive them as -- as -- it is to forgive them as -- in short, it is to forgive them as a Christian'" (Fielding, 49).  Exhausted by his physical condition, Joseph abandons his spiritual quest. Fielding implies that Barnabas' healthy parishioners are regularly exhausted by their spiritual leader's obfuscated doctrine.
    After the quotation, paraphrase or use of another author's idea, write a parenthetical citation using the author's last name and the page number(s).  Do not say "page" or "p."  If you have mentioned the author in your sentence, you can simply supply the number, like this: (49).  In this example, the essay writer includes a quotation that contains a quotation, and indicates this with double and single quotation marks.  The quotation comes from page 49 of Fielding's novel.  Quotation marks are placed at the beginning and end of the quotation, but the period follows the parentheses.  The bracketed word, "Christian," does not appear in Fielding's sentence (the word "that" appears, instead), but "Christian" is implied by a portion of the text not quoted, and the bracketed word clarifies the quotation for the reader.  The reader can turn to the "Works Cited" page and find this listing:

    Fielding, Henry.  Joseph Andrews.  Ed. Martin C. Battestin.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

    Here are some other sample bibliographic entries for a "Works Cited" page.

    Mulisch, Harry.  The Assault.  Trans. Claire Nicolas White.  New York:

    Pantheon, 1985.
    Locke, John.  Second Treatise of Government.  Ed. Richard Cox.  Arlington
    Heights: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1982.
    Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver's Travels.  Ed. Louis A. Landa.  Boston: Houghton
    Mifflin, 1960.
    For an article that appears in a journal with continuous paging throughout a single year:

    McLuhan, Marshall.  "Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land."  New

    Literary History 10 (1979): 557-580.
     The second and subsequent lines of a bibliographic entry are indented one tab space to highlight the last name of the author in the first line.  Note that the writer does not include either "vol." or "pp."  The format of the entry indicates to the reader that the volume is 10 and the article is found on pages 557-580.

    For a book by more than one author:

    Anderson, Bonnie S., and Judith P. Zinnser.  A History of Their Own: Women

    in Europe from Prehistory to the Present.  Vol. 1.  New York: Harper

    and Row, 1989.  2 vols.

    Here, the writer indicates that only the first volume of a two volume work has been used.  "New York" here refers to the city, not the state.

    Do not number bibliographic entries.  Always use a hanging indent and alphabetize by authors' last names.  If no author is available, alphabetize by the first word of the title.

    Go to:  Geneseo English Department Homepage
               Professor Easton's Homepage