Writing Rules

–Developed by Robert H. Zieger, Professor of Labor History, University of Florida.  Reprinted by permission.

Extracted from Professor Zieger’s Spring 2007 syllabus for his course, History of US Labor

How to write

1. The first paragraph of a historical paper, be it a research paper, short synopsis, or book review, should contain the author’s central thesis or conclusions. The author must mention all important actors, as well as inclusive dates of coverage and basic concepts or historical developments in the first paragraph.

2. Use vigorous, direct language.  Short sentences work.  Employ concrete, precise nouns and active verbs, being careful, for example, to find active substitutes for forms of the verb “to be” and “to go.”  Inexperienced writers often erroneously think that convoluted language, long sentences, and pretentious diction impress teachers.

3.  Use the active, not the passive voice, in your prose.  The active voice places the subject before the action.  Active voice:  On opening day, Barry Bonds blasted his 71st home run.  Passive voice:  His 71st home run was blasted by Barry Bonds on opening day.  If you are uncertain on this important point, review http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/g_actpass.html

4. Avoid all first-person or surrogate references.  By “surrogate” I mean such terms as one, we, the current writer.

5. Avoid discussion of method, intentions, and structure. There is no need to intrude explicit statements of authorial intention (“In the following pages, I am going to argue that. . . .”-just state the argument) or to deliver bulletins about the paper’s structure (“This paper is divided into three sections. . . .”-just state your three central arguments or observations in a well-crafted opening paragraph).  I agree with writer Samuel Hynes that “the less obtrusive the story-teller is, the better for the story, and . . . when an assertive narrating personality shoulders his [or her] way between the reader and the subject, biography [and history] suffer. . . .”

6. Inclusion of frequent chronological references and their placement at the beginnings of sentences, paragraphs, phrases, and so forth contributes significantly to more accessible and dynamic prose.

7. It is easy to fall into stuffy, pompous, trite rhetorical patterns. Double negatives, for example, often only lend inflated importance to commonplace observations. The gratuitous imputation of erroneous views to the reader is another bad habit (as in: “It would be unfair to conclude that Nixon was a homosexual. . .”; or “It would be a gross overstatement to say that the South won the Civil War. . . .”  In both cases, the reader is being warned against making an error that the author is actually suggesting).

8. Don’t use lengthy block quotes. Always paraphrase and integrate into your own prose.  Confine quoted words to short, distinctive selections, subordinating quoted material to your own purposes and your own language.

9. There is much dismissive talk these days about so-called “political correctness.”  It is important for serious people to weigh carefully their language when referring to ethnicity, race, gender, and other politically charged subjects.  Many complaints about the need to be “politically correct” reflect a desire on the part of politically or culturally dominant groups or interests to have license in the language they use to characterize or refer to minority, subordinated, or vulnerable groups.  Language is a powerful tool.  Use it judiciously, carefully, and with due respect for your fellow human beings.  No one ever accused Adolph Hitler of being “politically correct.”

   Common errors and bad habits

1. Run-on sentences. When in doubt, start a new sentence.  Short sentences work.

2. Misplaced modifiers. (“Jumping out of bed, my shoulder hurt”; “Based on this evidence, Prof. Jones argues. . . “).

3. Quotations and punctuation marks. Remember these lifetime rules:  In American English–

Commas and periods always go inside quotation marks

Colons and semi-colons always go outside quotation marks

Question marks and exclamation points (which latter you have no need for in this paper) depend on the context.

4. Distinguish between possessives, which take the apostrophe, and plurals, which don’t. There are specific rules for plural possessives (e.g., for nouns ending in s, add apostrophe s to make the possessive; but for pluralized nouns otherwise not ending in s, just add the apostrophe). Examples: Margaritas are made with tequila (correct).  Margaritas’ [or Margarita’s] are made with lime juice (incorrect).  The Margaritas’ intoxicatory properties turned me into a zombie (correct).

5. Watch out for its and it’s.  Its is the possessive, as in “I liked the house because of its roominess.”  It’s is the contraction for it is, as in “It’s going to rain today.”

6. Adjectives and adverbs–get rid of as many as possible.  In general, the higher the proportion of verbs in your writing, the more vigorous and effective it will be.  Especially, strike the words “very” and “interesting” from your written vocabulary.

7. Comparisons and parallels.  Make sure that when you make or draw them, the terms are consistent with each other.  (“In regard to onions, Harding’s smelled stronger than Coolidge” should be stronger than “those of Coolidge” or “Coolidge’s.”)

8. Be a “which” hunter, substituting “that” wherever possible.

9. When dealing with human beings, “who” is the correct pronoun; “that” is never acceptable (as in: I met a man who [not that] once tended Sir Douglas Haig’s horse).

10. In quotations, always make clear the identity of the person whom you quote.  Every quote needs a “signature phrase,” indicating the identity and/or standing of the person being quoted.