Writing Guidelines


·        Introduction:  These comments derive from my reading of thousands of papers by WPI students during the past 30 years, and present suggestions, analyze common mistakes and other problems, and in general provide advice designed to help you write better papers (and essays and reports and proposals) throughout your work with me in this course (or for this project), your entire academic career at WPI, and afterward.  Many WPI students have found earlier versions of these notes quite useful, and I thus strongly urge students enrolled in the classes I teach (and preparing projects under my direction) to consult these pages regularly and to refer to them often as they prepare their essays.


Most generally, please remember that writing takes time and that any effective paper (or essay or report or proposal) has to lead its readers to one or more specific conclusions.  Examples of such conclusions include your view of a particular event, or your interpretation about the past, or your evaluation of a specific individual, or your policy recommendation, or your demonstration that you could do a specific job.  (Note that conclusions go well beyond simple opinions.)  You must thus construct your paper (or essay or report or proposal) so that it will effectively demonstrate your abilities and insights and lead your readers directly to your conclusions.  In preparing your paper (or essay or report or proposal), you will thus not simply “write up” the results of your research but will, instead, construct an argument designed to convince your readers.  For these reasons, in planning your term (or project or research or whatever), make sure to schedule the time you will need to produce the results you want.


·        Comments on Format and Presentation:

o       Please follow explicit instructions.

o       Doing so will help you respond to your readers’ needs.

§         You will not get a contract with a proposal that ignores the RFP’s instructions.

o       For papers in classes I teach, please avoid staples and binders.

o       Typewrite or (preferably) word-process your papers, using only one side of each page.

§         Submit only clean and neat (and thus easily readable) papers.

o       In general, unless asked otherwise, avoid justified right-hand margins unless your word-processor can produce proportional spacing.

§         Papers with justified right margins and without proportional spacing are much harder to read than those with ragged-right margins.

o       More generally, make sure you can control your word-processor before you use it to prepare anything for submission.

§         Avoid using more fonts and typefaces than you really need.

§         Do not distract your readers from the points you want to make.

o       Number your pages.

o       Indent your paragraphs.

o       Only use printers that can produce “true descenders” and letter-quality or correspondence-quality printing.

§         Never submit a paper produced using draft-quality printing.

o       Make sure that you have a new (or fairly new) black (or blue) ribbon (or ink cartridge) in your printer or typewriter.

§         I.e., make sure your readers can readily read what you submit.

o       Make sure to underline titles of books in your text.

§         If your word-processing system cannot underline automatically, add underlining neatly by hand.

o       To indicate notes, use Arabic numbers as superscripts or in parentheses;  i.e., do not use upper-case or lower-case Roman numerals or subscripts.

o       Be careful and make sure to proofread what you submit.

§         Use your word-processor’s spelling checker, but know that it will not catch all errors.

§         E.g., there vs. their vs. they’re.

o       For your work to be read seriously, present it seriously.

§         E.g., make sure to transcribe all words and, especially, all names and titles, correctly.

o       Many student essays would be much better if they were slightly longer.

§         I.e., use enough words. Bring in enough detail to make your point.

§         Concision is a virtue, and a concise paper that makes its points clear is more effective than a longer one.

§         But a longer paper that conveys its meaning is more effective than a shorter paper that does not.

o       Illustrations (such as figures, diagrams, and pictures) can often provide important evidence and support for the points you want to make.

§         If you use illustrations, make sure that they are large enough and clear enough to convey all you want them to.

§         And make sure to provide all that your readers need to find them useful, including:

o       Source notes.

o       Captions explaining both how they relate to your topic and how they support your conclusion.


·        Comments on English Usage:

o       Write in standard, formal, literate English.

o       Avoid sloppiness.

o       Again, nobody will take seriously anything that you do not take seriously yourself. 

o       For example:

§         Avoid contractions.

§         Avoid sentence fragments and run-on sentences.  That is, avoid “commas splices.” 

§         “It’s” is a contraction of “it is.”  “Its” is the possessive form of the pronoun “it.”  “Its’” is not an English word.

§         Check your spelling.  Use your word-processor’s spelling checker.  But do not assume that doing so is enough.

o       Some spellings -- such as developement and lead (for led) and ect. -- come close to demonstrating illiteracy.

§         Use U.S. spellings.  E.g., avoid “labour” and “centre.”

§         Use appropriate punctuation.  Commas and semi-colons have their uses, and can help you convey your meaning.

§         Be sure that the antecedents of your pronouns are obvious.

o       WPI students often use “this” as a pronoun without any clear antecedent.  This practice often causes much confusion.

§         Do not split infinitives.  The goal of history is “to understand fully” and not “to fully understand.”

§         Note the difference between “e.g.” (which abbreviates “exempli gratia,” Latin for “for example”) and i.e., (which abbreviates “id est,” Latin for “that is”.)

§         Make sure you know the meaning of the words you use.

§         Be sure to use the right word. Use words accurately and precisely.

o       E.g., do not use “say” when you mean “write.”

o       E.g., “scientific” is not a synonym for “rational” or “planned.”

o       Use an up-to-date, reliable English dictionary as often as you have to.

§         In the early 21st century, “man” and “men” do not have the same meaning as “humankind” and “humanity.”

§         In the same way, ships and countries (such as the United States) should be referred to as “it,” and not “she.”

o       These are two examples of how the English language has changed during the past 25 years or so.

o       Keep this point in mind when using older sources.

§         “Effect” is a noun.  “Affect” is (in most cases) a verb.  I always confuse the two, so I try to avoid either word in my writing.

o       Similarly, “quote” is a verb;  “quotation” is a noun.

§         Most authors find the verb “being” extremely difficult to use correctly.  Consequently, many never use the word as a verb.

§         Avoid imprecise quantitative phrases like “a lot of” or “several.”

o       I.e., enhance your argument by using specific numbers or, especially, precise comparisons.

§         In general, avoid writing what you (or your subjects) “feel” about a matter.  “Think” and “believe” are usually more accurate.

o       I.e., “feel” usually implies some sort of emotional involvement with the subject under discussion.

§         Write in sentences.  Avoid sentence fragments or run-on sentences.

§         Avoid overlong and overshort paragraphs.

o       Few paragraphs should continue for a page and a half.

o       Few points that require a paragraph can be made in one sentence.


·        Comments on Writing:

o       Titles should be clear and grammatically correct.

o       Avoid the passive voice.  Use the active voice whenever you can.

§         Doing so helps you answers such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how.

o       I.e., just the questions that historians seek to answer.

o       Avoid superlatives.  Few things are ever “first” or “best” or “most.”

o       Similarly, avoid absolute and over-general statements, especially when you cannot provide evidence for them.

o       Avoid overlong introductions.  They suggest that you are trying to fill space, or hoping to hide a lack of understanding.

o       Similarly, avoid masses of undigested and irrelevant detail.

§         E.g., a long discussion of your subject’s family life.

§         These typically get in the way of your argument.

§         And also suggest that you are trying to fill space, or hoping to hide a lack of understanding. 

§         I.e., all the detail you present should promote your argument.

o       Make sure that your argument follows logically.

§         I.e., each step should follow what precedes it, and should lead into what follows it.

§         Remember what you learned in 10th-grade geometry.

o       Never rely heavily on quotations, especially from secondary sources.

§         This practice also suggests that you are trying to fill space, or hoping to hide a lack of understanding.

§         In general, avoid quotations from secondary sources altogether.

§         Pithy quotations from primary sources, however, often do add much.

o       Avoid practices that confuse your readers.

§         Do not refer to an individual or a book in your text when you have only introduced the name or title in your notes.

§         If you introduce an individual in one paragraph, but only give his title in the note to that paragraph, do not (in the next paragraph) refer to the person by his title.

§         If you present quotations in your text but only identify their sources in a note, do not in your next paragraph refer to these quotations by their sources.


·        Comments on Citations:

o       Citations have many uses besides providing the sources of quotations.

§         They are used in formal writing to provide all sorts of information and insight clearly and concisely.

§         See the “Statement on Documenting Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism” issued by the WPI Department of Humanities and Arts.

§         Using citations effectively strengthens your presentation greatly.

o       Make sure you use the citation style required (or suggested) by the professor (or the journal, or the agency, or the company) to whom (or which) you are submitting your paper or proposal.

o       Several different citation styles are clearly presented in:  Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 6th edition, revised by John Grossman and Alice Bennett (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

§         I personally prefer endnotes, but will accept any of the styles spelled out in this Manual, as long as the style is used carefully and consistently, and provides all required information. 

§         In general, however, if a professor (or a journal or an agency or a company) has his (or her or its) own style sheet, make sure to use it.

o       If you do use footnotes or endnotes, make sure to number all citations consecutively within an essay or chapter. 

§         Use Arabic numbers for citations, and not asterisks nor upper-case or lower-case Roman numerals. 

o       If you use endnotes, do not call them footnotes.

o       Make sure to include all relevant information in your citations.

§         Give your readers all that they need to judge your sources’ reliability.

§         See Turabian, A Manual for Writers, chapter 8.

o       Dates and edition numbers are particularly important.

o       As noted, while citations should be used to give sources for quotations, they also have many other uses.

§         See Turabian, A Manual for Writers, paragraph 8.3.

o       Use ibid. where appropriate.  See Turabian, A Manual for Writers, paragraphs 8.85-8.87.

o       For later references to an item where ibid. is inappropriate, avoid op. cit. 

§         See Turabian, A Manual for Writers, paragraph 8.88-8.96.

§         Instead, use the author’s name and a shortened title.

§         See the style used in these notes.

§         If you use short titles in your footnotes or endnotes or internal citations, make sure they are long enough to be meaningful.

§         E.g., in a paper on dictionaries, “Webster’s” is ambiguous.

o       When citing a reprint edition of a book, be sure to give the book’s original publication date.

§         See Turabian, A Manual for Writers, paragraph 8.46-8.47.

o       Do not use, in endnotes and footnotes, the format recommended for parenthetical references

§         Cf. Turabian, Manual for Writers, chapter 11.

o       When citing a chapter by one individual in a book edited by another, make sure to cite the author’s name and the chapter’s title, in addition to the editor’s name and volume’s title.

§         E.g., R. J. Forbes, “Mesopotamian and Egyptian Technology,” in Technology in Western Civilization, vol. 1, The Emergence of Modern Industrial Society, Earliest Times to 1900, edited by Melvin Kranzberg and Carroll W. Pursell, Jr. (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 26-47.

§         See A Manual for Writers, paragraph 8.38.

§         I.e., give the author the credit that he or she earned.

o       Provide analogous information for trustworthy specialized encyclopedias, such as the Dictionary of American Biography and the Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

§         E.g., James G. Leyburn, “William Graham Sumner,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by David L. Sills (New York:  Macmillan and the Free Press, 1968), vol. 15, pp. 406-409.

o       When citing on-line sources, make sure to provide the information that readers needs both:

§         To find the source in question;  i.e., its title and its URL;

o       Make sure to identify a Website’s overall title, and not simply the title of one of its sub-sections.

§         To evaluate its reliability;  e.g., information about the individuals who and institutions that created it and sponsored it.

§         A Website that does not readily provide such information is probably not worth trusting.


·        Comments on Sources:

o       Avoid general encyclopedias.  They are typically much too derivative to be useful for academic writing.

§         But specialized encyclopedias -- like the American National Biography, the Dictionary of American Biography, and the Dictionary of Scientific Biography -- often contain excellent secondary articles on their subjects.

o       Avoid using picture books unless you make effective use of the iconographic evidence they present.

§         And if you use illustrations, make sure that they are large enough and clear enough to convey all you want them to;  and to provide all your readers need to find them useful.

o       Avoid political biographies of statesmen, and public-relations biographies of distinguished corporate researchers.

o       Note the date of all sources you consult.  A 50 year old book is not apt to reflect the latest research on its subject.

o       In general, avoid citing my lectures.

§         For some of the courses I teach, however, these presentations at times reflect the latest scholarship that has yet to be published.

o       Use on-line sources especially carefully.  Some present the latest research on their subjects.  But others are simply general encyclopedias.  Still others merely reflect the uninformed biases of their creators.

§         Quite simply, since you should not believe everything you read, you should not believe everything you find on-line.

§         Evaluate on-line sources just as you evaluate printed sources.

§         Who prepared the material you are consulting?  Who issued it?


·        Comments on Historical Writing:

o       Organize your paper so as to “prove” your thesis.

§         Remember all you learned in 10th-grade geometry.

o       As the subject of history is the past, it is usually best to write history in the past tense.

§         In particular, avoid the conditional tense.

§         I.e., history deals with what did happen, and not what would happen, or would have happened, or could have happened.

o       In general, organize a paper about the past in chronological order.

§         Doing so allows you to trace sequence and influence and development through time.

§         Jumping around confuses your readers, and can lead you to omit major details, to miss significant links, and to repeat yourself.

o       Repetition, in particular, comes close to demonstrating a lack of understanding of your subject.

o       Bring in dates.  They allow you to make points about sequence and influence and development.  Be precise about when.

o       In addition, be precise about who, what, and where.  Imprecision demonstrates, and leads to, confusion.

§         These details will allow you to argue “why” and “how”;  i.e., to present an effective thesis about the past.

o       Avoid speculation.  Never claim that something “must have” occurred in this way or that.

§         E.g., do not claim that the French “must have” respected Franklin’s scientific achievement.

o       Instead, show that they respected it by providing evidence about his reception in France.

§         E.g., to claim that the earliest humans “must have” used trial-and-error (or insight) to develop their technology is to claim something that cannot be demonstrated readily.

o       And that could be argued effectively only after a detailed review of archaeological evidence.

o       Avoid hero worship.  Yes, the subjects about whom WPI student write typically deserve our respect.  But they were not superbeings.

o       Similarly, avoid presenting an individual’s conclusions and claims as facts.

§         I.e., do not write that a person “proved” or “showed” that which he or she “claimed” or “concluded” or “argued for.”

o       To state that history (or science or technology) “progresses” or “improves” or “advances” usually oversimplifies the past and often assumes something that may not be true.

§         Historians thus typically try to write about “development” and “evolution” and, especially, “change.”

§         Historians of technology generally prefer to write specifically about the precise ways in which later technologies were “more labor efficient” or “more energy efficient” or “easier to maintain” than earlier technologies

o       Most generally, always explain comparative terms like “better,” “more precise,” “clearer,” “more significant,” and the like.

§         I.e., analyze why and how one thing was different from another.

o       An argument in support of a thesis, or that responds to an assignment, should never be based on a simple appeal to an authority.

§         E.g., in tracing the relationship between two individuals, do not simply write that “the text claims A influenced B.”

o       Instead, review B’s work and ideas and show how they resemble A’s.

o       In writing about the past, remember that nothing “proves” or “disproves” a thesis.

§         Instead, for example, England’s rapid industrialization after 1700 provides evidence in support of the Weber thesis.

§         And, for example, Roman architecture provides evidence of the limitations of the Farrington thesis.

o       Counterfactual arguments -- i.e., statements that argue that “without A, B could not have occurred” -- are typically quite weak.

§         That is, since A did occur, we know little about what would have happened if it had not occurred.

§         A much stronger presentation would argue that “A made B possible because ...”

§         Focus on what did happen;  i.e., what you have evidence about.

o       On the other hand, comparative analyses -- which compare the course of events in two (or more) different settings, or at two (or more) different times -- can often reveal much.

o       Most historians (and historical interpretations) are not biased or opinionated or prejudiced or bigoted.

§         Instead, each historian brings to his or her work a unique set of skills and background.  These help determine the kinds of questions that he or she asks, the kinds of evidence that he or she seeks out, and the kinds of theses and interpretations that he or she prefers. 

§         All professionally trained historians, however, share at least a basic agreement as to which extreme approaches, methods, and so forth should be avoided.

o       Most generally, provide the detail you need to support the interpretation about the past you offer in your paper.

§         Make sure not to omit the details that your readers need to follow your argument.

§         But avoid (what philosophers call) the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.”

o       I.e., being more concerned about minor points than major ones.

o       E.g., determining with great confidence the address of your subject’s office while downplaying what he did there.

o       E.g., tracing in great detail the succession of your subject’s teachers without discussing what they taught him.


·        Specific Comments on History of Science and Technology:

o       Technology is much more than invention or innovation.

§         Most historians agree that a more accurate (but still incomplete) definition would address all (or at least most) aspects of humanity’s attempt to control the natural world.

o       Consequently, arguments based on appeal to “increases” in the “amount” of technology through time miss the point.

o       Stronger arguments would appeal to specific ways in which particular technologies have changed through time.

o       And, most importantly, to the specific influences of these specific changes.

o       Most historians agree that while much (but certainly not all) late-20th-century technology is (in some way) based upon “applied science,” science played little (but not no) role in the development of technology before ca. 1830.

§         This is one very important example of how which technology has changed in the past half millennium.

§         And the nature and course of this change -- i.e., how did (much) technology become based (in some way) on “applied science”? -- is a very important historical question to which many historians of science and technology are devoting their careers.

§         E.g., It is not obvious how the design of bridges or heat engines evolved from crafts based on rules-of-thumb and cut-and-try techniques into construction engineering and power engineering.

o       New technologies are rarely simply “labor-saving” and do not typically respond to “necessity.”

o       Instead, many are “enabling,” and respond to all sorts of other needs and interests.

o       If you want to argue that a specific technological innovation did save labor, or material, or …, do not simply state the claim.

o       Instead, present appropriate evidence, and argue the case.