Writing Resources for Core Students

This list of Frequently Asked Questions is intended to supplement writing guidelines handed out or covered in class. Please keep in mind that professors may have their own preferences on some of these matters, and it is always best to ask.

Citations and MLA Format

Q: What is the correct way to do a MLA citation?

The form of your MLA in-paragraph citation will vary depending on whether your source is a book, a poem, a play, or the Bible. Likewise, the citation for your bibliography will be different depending on how many authors your source had, whether your source had an editor or translator, whether your source was an article in a journal or online, and other factors.

For more specific guidelines, check your writing handbook.

Q: How do I integrate my quotations into my paragraphs?

Integrate your quotation into your body paragraph in one of three ways.

A) introducing it with a signal phrase, which has a verb of communication, such as “says,” “writes,” “implies,” or “argues.” The verb should be followed by a comma and lead directly into the quotation.

e.g.: Odysseus says, “I want to go home” (23).

B) blending a part of the quotation into the sentence,

e.g.: Homer calls this event “terrible” (23) .

C) introducing it with an independent clause and a colon.

e.g.: Homer’s epic similes sometimes contain bird imagery: “They cried out, shrilling cries, pulsing sharper than birds of prey-eagles, vultures with hooked claws-when farmers plunder their nest of young too young to fly” (23).

Notice that there are no commas or periods before the last quotation mark. There is always a period after the parentheses.

Q: What if the quotation I want to use is a question? Do I keep the question mark? Does a period follow the parenthetical citation, or is there no punctuation before the next sentence?

If the quotation you want to use is a question or an exclamation, then the question mark or exclamation mark precedes the final quotation mark, and a period follows the parenthesis to indicate that the parenthetical citation is connected to the preceding sentence, e.g.: Penelope asked, “When is he coming home?” (23).

If your quotation was originally an indicative sentence, but you want to put it into a question, leave out the period before the final quotation mark, and put a question mark after your final quotation mark, and follow with the parenthetical citation and a period, e.g.: Why did Telemachos want “to punish the suitors”? (23).

Q: When do I have to put my quotations in a block format?

Use the blockquote format for more than four typed lines of prose or more than three of poetry. Double-space long quotations and indent the entire quotation ten spaces or one inch. Do not use quotation marks. Do not leave an additional line space before or after the quotation. Note: Place the final period before the parenthetical citation. This is different from the style used for quotations in the body of your text.

When citing fewer than five lines of poetry, use backslashes to indicate line breaks. Leave spaces before and after the slashes.

Q: How do I do my in-paragraph citations?

Here are basic rules for parenthetical citations. Again, please keep in mind that some professors may want you to do your citations differently and it is best to double check if you have any doubts.

  • Book: (page number), e.g.: (1)
  • Poem: (start line – end line), e.g.: (2 – 3)
  • Poem divided into books: (Book number.start line – end line): e.g. (5.1 – 4)
  • Play: (act.scene.start line – end line), e.g.: (3.4.60 – 79) (40a.12)
  • Bible: (Book name verse:start chapter – end chapter): e.g. (Gen. 1:2 – 3) (40a.13)

Notice that the book name is not italicized and should be abbreviated. You can search for the standard abbreviations for books of the Bible online.

For texts translated from Greek, such as the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides, you have more than one option. You may only be required to give the page number of the edition you are using. For longer works, you could give the book number or chapter number. A more complicated method of citation is to use the numbers that appear in the margin by following the formula (Dialogue name book number.start marginal number – end marginal number) e.g.: (Republic II.357a – 383c). Ask your professor which citation style he or she prefers.

If you mention the name of the author of the work in your sentence, it is unnecessary to put the author’s name again in the parenthetical citation as in (Milton I.1).

You do not have to add in any commas after an author’s name, “p”s for “page number,” or “l”s for “line number” in these examples.

Q: Should I do anything different for my MLA citations if I am discussing two authors or two works?

It’s a good idea for the sake of clarification to introduce the name of the author and the text to which you are referring before your quotation (but not necessarily right before). If you are using more than one source in your paper, make sure to point out which author you are currently discussing, or put the author’s name in the parentheses to avoid confusion, e.g.: (Homer IV.1-2). If you are using more than one work from one author, make sure to distinguish between the works by introducing the title in the paragraph or by putting the title in your parenthetical citations, eg: (Odyssey 1.1) as opposed to (Iliad I.1).

Q: When I quote from Shakespeare, do I use slashes like I do in poetry, or do I quote the lines like prose?

Yes, when quoting from verse, you should use slashes to denote line breaks. Please put a space before and after the slash mark, as in ” / “. You do not have to do this when you use blockquotations because you would have the actual line breaks in your text.

You can tell whether Shakespeare is writing prose or verse by the printing format in your text. Prose is justified, and verse is aligned to the left. When quoting from Shakespeare’s prose, you do not need to use slashes.

Plagiarism and Crediting Secondary Sources

Q: I’m writing a research paper on Don Quixote with two critical journal articles. Is it better to introduce the articles and their authors in my intro paragraph, or wait until I’ve established my argument and introduce them in the body of the essay?

Unless the professor wants otherwise, it is better to introduce the names and works of the critics the first time you use their articles. Usually you would bring up another critic because you are going to use part of his or her argument, either to dissent or to build off of it, and thereby to further your own argument. If you are going to use some of the critics’ points in your intro paragraph in this way, then by all means you can introduce them, but you do not need to bring up the fact that these critics wrote certain articles to which you will refer later.

Q: I’m worried about plagiarism. I got all of the basic information about Michelangelo’s beliefs in my introduction from reading a variety of books on him and the Chapel, but I’m not sure what to do about citing sources since no one sentence is specifically from a book or anything like that.

Here is the most important thing to remember about plagiarism: It’s not just stealing words. It’s also stealing ideas. Even paraphrasing another author’s idea constitutes stealing that idea if you don’t give him or her the proper credit; after a paraphrase, you put the (page number in parentheses) before the period at the end of your sentence.

This brings up a problem with your introduction as it stands now. There is no way you could have known what Michelangelo definitely believed because he died before he could tell you. Therefore there must be a source for that information-either some journal where he stated, “I believe…,” or the work of a historian who has done the research and found a text in which Michelangelo outlines his beliefs. That, or the historian is drawing this conclusion from his or her interpretation of the artwork. What is most important in any paper that you write is for you to look at the primary sources and interpret them in your one way. You can cite other authors and critics either to build off of their arguments, or to dissent with them and thereby strengthen your point.

Of course, you do not need to provide a citation for information that is in the public domain, such as the fact that Michelangelo was Italian or his date of birth.

Q: When citing from a reference, where is the line drawn between using the article to enhance my argument and misusing the article? My article on Don Quixote has some interesting points that I want to use in my paper, but I don’t want to seem like I’m stealing them. How can I appropriately give credit to the author of the article, but also use his ideas?

If you using a secondary source, you should be adding onto or disagreeing with the author’s point. You may use another critic’s words to add authority to your own argument, but it is important to develop your own opinions in your paper. Make sure to cite the material properly, do not put a quotation into your paper without analyzing it yourself, and do not use quotations to begin or end a body paragraph.

Q: When I do research from source A and they cite author B, can I cite author B from author A’s book and give them both credit in my paper, or do I have to go straight back to the original source B?

If you want to use B, you should try to cite the original source. That bibliographical information would probably be somewhere in A’s article or book, since A had to cite it to use it too.

If you want to analyze A’s use of B (to criticize it, for example), you should cite with the information from A.

You probably don’t want to insert A citing B because then you end up with citations within citations. Plus, you would want to come up with your own ideas about B if you are going to use it.

For more information, check your writing handbook.

Common Problems in Forming a Thesis

Ambiguity of Lack of Precision in Language

Q: Basically, I have the idea of this thesis statement already approved by my professor. I just want to be sure the wording is understandable:

“Despite his deep religious convictions, Donne seems to hold upon a superficial reading of his poetry, it soon becomes clear that his faith is of a unique sort. In his mind, he has no problem reconciling his liberal sexuality with his belief in God.”

The problem with the wording I see is “his faith is of a unique sort.” This is a rather ambiguous way to put your argument. Instead, you would want to say explicitly what is implied, namely that his faith differs from a more mainstream or Church-sanctioned belief because he incorporates sexuality into his understanding of God. I think the easiest way to reword this thesis is to cut out the “his faith…” part and then combine the two sentences into one.

Generalizations

Q: In a paper that discusses love, I would like to avoid using personal experiences. However, if I form them into general statements of possibility, and expand them into emotions that most people may have had, then is it ok to address the reader in a more informal way? For example, is it ok to say something along the lines of “We must consider,” or “Most of us have probably felt…” ?

“We must consider” and “Most of us have probably felt…” are both first person constructions, so it would be better to rewrite them. If you really want to use phrases like these, you could say “one must consider” or “many have probably felt” and thereby avoid getting points off for first person. Just make sure that you use your general statements as part of your analysis of the actual texts, and make sure you are working with the texts more than you are talking in general about love. Also, keep in mind that you should always qualify general statements such as these, since most people have different opinions of and experiences with love.

No Clear Argument

Q: I am writing a research paper and the question is: “What is love? Discuss its function and representation in King Lear.” My thesis as of right now is: “Love exists in three forms in King Lear: sexual love, loyalty, and selfishness (self-love).” Is this specific enough?

In general, when writing a thesis statement, you want to make sure that the statement itself is something that you can argue. The more argumentative you are in your thesis statement, the better; that way, you can spend the rest of the paper proving something instead of summarizing the text. Remember that whatever statement you come up with may not have a clear answer at first. That is why you need to analyze the text carefully and incorporate passages from it to substantiate and illustrate your argument.

No Clear Comparison

Q: How can I improve the following thesis for my comparison paper?

“The poetry of John Donne and Petrarch tackle different aspects of love. Donne includes the body and the mind in writing of strong, seemingly real love. Even though Petrarch’s love seems to be an overexcited crush in which he never meets the object of his affection, it reveals emotions that are just as human to us as Donne’s.”

The problem is that it is not clear how you intend to compare the two poets from the way in which your thesis is worded. First you have to make the comparison clear, and then you can make an argument about it. From the last part of your sentence, I can see that generally you want to say that although Donne’s and Petrarch’s approaches to love seem to be different, they are in fact equal in some way. You should use an adjective that is more clear than “human.” Are they equally strong? Equally valid forms of love? Equally mature? Equally false? Equally self-obsessed?

General Questions

Q: I have been having difficulty adapting to my teacher, even far into the semester, since we’ve only had two papers so far, and we just got the second back. Thus, I want to know some universals that I can use regardless of the teacher. For example, are contractions okay to use? Is it appropriate to use “I” in a paper?

Firstly, if you are concerned about getting your second paper back late in the semester and you need more time to write your third, you should e-mail your professor, explain the situation, and ask if an extension would be possible. Many professors are also often happy to read through a rough draft before a paper is due and give some comments. Always remember that instead of suffering in silence, tell your professors your concerns; they will be very willing to work something out with you.

In general, avoid using the first person (“I” and “we”), contractions, and colloquialisms. All of these things will make your paper more informal, which is not what you want. While some professors may be lax on these issues, most are not; therefore, if you never do these things, you will never get points taken off for them.

Grammar Pitfalls

As far as grammar, these are the most common weaknesses we see in the tutoring sessions:

  • run-on sentences
  • misuse of commas
  • misuse of semi-colons
  • misplaced and dangling modifiers
  • split infinitives
  • active and passive voice

You can find strategies for recognizing and correcting these grammatical problems in your writing handbook.