Bruce E. Baker

How to Write an Essay for Bruce E. Baker

Format for Coursework Essays


These are some guidelines in reiteration and elaboration of those presented in section 3.7 of the student handbook (the purple book).

  • printed on one side of A4 paper
  • Times New Roman, Arial or similar font face
  • point size 12 - only
  • do not use bold or any other weird effect
  • print your essay in black ink
  • double spaced (the guidelines also say 1.5 spacing is acceptable, but I will like you better if you double space your essay)
  • margins - 2.5 centimeters on all sides
  • paragraphs should not be separated by blank lines
  • the first line of each paragraph should be indented
  • essays should include page numbers - I don't care where on the page they are
  • list the word count for your essay at the very end, but before the bibliography
  • page attachment
    • if you submit looseleaf pages, they need to be in a report sleeve
    • paper clips are fine
    • if you staple, staple no more than 1 cm from the upper left corner so I can read all the interior pages easily
Correction Symbols

I use a fairly standard set of correction symbols. For convenience, here is a list that includes some of the various squiggles and marks. There are a handful of other things you will probably see from time to time:

  • dic. = diction, the word you have chosen is not the right one
  • c.s. = comma splice (see the next section on sentence integrity errors)
  • frag. = sentence fragment (see the next section on sentence integrity errors)
  • v.a. or v.r. = vague antecedent or vague reference, your pronoun is not pointing clearly to its antecedent
  • awk. = awkward, not necessarily wrong but just badly phrased
  • colloq. = colloquial
  • DNF = does not follow
Sentence Integrity Errors

A sentence in the English language is fundamentally an independent clause, a subject and a matching verb. This sounds simple, but there are nearly endless opportunities to goof it up. Some goofs are more serious than others, and with some of them, you no longer have a sentence as such (i.e., a sentence integrity error). Here are some of the most common ways of wrecking a sentence:

  • fragment -- if there is only a subject or only a verb, you do not have a sentence; you have a fragment
  • run-on -- you have run one independent clause into another with no kind of joining structure
  • comma splice -- two independent clauses joined by a comma. This usually happens when you try to join two sentences with a comma and a coordinating conjunction but use a word that is not actually a coordinating conjunction. Until further notice, the English language contains exactly seven coordinating conjunctions. You can make a mnemonic acronym with their itinital letters: FANBOYS. That stands for
    • For
    • And
    • Nor
    • But
    • Or
    • Yet
    • So
    Please note the absence of the word "however" from this list
  • dependent clause as fragment -- it is possible to take a perfectly good independent clause and stick a word like "although" on the front and turn it from a sentence into a fragment. Don't do this.
Structure, Style, Diction, Homonyms, and Other Details of Language

An essay is made up of paragraphs, and getting their structure and organisation right is important to making your arguments sound and your writing clear enough to convey those arguments. You probably already know this, but every paragraph needs to have three things:

  • topic sentence - the first sentence that nails down the main point of the paragraph
  • unity - every sentence in the paragraph should develop the idea in the topic sentence
  • coherence - your sentences should be arranged in a certain order for a certain reason, not just tossed in

One last word about paragraphs: bigger is not necessarily better. If you look at a page of your essay and you cannot see the beginning of the paragraph and you cannot see the end of the paragraph, your paragraph is probably too long and would work better if split into two (or more) shorter paragraphs with a tighter focus.

Now we come to sentences, and again, much of this is probably things you already know. First, your subject and your verb must agree. This is non-negotiable, and it's not my rule, it is a rule that comes with the language. This next point is more about good style: use parallel structure for your sentences. That is, items which have the same function within a sentence (such as items in a series) should have the same syntax. If this still seems opaque, look it up in your grammar handbook (you do own a grammar handbook, don't you?). Finally, avoid cluttering your sentences. The best sentences always have a pretty straightforward core of subject/verb. People often add clauses, appositives, participial phrases, and the like onto sentences as an afterthought, like an extra piece of furniture that you can't quite figure out what to do with. This obscures the main point of your sentence. Rather than piling additional information on so that it hangs off the sentence in unwieldy, teetering masses hooked on with chewing gum and baling wire (or string and sellotape, I suppose you would say here), pull the extra information out and make it into its own sentence.

Your writing will be clearer and more vigourous if you use the active voice rather than the passive voice. Once again, consult your grammar handbook if the meaning of these terms is not immediately evident. Quickly, though, here is the difference:

  • active voice - The dog bit the man.
  • passive voice - The man was bitten by the dog.

Some things don't belong in formal writing, which is what you are doing. Contractions should be avoided. They just seem too informal. Also avoid using "etc.". Using "etc." means, roughly, "there are a lot of other things I could list here, but I really can't be bothered". That is not the impression you want your writing to convey.

Getting just the right word is always important and can be one of the true joys of writing. If you have the least uncertainty about which word to use or the meaning of a word you are considering, consult a dictionary. Not the "dictionary" function on your computer, but an honest-to-god, paper dictionary. It is also worthwhile to invest in some sort of a book on usage. (I like the Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, but there must be something equivalent on this side of the Atlantic.) It will often have fairly detailed discussions of the finer points of what words and sets of words mean and how they are used.

There is, of course, the danger that in attempting to present your argument in formal writing, you will go overboard and lapse into stuffy, silly academic language. Learning the distinction is something that just takes time and practice, but I will give you a bit of a headstart here: avoid the phrase "It can be argued that . . ." It just doesn't tell us anything useful. Who argued this? Did they actually argue this, or is it just that they (whoever that is) could argue it if they felt like it? Are you actually making this argument? The phrase's imprecision is the main objection against it. Be direct. If you want to argue a point, say so; don't say that "it could be argued".

When you refer to names of authors and individuals, use the full name the first time and then surname only for subsequent references, unless you are discussing more than one person with the same surname. Names of authors must be rendered in the way they are rendered in the original text. (That is, "George B. Tindall", not "G. B. Tindall".)

All of this fine-tuning, however, will not necessarily protect you from the danger of homonyms, words that sound alike but are not the same. In teaching in several different places where the English language is used quite differently (to wit, South Carolina, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and England), I find that the specific homonyms that trip up students vary widely according to regional pronunciations. Here is a periodically updated list of homonym errors I have seen:

  • then/than
  • were/where
Verb Tense

Verb tense can be a bit confusing when writing history. There are essentially two things to remember here. First, when you are writing about the past, use a past tense. "Washington crossed the Delaware," not "Washington crosses the Delaware." What makes this confusing is that when we are writing about the works of other historians writing about history (following me?), we stick with the present tense. Thus, "Joe Bob Historian argues that Washington should not have crossed the Delaware," rather than "Joe Bob Historian argued that Washington should not have crossed the Delaware." The reason for this is that we are all scholars engaged in an ongoing conversation with one another, so we think of secondary literature as existing in a sort of eternal present that calls for the present tense.


Punctuation is no trivial matter, and using it correctly is one of the most obvious differences between good writing and just a bunch of words slapped onto a piece of paper. Commas are the biggest problem, and they are goverened by quite a few different rules, but if you are going to write, it is worth learning those rules. There aren't that many. I seem to notice a trend to randomly use a semicolon (;) where there should be a comma. I do not know why this happens, but if you are uncertain of how to use a semicolon, you can find guidance in the writing handbook very near the section on commas. Quotation marks often cause problems as well. A dash is not a hyphen. An ellipsis has spaces between the dots. Remember all this.

Quotations and Citations

Using Quotations


Quotations must be rendered accurately. No excuses. When you use a quotation, you are asking your reader to trust you as you present, not your own words, but those of someone else. You should respect the writers whose words you use by being sure you get those words exactly right. Since I teach American history and much of what you are quoting is by American writers, I should point out that this rule extends to spelling. American workers do not "organise", they "organize".

Block Format

If you use a quotation that would run to more than four full lines in your essay, it should be set off in block format. It should be indented from both margins and single-spaced. It should not be printed in a smaller font (you are writing an essay, not typesetting a book). A block format quotation does not use quotation marks since it is obvious by its appearance that it is a quotation.

bald quotes

It will very, very seldom be appropriate to insert an entire quoted sentence into your essay with no kind of framing device. That is, something like this:

World War I was a bad thing. "Thousands of soldiers died in trenches on the Western Front." It was also raining much of the time.

You will nearly always want to provide some sort of introductory or explanatory remark to give a context for what the reader is supposed to make of the quote and to justify why we are reading someone else's words rather than your own. For instance,

World War I was a bad thing. As noted military historian Donald Rumsfeld observed, "Thousands of soldiers died in trenches on the Western Front." It was also raining much of the time.

What to Cite and How to Cite

You need to cite anything that you get from another source which is not part of common knowledge. If you fail to cite the source for an idea, a paraphrase, or a direct quote, you have committed plagiarism. I am not sure if this is a venal sin or a mortal sin, but it can cause no end of problems for your academic career. Essentially, the dilemma is that on the face of it, it is impossible to tell whether you were just confused or slack and did not cite your sources or whether you were actually trying to pass someone else's work off as your own. There is an excellent website that discusses all of these matters in depth at Indiana Univeristy. If you go through that site, you should have no problems.

A word on "this"

In the English language, the word "this" can function as either a demonstrative pronoun or a demonstrative adjective. Students use it almost exclusively as a demonstrative pronoun; good writers generally use it as a demonstrative adjective. When used as a demonstrative pronoun, "this" stands alone. For example:

This was a good thing.

The problem that occurs more often than not is that the antecedent for "this" used as a demonstrative pronoun is nowhere to be found. At best, "this" as a demonstrative pronoun refers in a very general way to "all that stuff in the past couple of sentences that I've been talking about". This makes for very flabby, vague writing and impedes the reader's ability to understand exactly what you mean.

When used as a demonstrative adjective, "this" precedes and modifies a noun or noun phrase. For example:

This plan was a good thing.

In almost all cases, using "this" as a demonstrative adjective is preferable. It forces you to find a noun or noun phrase to stand in for "all that stuff in the past couple of sentences that I've been talking about" rather than leaving your reader to guess at exactly what "this" refers to.


Never use this word. I have come to the conclusion that schools must give extra points for using this word whenever possible, with extra points awarded the less appropriate it is to the situation. If you are tempted to use this word in your essay, get a dictionary and look up its meaning. And then don't use it.

"As such"

This is a literary twitch; it contributes no meaning to your sentence. Do not use it.

Common Problems with Arguments

planning and outlining

Arguments are often weakened because they are not organised well. Your arguments will be stronger and your writing more powerful if you do some planning before you sit down to write the text of your essay. There are any number of systems to use, and some appeal more than others, but before you begin constructing sentences, you should have some sort of plan or outline that will tell you what you are going to put into those sentences. Do all of the rethinking and rearranging of ideas and evidence and arguments in this planning stage so that when you write, the ideas will flow smoothly and be expressed well.

chronology and causality

Let us take it as given that an event B which occurs after an event A cannot be a cause of event A. For instance, the German invasion of Poland in 1939 could not cause World War I in 1914. Usually the problems with chronology and causality are not this blatant, but watch your essay for instances where you might use a later event or example to explain an earlier phenomenon.

post hoc, ergo propter hoc

I never took Latin in school, but I am told that this translates as "after this, therefore because of this". Just because event B occurs after event A does not mean that event A bears any causal relation to event B. It might, but it might not. If it does, you probably need to explain why and provide some evidence for that causal relationship.

dictionary definitions

Unless a question or essay assignment specifically says, "Right, I want you to go to a dictionary and copy out the definition of such-and-such a word and use it to start your essay", don't. We can all look up the dictionary definition for ourselves, if that is what we want, but it isn't. If you have an essay to write about nationalism, for instance, seeing what the OED has to say about it is not that relevant. Try Benedict Anderson instead.


I don't think historians have much use for the word "inevitable". It is our business, after all, to consider the various forces and factors at work that have made history turn out one way rather than another. "Inevitable" is a bit too much of a shortcut, a dismissal rather than an explanation.

On the use of "therefore", "consequently", "thus", and other words denoting argument

Students, and all writers who are feeling rather uncertain about what they are writing, often tend to interject a variety of words denoting argumentative conclusions into their writing when they are unsure whether they have made their case. The use of an extra "therefore" is meant to say to the reader that there is a logical connection between one statement and the next, just in case the reader had missed it. Of course, strong, confident, convincing writing will rely on its own merits to show the reader the logical connection between various parts of the argument. As an exercise, take a look at a piece of writing that presents an argument you find particularly compelling; chances are it will contain relatively few of the words listed above. In the average 2500-word essay, if you find yourself using more than three of four "therefores", you might want to revise your writing so that the arguments make themselves plain to the reader without having to beat them over the head with a gratuitous "therefore" or an unsubtle "consequently".