Essay Guide
Québec History
Civilisation Occidentale
About Claude Bélanger

Guide to Essay Writing and Research

Essay Writing Tips

  1. Your paper must be typewritten. Handwritten papers are not accepted anymore. Type your paper double-spaced, on only one side of the page. Leave good margins all around; this is so your paper will not look cluttered and ample space will exist for your teacher to write his comments. Number your pages consecutively. Use a good font (Ariel, Times New Roman, Courier, Maiandra GD or Comic sans MS; an excellent font for titles is Algerian and for quotations is Gaugy old style Italic). Use size 12 for letters. Make sure your printer is printing in such a manner as it will not take a toll on your reader’s eyes. This is especially the case for all of you who still use dot matrix technology. Use the equipment put at your disposal by the College if you are not well equipped yourself.
  2. Always keep a copy of your Paper. If ever your paper was to be lost, for whatever reason, by your Instructor, then you could produce another one without problem. It is your responsibility to do so. As well, keep all notes you may have taken, and early drafts of your Paper , in case they may be required by your Instructor. Be aware that sometimes these notes are important to ascertain that Plagiarism has not taken place.
  3. Always include a title page for your Paper (and all other work for that matter!). Your title page should contain: the title of your Paper, the name of the Instructor to whom it is submitted, the date of submission (not the date when it was supposed to have been submitted!), your name and the course number. Present a professional looking Paper! For a sample title page, see at the end of this package.
  4. Always place the Bibliography at the end of your Paper. List all of your sources in alphabetical order following the accepted academic norms as defined in the College’s Notes on Scholarly Style. Do not pad your Bibliography in a vain attempt to seem impressive! Remember that you are responsible for knowing all of the information that is included in the works you listed in your Bibliography.
  5. Never use the personal form. It is never impressive for your reader to see I think... or it is my opinion in your Paper. Check carefully your sources, you will see that they do not use the personal form except perhaps in the Preface. Using the personal form is a sign of conceit. Avoid it completely.
  6. Always seek to appear reasonable, responsible and professional. Maintain the proper academic tone. This does not mean that you should be boring. It does mean that you avoid excesses of language, judgement and length. You can care about an issue without resorting to emotional appeals. Before you insult authors (“the idiot never saw that...”) who have spent a lifetime studying an issue remember who you really are... Always display respect and fairness for the views of others. In the end it will make you more convincing. Do not interject personal opinions that are based solely on value judgements or ideological grounds. Analyse and follow the evidence.
  7. Stop after every paragraph and ask yourself the following questions: what was the point of this paragraph? Is it clear? Is there unity in this paragraph? Was it necessary to my thesis or did I deviate from the point and fail to adhere to my purpose? Was the point made in this paragraph well linked to the preceding paragraph? Does it prepare the reader for the following paragraph? If you cannot answer these questions appropriately then redraft the paragraph until such time as it serves a purpose that is acceptable.
  8. If you include charts, tables, graphs, pictures, maps, etc., make sure that they actually contribute something quite clearly to your thesis. Do not seek to merely decorate your Paper! If you provide the type of material listed above, then analyse it. Do not let the reader interpret these alone as the reader may see in them something quite different from you, or fail to see that which you wish to convey. Graphs, tables, charts should always have a subject heading or title and the source should always be clearly identified.
  9. Your paper should be in the 6-8 pages range, not counting the Title Page and the Bibliography. Long papers are not particularly impressive; they are often beside the point or they show an inability to summarize material and display judgement. Excessively short papers, on the other hand, often show a lack of research and superficiality. Please do not cheat by changing font and line spacing or other devices well within the grasp of even the most simple computer.
  10. Footnotes (or endnotes) are an endless source of problems. Make sure that your notes are well made. Your note should always indicate the name of the author, the title of the work cited, and the page where the information was found. Make sure that this information is accurate. Such information will be verified. Nothing destroys your credibility faster than an inaccurate reference. A note should always be made when one of the following occurs:
  • when you are quoting directly an author. In such a case, use quotation marks and indent if the quotation is more than three lines long. If indented, use only single space for your quotation.
  • when you are directly borrowing an argument or an idea from an author. Do not pretend that something comes from you if you have borrowed that idea from one of your sources.
  • when you provide some specific fact or information, not commonly known, which you have found in a source in the course of your research. If something is found in many sources, assume that it is commonly known and need not be footnoted.
  • when you wish to add supplementary information that is not vital to your argument but contributes something to its understanding.
  • If in doubt as to whether or not to make a note, it is better to err on the side of caution and make the note.
  1. Your notes should be placed at the bottom of the page; as this is difficult for most of us to do, you may, alternatively place them at the end of your Paper. This is the tradition that is always followed in history. This will require that you number all of your notes consecutively. Place such endnotes before the Bibliography on a separate sheet entitled Endnotes.
  1. Consult very carefully, in the package, the Notes on Essay Editing and Plagiarism. When you submit a Paper to me, it is understood that you know and accept the content of the “Plan d’étude” of the course, the Worksheet and the Essay Writing package. Ignorance is no excuse. It is your responsibility to read the material put at your disposal. If in doubt, come to consult with me.
  1. No serious research paper can be written without consulting at least four to six relevant specialized sources/authors. A specialized source is one written by a professional historian and published by an academic house (or a scholarly journal). It is specialized in the sense that it is written specifically, and solely, on your subject. It is thus not a work of a general nature. It excludes encyclopedias, general histories, magazines or newspapers. These latter sources of information are rarely substantial enough, frequently not written by specialists of the subject and, more often than not, have too little of serious discussion of your issue to warrant investing your time in reading them. Still, if you know nothing about a subject, you must start with general works so as to acquire a basic competence before starting the serious work.

    The general sources consulted need not be put in your Bibliography, unless they were quoted or cited explicitly. In many respects, this would be strange... It is important that you recognize “specialized” sources for three reasons:
  • so as to avoid wasting your time reading generalities from which you would not learn anything;
  • so as to avoid reading the works of non-specialists whose theories have not been subjected to academic scrutiny;
  • so as to avoid reading the work of so-called “revisionist” authors whose purpose in life is to flog some idea usually rejected by serious academics.
Specialized works will have been written by an author associated with a serious academic institution (University or College) and it will say so on the piece of work; the work will be published by a recognized academic printer; it will contain all of the trappings of an academic piece of work, including serious footnoting and a very extensive academic bibliography; there often will be a discussion of the literature (historiography) on the subject; check the Preface where another “expert” in the field will likely discuss the work and the list of credentials (professional associations, other works published, scholarships and awards received etc.). Be weary of bogus historical institutes that are never from around here and under which holocaust deniers frequently hide (fortunately that is not the case usually in Canadian/Quebec history).
  1. In choosing your sources of information make sure that you are provided with a representative range of facts and opinions. If all of your sources are saying the same thing, it may be that there is agreement on this point or it may reflect that you have not researched broadly enough. An honest researcher deliberately searches out conflicting views in order to assess all possibilities. Always show the greatest of fairness and respect for all of your authors. Unless there is compelling reason to do so, never show disdain for them.
  1. Make sure that you know how to distinguish a fact from an opinion. By its nature, a fact is indisputable while an opinion is a conclusion that is reached after an analysis of facts; you may find an opinion well founded but it can always be disputed and challenged in some fashion by somebody. Thus, if it can be disputed, that it is an opinion. The most solid evidence is always made up of facts.
  1. Avoid arguments by authorities. This type of argument is one where you rely solely on the opinion of somebody else (however well known!) to support your point of view. The “facts” are supposed to be such as you state because “such and such” a person said so! While it is rarely unfavorable to have the authorities on your side (rather than against you!) remember that it is the facts that will convince your reader.
  1. Be careful with old sources of information. A frequent misconception of students in history is that the closer the observer (or the historian) was to the event, the more the person must know about it and the more trustworthy, as a result, they become. This is frequently not true for a variety of reasons. History, like other disciplines, is a science where the passage of time has led to an accumulation of knowledge and new perspectives; nobody would think to look into a 1920 text of physics to find answers; one would assume that new knowledge has superseded the information provided in the old text. The same is true in history with the added factor that hindsight makes for 20/20 vision! As a rule, the more current the text, the more it is likely to include all of the latest findings and to provide useful insights. However, there were sometimes brilliant, and insightful, pieces written in the past and from which you can still profit. So, be critical, newer does not mean necessarily better. A knowledge of how a research question has evolved (this is called in history the field of historiography) is often essential to the understanding of current points of view. Still, do not use anything written before 1960 without consulting me first.
  1. Carefully consult the Essay Evaluation section appended to this text; it provides you with clues as to what I am looking for when I correct your Paper.
  1. Make sure that your Paper is delivered to me personally. Do not entrust it to others. It is your responsibility to see that it gets to me. Do not leave it under doors. If I am not there when you bring it to me, have it signed by a Faculty Member on the page where you wrote your conclusion; the date and the time should be indicated. Once it is signed bring it to me at the earliest opportunity; normally this would be the next morning.
  1. There is always a penalty when you are late. Consult the course outline on this subject. At a minimum, a penalty of 1% per day that you are late will be imposed. Furthermore, no paper will be accepted once the papers have been returned to class. In any case, papers may not be accepted once the period designated at the College as dead week has arrived. If there is a cause majeure or prior arrangements have been made with me, the penalties do not apply.
  1. When writing a text in history, it is customary to keep it in the past tense. It simply does not work well to put it in the present tense.
  1. If there is any discrepancy in the rules outlined here and those suggested by other sources (including Notes on Scholarly Style), follow this Guide.

Works you may consult to further your understanding of the subject of writing a history paper:

  • BENJAMIN, Jules R., A Student’s Guide to History, New York, St Martin’s Press, Sixth edition, 1994, 164p.
  • CASH, Phyllis, How to Develop and Write a Research Paper, New York, ARCO, 1988, 96p.
  • LETOURNEAU, Jocelyn, Le Coffre à outils du chercheur débutant. Guide d’initiation au travail intellectuel, Toronto, Oxford, 1989, 227p. This is one of the best texts.
  • MACE, Gordon, Guide d’élaboration d’un projet de recherche, Québec, Presses de l’Université Laval, 1988, 119p.
  • MARIUS, Richard, A Short Guide to Writing about History, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1989, 261p.
These texts are available in the Library or in my office. Do not hesitate to consult them.

Contents | Four steps of Essay Writing | Essay Writing Tips |
Essay Evaluation Scheme | Plagiarism and Essay Writing |
Notes on Research and Bibliographical Work | Sample Title Page

© 2003 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College