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Barnhill's Friendly Manual of Great Papers and Empowered Writing

by David Barnhill last modified Nov 21, 2010 05:56 PM

No, really.


I. An outline to empowered writing

II. Writing it right: avoiding common grammatical mistakes

III. Citing it right: The MLA Style

IV. A probing paper, wrestling with problematics

  • The critical mind
  • Critical thinking
  • Discovery: Writing Your Mind
  • Teaching and Convincing: Writing for the Reader
  • Unity
  • Units of Thought
  • Integration, Progression, Structure
  • Introduction
  • Conclusion
  • Explanation
  • Style

V. Two models of papers

VI. Questions to ask of your paper

VII. Grades

VIII. Pre-writing

IX. Writing resources

X. Peer editing evaluation form



Good writing is a form of empowerment. It allows you to develop your ideas more fully, communicate your ideas to your reader, and persuade other people. It also is a form of respect for your reader. Incorrect grammar and misspellings distract and annoy the reader, and hinder your ability to get your ideas across. Inefficient or incoherent writing blocks your ability to reach your reader.

There are many aspects to good writing:

  • good grammar
  • proper format
  • effective writing
  • effective use of quotations and citations
  • probing analysis
  • wrestling with complex issues and problems
  • engaging style

Common writing problems that you need to check for

Check a writing handbook (online or in print). Review these problems and how they can be corrected. Look for them in your paper and in the papers in you peer editing group.

  • I expect everyone in this class to avoid all of these problems by the time they finish the semester.

Good grammar: some of the most common mistakes:

Sentence fragments.
Comma splice.
Run-on sentence.
Improper use of semi-colon.
The problematic "it."
> Review these problems in a writing handbook before you start writing your first paper.

Proper format :
Improper or absent citations.
Improper or incomplete Works Cited page.
> Familiarize yourself with and master the MLA format

Effective writing :

The paper lacks unity.

  • The paper should have one topic and issue that clearly unifies the entire paper.

The paper lacks integration.

  • It should be obvious to the reader how every paragraph fits into the unity and purpose of the paper

Ideas are not presented as units of thought, i.e., unified paragraphs.

  • Each paragraph should have only one topic, and it should be obvious to the reader by the end of the first or second sentence of the paragraph. You should be able to underline the topic of each paragraph.

There is a lack of logical flow from one paragraph to the next.

  • It should be obvious to the reader that each paragraph flows into the next one. If it does not, there should be some indication to the reader of a change of course (new section, or the first line of a paragraph that clarifies the new direction).

Sections are redundant (repetitive).

  • Repeating ideas dilutes them and annoys the reader.

Effective use of quotations

Integrating into your paper direct quotations – from both primary and secondary sources – is often an important part of an effective paper – and almost always important in papers for my classes.

  • One of the first things I check for in a paper is the amount and effectiveness of direct quotations.

Direct quotations serve several functions:

  • They test whether your interpretation is valid. If you can’t find quotes that back-up your interpretation, it may not be accurate.
  • They make your interpretation persuasive to the readers by offering evidence that it is accurate.
  • They illustrate and clarify your interpretation for the reader.
  • They also can help you critique a view, by directly showing what you are arguing against or find problematic.
  • They give evidence to me that you have read the texts closely and understand them.
  • You always must cite the source of the quotation. Use MLA style.

In some cases, it is better to put the ideas of others in your own words.

  • Here too, you always must cite the source of the quotation. The citation helps the reader know whether what is stated is your ideas or someone else’s. If you do not cite the source, it is, technically, plagiarism.


These five mistakes are very common in college papers. It does not take much to learn how to do them right. So by the end of the semester, you will not be making them any more. Or if you do, you will pay. . . .

Semi-colon. It’s a simple rule: both what precedes and what follows a semi-colon need to be complete sentences that could stand by themselves. (What follows a colon is usually short and not a sentence.)

Example: “I have learned a lot from my experiences; the types of trees, the birds, and all the animals of the forest.” Sorry: what follows the semi-colon cannot stand as an independent sentence. Here, the semi-colon should be turned into a colo

Sentence fragments. When sentences aren’t really sentences. There are several common forms of sentence fragments

>> Those that lack a main verb . What you just read (“Those that lack a main verb") is actually a sentence fragment because it lacks a main verb.

>> Dependent clauses.

  • “Although, he decided to return home.” Wrong, because “although” sets up a dependent clause.
  • “However, he decided to return home.” That works: “however” does not set up a dependent clause.
  • So you need to know what words create dependent clauses. Perhaps the most commonly seen problems are sentences that begin Although . . . , Whereas . . . , and Because. . . .

>> Participial verbs. Verbs in their “-ing” form usually don’t work as main verbs of a sentence.

  • “Meaning that. . . .” No subject; no main verb; no sentence. It might be changed to “This fact means that. . . .” Subject, verb, and thus, sentence.
  • “Some examples being. . . .” Nope. Change it to: “Some examples are. . . .”

Comma splice. A comma splice is when a comma separates two independent sentences. Not good. Usually in these cases the comma should be replaced by a period, although a semi-colon can also be used.

Example: “Native Americans were not nearly as materialistic as we are today, they owned some things but not nearly as many as we do.” We have two sentences here spliced together with a comma. The comma should be changed to a period.

Run-on sentence. In this case, the sentence rambles on to the extent that what should be two separate sentences are connected without even a semi-colon or comma. The readers gets lost on the journey. Give your readers individual sentences so they can follow what you are say.

Example: “Native Americans were not nearly as materialistic as we are today they owned some things but not nearly as many as we do.” We have two sentences here spliced together but nothing separating them. There should be a period after “today.”

It. "It" is such a simple word. But it is often misused. There are two common mistakes made when using "it."

  • "its" and "it's" . Although we are used to using an apostrophe when making a possessive (e.g., Julie's, the world's), when you put "it" into possessive, you do NOT use the apostrophe. As in: "The book is old and its cover is torn." NOT "it's cover is torn." Why? Because "it's" is reserved for the abbreviation of "it is." So, we could say of a book: "it's common that its cover gets torn."
  • the ambiguous it. "It" is a pronoun that stands for some noun. If this trick is going to work, it has to be VERY clear to the reader what "it" is substituting for. Just because you the writer know what "it" stands for doesn't mean the reader does. So whenever you use "it," double check to make sure it is obvious to the reader what it refers to.


    There are several standard forms for citing quotations (notes) and for listing works cited (bibliography). The main ones are MLA, Chicago Manual of Style, and the APA. It is helpful to learn at least one style, and in my courses I ask you to use the MLA style. For a good summary of MLA style, see the following website: For a comprehensive summary of this style, see Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, fourth edition (New York: MLA, 1995). Below is a summary of the most common citation forms. If your type of citation is not included in this list, see the website above. Always alphabetize the entries. You are responsible for proper citation. I will return to you papers with improper citation for correction , or mark down your final paper, so you might as well get it right the first time.

    Works Cited (Bibliography)

    Article in a periodical
    Gross, Rita M. “Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 46 (1978): 269-91. Print.

    Article in a book
    LaFleur, William R. “Saigyō and the Buddhist Value of Nature.” Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought. Ed. J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. 183-208. Print.

    Book by a single author
    Sanders, Scott Russell. Writing from the Center. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. Print.

    Book by a single editor
    Warren, Karen J., ed. Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997. Print.

    Book by two authors or editors
    Herndl, Carl G., and Stuart C. Brown, eds. Green Culture: Environmental Rhetoric in Contemporary America. Madison, U Wisconsin P, 1996. Print.

    Book by three or more authors or editors
    Zimmerman, Michael E., et al., eds. Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology. Third edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. Print.

    Later edition
    See previous example.

    Repeated entries:
    If there are several texts by an author, the author’s name is replaced by three dashes.

    Williams, Terry Tempest. Leap. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.
    ---. An Unspoken Hunger Stories from the Field. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.

    Note: If the work cited is an article from an anthology of essays, you need to cite the individual article and its author (see “Article in a book” above), not simply the book and its editor.

    Sample electronic sources

    Article in online journal
    Elam, Diane. "Disciplining Woman: Feminism or Women's Studies." Surfaces 5.101 (1995): 34. 11 pp. Web. 24 June 1998.

    Article in online webpage
    Harris, Jonathan G. "The Return of the Witch Hunts." Witchhunt Information Page. Jan. 1996. Web. 28 May 1996.

    Article in online newspaper, anonymous
    "Endangered Species Act Upheld." AP Online 22 June 1998. Web. 22 June 1998.

    Article in online newspaper, with author
    Stanley, Bruce. "OPEC Mulls Output Cut to Buoy Prices." Chicago Tribune 23 July 2001. Web. 23 July 2001.


    Parenthetical notes (in-text citations)

    Parenthetical notes are used in the body of your paper to identify the source of the information (direct quotation, indirect substitute, fact, etc.). They are an alternative to footnotes and endnotes. Their advantage is the ease for both writer and reader, since the information required is minimized and placed right with the quotation or reference. Remember: failure to cite the source of your information is, technically, plagiarism. Here are the main points to keep in mind in doing parenthetical notes in the MLA style.

    1. Standard form: In the body of your paper, give the quotation, put the quotation mark without a period, then put in parenthesis the author and the page number, then a period.
    Example. “The more attentively I dwell in my place, the more I am convinced that behind the marvelous, bewildering variety of things there is one source” (Sanders x).

    2. Page number only: If you mention the authors name before the quotation, however, you need to include only the page number. Thus the above quotation could be cited as follows:
    Example. At the end of his Preface, Sanders states that “The more attentively I dwell in my place, the more I am convinced that behind the marvelous, bewildering variety of things there is one source” (x).

    3. Author and title: If your Works Cited includes more than one book by the author, give an abbreviated version of the title after the author’s name.
    Example. (Sanders Writing x).

    4. Indirect source: If you are giving a quote by one person that you found in work by another person, you need to make clear both the author of the quote and the author of the work.
    Example. Willa Cather, in O Pioneers!, speaks of the barrenness of landscape: “One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever” (qtd. in Sanders 42).

    Note : If the quotation comes from an article in an anthology, you need to cite the author of the article , not the editor of the book.

    5. Electronic source: Cite Internet sources as you would print documents.  Include enough information to direct readers to the appropriate citation in your Works Cited list. 
    Example : Tonnie G. Maniero, of the National Park Service, reports an alarming increase in the death of national parks wildlife from heavy metal pollution ("Non-acidic Particulates")

    6. Internet address: If you use an Internet address or an email address in the text of your writing, enclose them in angle brackets.  Do not italicize or underline them. If you must break an Internet or email address at the end of a line in-text or in the Works Cited page, do so only after a slashmark ( / ).  Do not add a hyphen and never break the protocol (http://).
    Example: Further information about the increase in air pollution is available at the Environment Defense Fund site, <>.

    Indented quotations

    If you are quoting more than four typed lines, indent the quotation ten spaces, but run each line to the usual right margin. Omit the quotation marks. Do not single space the quotation. Give the necessary citation in parentheses after the final period.

    Essays, poems, and books

    When you give the title of an essay or a poem, you put the title in quotation marks – you do not italicize or underline. When you give a title of a book, you put it in italics or you underline it. For instance, Terry Tempest Williams's essay "Testimony" appears in her book The Unspoken Hunger.


    Part of the purpose of a paper is to give you the opportunity to develop a clear and correct statement of the basic ideas involved. But this is only a PART of the purpose. I expect correct understanding as a kind of minimum. A soundly written paper that gives back to me correct understanding of the material is a C paper unless it is characterized by probing thought.

    Papers are an opportunity for you to go beyond what has been talked about in lectures and discussion. A paper that is worth writing--and worth reading--is one in which you have actively engaged both ideas and the issues involved. There are two general types of probing thought that I look for in a paper.

    1/ Probing Analysis:

    Your paper should show to the reader not only the basic meaning of the ideas and attitudes involved; it should also show their subtlety and complexity. In particular it should clarify:

    a/ The meaning of the idea or attitude: usually one can give a superficial description of an idea or attitude. In order to probe, you must go deeper into the subject, discovering aspects that are not apparent in one's initial understanding.

    b/ The basis : most every idea and attitude is based on and developed from some other idea or attitude. For example, an idea about what is ethical is often based on a notion of human nature. If an idea or attitude is not based on something else, then the idea is an assumption, the attitude a given. Show the reader what the ideas or attitudes are based on--other ideas, reasoning, particular experiences, or assumptions.

    c/ The implications: every idea has certain implications and ramifications. For example, an attitude toward ethics usually has certain implications in regards to politics. In addition, there are personal implications to ideas, attitudes, and behavior. How would such an idea, etc., affect one's individual life? Draw out the implications for the reader.

    d/ The interrelationships : No idea or attitude (at least in a significant thinker) exists alone. It is related to other ideas and attitudes. A close analysis of one idea will show how it relates to other ideas. In other words, show the reader the system of thought and attitude.

    e/ The issues : A religious thinker develops ideas and attitudes around certain issues and questions. Indeed, those issues animate the thinker. A good paper is animated by them as well. The more you can clearly and forcefully present the issues to the reader, the more he will be interested in what you say. In a sense, the issues are more important than the ideas: there are many ideas about human nature, for instance, and your ability to understand those ideas--and to form your own--depends on a vigorous grasp of the issue itself.

    2/ Probingly Critical

    A good paper does not merely report the ideas involved; it also looks at them critically. I want you not only to understand the ideas and attitudes discussed in this class and the interpretations of them. I want you to actively criticize them. Do not be passive receptors and conduits of the readings and discussion; critically engage them. In particular, I want you to wrestle with the problematics. By problematics I mean several things.

    a/ The limitations : Every religious system or philosophy deals with a limited number of subjects and issues and leaves others undeveloped. Show the reader what issues and questions are left unresolved.

    b/ Tensions: Virtually every system or philosophy has tensions and contradictions in their ideas and attitudes. It is important to uncover these for your reader. Also note that some tensions are very damaging--they make us want to reject that set of ideas and attitudes--while other tensions are creative and are a part of the complexity of the religion.

    c/ Basis: Critically examine the basis of ideas, attitudes, or behavior. Are they based on faulty reasoning or mistaken beliefs about the world or human experience?

    d/ Ramifications (implications): Every significant thinking makes demands on us. What would it be like to have these beliefs, attitudes, and practices? Does they ask too much of us; does it cost too much? Would following it be unacceptable?

    The Critical Mind

    So I want you to criticize the ideas and attitudes vigorously. But critical thinking does not necessarily imply that you take an attitude "against" the idea or religion. You can take a stand against the view you are analyzing, but you do not need to. You may agree with it. But any religion, philosophy, political view, etc., has problematics--including your own. In order to have a sophisticated understanding of any view or attitude, including your own, you need to engage in critical thinking. Indeed, critical thinking toward one's own view of life is one of the best ways to develop and deepen that view.

    Keep in mind that in critical thinking you need to do several things at the same time.

    1. Develop the complexity and subtlety of those ideas and attitudes . Don't simply show the problematics of the ideas and attitudes; show also their full significance. If you cannot show this to the reader--or to yourself--then critical thinking remains shallow.

    2. Be self-critical . Criticize the ideas and attitudes presented, but turn the same level of criticism on your own ideas and attitudes. A mature mind seeks its own criticism.

    3. Letting your "opponent" respond . In order to be self-critical and to be probingly critical, you need to imagine responses to your criticisms. That would involve deeper analysis as well as allow you to apply critical thinking more deeply--by responding to that response. This back-and-forth movement of analysis-critique-response-response is the dynamic of critical thinking. It does not need to take this exact form, but this kind of critical probing is necessary.

    In a sense, the final goal of this course is to develop your ability--and tendency--to do two things:

    1/ Recognize bothsubtletyand complexity and also the problems involved. Look for what is appealing and compelling, and what is problematic.

    2/ Look critically at your own orientation toward the issues we are discussing. Only when you do that can you develop a richer and more complex one.

    Critical Thinking

    Issues! What are the central issues involved?

    Complexity! What are the multiple aspects of the ideas, different possible interpretations of a text, various implications of ideals, divergent meanings of terms, etc.

    Support! What support is being used: evidence, argument, authority? Is the support compelling?

    Criteria! What criteria are being applied in a judgment? Are those criteria appropriate?

    Definitions and categories! How are key terms being defined? Are different people meaning different things by them? What categories or dichotomies are being used, and do they clarify or distort and limit?

    Assumptions! What assumptions are involved in these ideas, values, or approaches?

    Discovery: Writing Your Mind

    You develop probing thought by writing. Of course sitting in thought or discussing ideas are important parts of the thinking process. But in writing you are able to work through with more depth and complexity the issues, bases, implications, interconnections, and problematics of the ideas and attitudes we are discussing.

    In other words you write to learn. The papers for this class are not tests, not a recording of existing knowledge. They are exercises in EXPANDING what knowledge has been gained in lectures and discussions.

    Lectures provide an introduction to the basic meaning of the ideas, attitudes, and practices under consideration. Class discussion builds on that foundation by dealing more fully with questions and problematics. In the papers you are able to examine the ideas, issues, and problematics in a way that leads to new thoughts.

    In other words, writing is a process of discovery.

    So in grading the papers, I am not looking for right answers. I am looking for good thinking. I do not ask: "has Jean written down the answer I was looking for?" I ask: "has she struggled with the issues and ideas in a vigorous, clear, and insightful way?"

    So apply probing thought, and then write your mind.

    Teaching and Convincing: Writing for the Reader

    Papers are an exercise in communicating your ideas and attitudes to a reader. You write for a reader. The point of the papers is not simply to develop new thoughts in your head, but to develop them in a way that can teach and convince others with your ideas. If you don't understand enough to teach and convince, you don't understand enough. In other words, the goal of this course and of the papers is presentational thinking. There are several aspects of successful presentational thinking--i.e., of writing for the reader.


    A paper should be about ONE thing. It should have one clearly stated topic. But having a topic is not enough. You have to be doing one thing in relation to that topic. A paper should either attempt to demonstrate a thesis, or it should wrestle with an overarching issue. (See Two Models of Papers.)

    Units of Thought

    We not only write in paragraphs, we think in them. Each paragraph should have one and only one topic. All sentences in the the paragraph should refer to that topic. In other words, a paragraph be one unified unit of thought. If the paragraph has that unity, then you will be able to develop your ideas about that topic. And the reader will understand your point because you have offered her a bite-size unit of thought. If, however, the paragraph drifts from one topic to another, you won't be able to develop your thinking and the reader will lose track of what you are saying. In writing your paper and in reviewing it. be sure the reader is clear from the beginning of the paragraphy what the topic is, and be sure to stick to that topic throughout the paragraph.

    Integration, Progression, and Structure

    The units of thought (paragraphs) are not isolated entities. It should be clear to the reader that paragraph is linked to the overall issue or thesis. This way all of your writing is integrated into the unifying topic and thesis/issue. The paragraphs also need to progress logically. It should be clear how each paragraph follows the previous one. You can have a lot of great thoughts, but unless you have this kind of structure, your ideas will not cohere and be communicated.


    You need to write some kind of introduction because your reader needs one. An introduction should accomplish two things: ease the reader into your topic, and inform her what is about to happen. If you jump into your thinking, your reader will be jolted and will have trouble getting a sense of the unity and purpose of the paper. The introduction should let the reader know several things.

    (1) The topic . Every paper should have one general topic. For example: Mencius on human nature or the Buddhist ideal of action. The reader should be clear about it from the start. However, it is not enough to just notify the reader of the topic.

    (2) The issue you are dealing with needs to be clearly presented. Why are you dealing with this topic? What about the topic is worth writing a paper about? Every paper should be unified and energized by an issue or problematic. For instance, "How can Mencius claim human nature is good when he recognizes most men are not good?" All sections of the paper should be clearly related to this issue.

    (3)A thesismay be stated in the introduction, although it is not necessary in an “issues-and-exploration” model of a paper (see section on ”Two Models of Papers”). A thesis is the basic point you make in the paper. To continue with Mencius, one thesis could be: "While Mencius manifests some realization of the complexities of human nature, his theory simply does not explain sufficiently the commonality of evil." Again, the reader should see clearly how each section and paragraph is related to this thesis. An alternative is to state a hypothesis that you will test and explore: “Mencius theory seems at first glance to be unable to sufficiently explain the commonality of evil.” Or one may simply begin with the issue, and let your response unfold as the paper proceeds. In this way your paper can have unity without a thesis, and you can leave the reader in suspense concerning the outcome of your own thinking.


    A paper without some kind of conclusion also jolts the reader. You need to ease your reader out of a paper as well as ease him into it. A paper without a conclusion is like being with someone and then suddenly stopping the conversation (or whatever you may be doing...) and leaving abruptly without saying a word. You don't make friends that way.

    No paper answers all questions and resolves all issues. It is often (but not always) effective and appropriate to conclude with a statement of the issues that remain to be discussed or a comment on how the topic you have discussed leads to other topics you cannot deal with in this paper. This shows to the reader how your topic and your ideas are related to others in the interconnected but unbounded world of human thought.

    Keep in mind that the introduction and conclusion should not be stiff and programmatic: "In this paper I will..." "In this paper I have showed..." Make them natural, even easy going (but also efficient). Stiff and formal introductions and goodbyes also don't make friends.


    "Explain" is a comment I often make on papers. By this term I mean that you need to explain an idea to your reader. It may seem clear to you what the idea means or why you say what you do, but it is not to the reader. Students often assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader. If you make a reader try to read your thoughts, she won't want to read your paper.

    Argument and Demonstration

    If you are going to teach and convince your reader, you need to present your ideas as valid and significant. You need to argue for them and demonstrate their importance and integrity. So you need to support your assertions and suggestions by evidence, argument, example, or appeal to authority. Stating your ideas is not enough. You need to offer them to the reader in a context that makes the reader take them seriously.


    Write an interesting paper. The reader will like your ideas more, and so will you. There are several basic components to getting your readers interested in what you are saying. One aspect is to focus strongly and clearly on issues and problems. If the reader sees that your paper centers on questions and problems, and if you convince the reader that these questions and problems are important, you will have hooked your reader.


    Having hooked your reader, you can keep her hooked by writing in an interesting way. In other words, by writing with style. Style is difficult both to teach and to learn. One essential way to learn is to read vigorous, flowing writing. There are, however, several techniques that are worth working on. One is variation in sentence length. A paper filled with sentences of the same length may put the reader to sleep. Make some sentences long, some short. Write with rhythm.

    Another technique is to vary the construction of a sentence. If all of the sentences are in the form of subject-verb-object, you will have a drowsy reader. Keep the reader awake by starting some sentences with conditional clauses (e.g., "If..."; "In other words,..."; "Having..."), by using different forms of subjects (e.g. a noun form of a verb: "To understand human nature as..."), or even occasionally reversing normal word order or using the passive voice (although students usually use the passive voice too often).

    An important place to add style and interest is the first and last sentence of a paragraph. If you begin or end a paragraph with a question, you will very likely make the reader want to keep reading to find out the answer. But two warnings: don't use this technique too often, and be sure to deal with the question. Similarly if you begin or end the paragraph with a short but strong sentence, the reader will sit up and take notice. Two long sentences followed by a concluding short one can have the effect of a hammer driving a nail home. Drive your points home.



    There are many ways to write a paper. I present here two models, both of which are important approaches. The first is the more common; the second is one I tend to favor as a way of developing critical thinking. As is usually the case in presenting models, these are simplified overgeneralizations.

    1. The Thesis and Proof Model

    First paragraph: state topic and your thesis about it.

    Body of the paper : clarify the different aspects of your thesis and prove it by evidence, argument, authority, etc.

    Conclusion: restate your thesis in a way that incorporates your paper as a whole.

    Goal: a clear, persuasive, and single interpretation of a topic, seeking the truth.


    • there is one correct interpretation of the topic
    • the point of the paper is to uncover, articulate, and defend that interpretation
    • the ideal of the paper is correctness of interpretation and persuasiveness of presentation

    2. The Issues and Exploration Model

    “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. That is, he does not draw on a reservoir; instead, he engages in an activity that brings him a whole succession of unforeseen stories, poems, essays, philosophies. . . .”

    -- William Stafford. Writing the Australian Crawl. University of Michigan Press. Quoted in “Staying Carefully Ignorant.” The Writer (Feb. 1982).

    First paragraph : state the topic and identify a general, unifying issue as well as more specific questions that the paper will explore. Perhaps also state the way you will explore them and possible limitations in the exploration. You might also add a hypothesis that you will test.

    Body of the paper: engage various issues, often articulating multiple possible interpretations, wrestling with the problems of each interpretation and showing the relative validity of each, all of which leads to more issues and questions to explore.

    Conclusion: Reflect on what has been argued, which may not involve one tidy interpretation but a sense of relative validity in various interpretations as well as issues and questions left unresolved.

    Goal : probing analysis of issues and a wrestling with problems, showing the complexity of the topic and of your own thought.

    Assumptions :

    • important topics are filled with complex issues that do not yield simple answers, firm conclusions, or singular interpretations.
    • the point of a paper is to enter a process of exploration and discovery, rather than to prove some thesis
    • the ideal quality of a paper is intellectual openness, complexity of thought, and intensity of probing.



    . . . because I will ask them of all papers  

    Basics of good writing

    Assignment : Does the paper respond to each and every aspect of the particular assignment?

    Correctness : Are grammar and spelling correct, with few if any typos? Are notes and bibliography done properly? Are title and page numbers included?

    Unity of focus : Does the paper focus sharply on a clearly stated issue or thesis throughout, rather than being just a discussion of a topic or a book report?

    Integrated structure : Is each part and paragraph clearly related to the paper’s unifying focus

    Units of thought : Are the ideas pursued in unified paragraphs with one topic per paragraph?

    Flow: Do the ideas of the paper flow logically from one paragraph to the next?

    Clarity : Are the ideas presented clearly and explained sufficiently?

    Accuracy : Are the ideas analyzed accurately, showing a close familiarity with the texts?

    Support : Is the thinking supported by evidence, argument, and/or external authority?

    Quotations : Are the analysis and interpretations illustrated by effective use of quotations?

    Critical Thinking

    Probing : Does the paper go beyond book report, discussion, and explanation to probe ideas, analyzing them beyond the readings and class discussion? Does it consider complexities, ambiguities, and divergent interpretations? Does it examine assumptions, definitions, and categories?

    Critical evaluation : Does the paper wrestle with problems in the ideas and values discussed. Does it critically evaluate ideas, and allow responses to the criticisms, pointing to further critiques, and so on?

    Writing process

    Prewriting : Was the prewriting handed in on time and in the proper format, emphasizing issues?

    First draft : Did you do a substantial first draft, or was it a hasty rough draft? Was it handed in on time in class?

    Peer editing process : Were you serious and helpful in editing your peers’ papers – both in written comments and in-class discussion?

    Completion : Have you included first drafts with names on the drafts they edited? Have you included an evaluation of peer editing? Are all these papers in a flat folder or envelope?



    It is difficult to give you a clear idea of how I will grade your papers. However, the following guidelines give a general sense of what I look for and how I grade.


    "A" PAPERS are exceptional (and rare). They are papers that make me say “wow, knock my socks off!”

    They tend to have the following qualities.

    1. An in-depthanalysis of the major ideas and issues involved.

    The paper probes the complexity and subtlety of the major ideas discussed.

    2. Critical thinking. The paper also goes beyond analysis; it clearly indicates and vigorously engages the problematics: tensions, weaknesses, and unresolved issues.

    3. Innovative thinking. The paper goes beyond what has been discussed in class or presented in the reading and presents the writers own insights.

    4. Unity. The paper has a sharp focus on the passage to be analyzed, the questions involved, and the central topic. It is clear to the reader what the topic is and how all the parts of the paper are aspects of it.

    5. Distinct units of thought. The paper presents the ideas and attitudes in unified and distinct units of thought we call paragraphs.

    6. Progression. The paper leads the reader through these ideas and attitudes in a clear, natural, and logical way, with an introduction that informs and arouses interest and with a conclusion that brings the ideas to closure.

    7. Clarity. The sentences express clearly the ideas and attitudes of the paper.

    8. Integration of the texts into the paper . The paper uses passages from the reading extensively and effectively to clarify and support the points made.

    9. Adequate and efficient explanation of the secondary ideas. The paper does not leave the reader guessing what certain terms or ideas mean.

    10. Correct grammar and citations. The paper avoids common mistakes in grammar and citation.


    "B" PAPERS are good papers without significant flaws. They tend to:

    1. Show very good command of both the general nature of the religion and the specific ideas involved in the assignment.

    2. Be very strong in either analysis or critical thinking, and at least moderately good in the other.

    3. Have clear and correct writing.


    "C" PAPERS generally are of 2 kinds:

    1. The Sound Paper. Those that (a) demonstrate a sound grasp of the general nature of the religion and the ideas discussed in the lectures AND the reading, (b) are written clearly and with few grammatical mistakes, but (c) are weak in analysis and critical thinking.

    2. The Significant But Flawed Paper. Those with significant analysis and critical thinking, but also with significant writing problems that both annoy the reader and hinder communication.

    "D" PAPERS tend to be of 2 kinds:

    1. Those that (a) demonstrate a basic understanding of the main ideas, but (b) are weak in both analysis and critical thinking, and (c) have significant writing problems.

    2. Those that are (a) written clearly and (b) demonstrate a basic understanding of most ideas, but (c) are weak in analysis and critical thinking, and (d) show misunderstanding of a few key ideas.

    "F" PAPERS:

    Show a significant misunderstanding of the ideas, or contain writing problems so extreme that little is being communicated, or do not respond to the assignment.


    It is common among college students (and professors!) to write a paper at the last moment, not even deciding the topic until the night before. Needless to say, this is not a good way to write a paper. More importantly, such last minute writing does not give your mind the time to truly enter into issues and engage intellectual problems. Only if your mind wrestles with the material over an extended period of time will it probe deeply and benefit from the search.

    One week before your paper is due you are to hand in a pre-writing statement. This gets you started earlier on the paper, and also allows me to give feedback. The pre-writing should be typed, about a page in length but never more than two pages. This is not a rough draft of the paper but instead is like an outline of your preliminary thinking. (If you hand in a rough draft, I will return it to you unread.) In fact, the pre-writing should be presented inoutline form. The pre-writing should include three kinds of items.

    1. A STATEMENT ABOUT THE PAPER. This should identify three things separately:

    (a) The topic you are going to analyze. The topic is the general issue or theme you are going to examine.

    (b) The central issue you will focus on, and the sub-issues involved with it. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE PRE-WRITING, though students often ignore it. Every paper should center on--and be animated by--one or more issues and questions. It is important to identify them early on in the process so you can try to refine your notion of the issues, i.e., understand their component parts, other questions they lead to, etc. If you and the reader are very clear what your issues are, the paper as a whole will be more clear, lively, and probing. State the issues in question form.

    (c) Your current hypothesis concerning your response to these issues. Do not try to come up with a thesis at this point. That might close off your inquiry and the possibility of coming up with another interpretation. But you can state how at this point you think you might respond to the issues. Keep in mind that your response may involve multiple possible interpretations. Don’t assume there is one right answer that you are looking for and trying to defend.

    2. AN OUTLINE. Again this may well change as you continue to work on your paper. But the more fully developed your outline at the pre-writing stage, the more organized your writing will be when you do write. And the more I will be able to give you feedback.

    3. QUESTIONS AND CONCERNS. Any topic will have special difficulties. You should be thinking ahead about them. The clearer your questions and concerns are at this point, the more I will be able to guide you when I respond to your pre-writing. 



    There are countless resources for learning correct grammar and proper citation, as well as for gaining insights into the writing process. I strongly recommend purchasing a reference book, such as Easy Writer (which I use). But there are also many online sources – just be sure to find one you find most helpful and use it. UWO’s Cary Henson has an excellent site.


    Lunsford, Andrea, and Robert Connors. Easy Writer: A Pocket Guide. 2 nd edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.


    ABC ’s of the Writing Process 

    Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

    Capital City Community College 

    Cary Henson’s website on research and documentation (UWO)

    Cleveland State University

    EasyWriter’s 20 most common errors

    Kansas University

    Purdue University Online Writing Lab

    Rutgers University Links to Web Resources for Writers

    University of Illinois

    University of Minnesota

    University of Wisconsin Madison Writing Center

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    by David Barnhill last modified Nov 21, 2010 05:56 PM