Style Tips and Guidelines for
Student Essays and Term Papers

"Bad writing makes smart people look dumb."--William Zinnser.
 

1. For the most part, use short, simple sentences and normal word order. But use longer sentences and an occasional variation of sentence structure to avoid monotony. (Note: For writers of English, the average sentence length is about 20 words.)

2. As a rule, use the active voice. It's generally simpler, more vigorous, and easier for readers to understand than passive constructions. (But don't make a fetish of it. In certain situations the passive is actually more natural and appropriate.)

3.  Call things by their right names, and avoid needless abstractions, generalizations, and circumlocutions. Whenever possible be concrete and specific. For example, if you mean attorney, write "attorney" (or "lawyer"), not "legal professional" (which could be anyone from a clerk or secretary to a judge); write "cell phone,"not "digital electronic mobile communications device" (which could be a pager or a computer).

4. Be vivid--but don't "overwrite." Too much vividness--like stripes, plaids, paisleys, and polka-dots worn together--makes writing seem loud and cartoonish. (Note: Recent research indicates that striking images and prose that is lavishly figurative or poetic actually distracts readers and impedes information flow.)

5. Say it in plain, standard English. Avoid jargon, shoptalk, slang, pretentious diction, and the gobbledygook that all too often passes for stylish discourse in the legal profession, in politics and government, and in portions of academia. (In good professional writing, a police officer is a police officer, not a "uniformed law enforcement official" or a "cop.")

6. For maximum clarity, use words that are current and ordinary. But avoid cliches, buzz phrases, vogue words, and faddish expressions. Before you know it, todayís fashionable terms (e.g., "gendered," "information superhighway," "empowerment" ) will seem as out of style as yesterdayís zoot suits and Nehru jackets.

7. Be concise. Revise your sentences carefully and eliminate all needless words.

8. Use a deductive (i.e., "top-down") structure. In other words, emphasize main ideas by putting them at the beginning of the paper or paragraph; add details and sub-points later. As a rule, begin your paper with a clear thesis statement, and begin each paragraph with a clear topic sentence.

9. Use appropriate "signal expressions" (i.e., transitional words and phrases) between sentences and between paragraphs. Like roads with clear signposts and direction arrows, sentences with accurate, well-placed signal words ("since," "because," "therefore," "although," "consequently," "on the other hand," "however," etc.) enable readers to follow your point conveniently, with no unnecessary turnbacks or delays.

10. Use the right word, not its second cousin. (As Mark Twain once said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.")

11. In most cases, write in brief paragraphs (two to six sentences). But avoid a monotonous succession of very short paragraphs or you may be mistaken for a USA Today columnist.

12. Remember Thoreauís philosophy--"Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity"--and apply it to your writing. For example, don't insert long, complex clauses or phrases between the subject of your sentence and the main verb. And donít use extravagant five-syllable words (eleemosynary, supercilious) when shorter, plainer alternatives (charitable, arrogant) are readily available.

13. Make sure your sentences are grammatical and that they're punctuated precisely.

14. Master the concept of parallel structure and employ it unfailingly throughout your writing.

15. Donít turn an initally willing and sympathetic reader into an annoyed editor or hostile critic. Instead, revise and proofread carefully in order to eliminate all typos, misspellings, misused words, dangling modifiers, and other glaring mistakes.

16. Papers should be type-written, double-spaced, with standard margins (1.25" left and right; 1" top and bottom.) You may submit a hard copy or a diskette (if the latter, be sure to include the filename along with the name and version of your word-processing program).

17. Beginning with page two, number each page consecutively in the upper right corner.

18. Word processor font options (such as bold, italic, and underlining) should be used with discretion and strictly according to convention. As a rule, avoid fancy scripts and arty, whimsical flourishes. Remember: youíre submitting an academic assignment, not a greeting card design or magazine advertisement.

19. Tables, graphs, and illustrations, if used, should be properly laid out and of professional quality.

20. Your title should be centered on the first page. (No separate title page necessary.)

21. Use a staple or paper clip rather than a binder or folder.

22. For notes and documentation, follow the "Works Cited" format explained in the MLA Handbook, 4th Edition.

23. If you donít already own one, purchase a good dictionary. Websterís New World, Third College Edition, is recommended. And while youíre at it, pick up a good writerís guide or style handbook too. (Strunk and White, The University of Chicago Style Manual, and The Little, Brown Compact Handbook are particularly helpful.)

24. Donít put a lot of faith in spell-checks, grammar-checks, and other manuscript-editing programs; theyíre handy, but unreliable.

25. Italicize (or underline) the titles of novels, plays, books, magazines, newspapers, and collections of poetry. Place quotation marks around the titles of articles, stories, and individual poems. For example, Antony and Cleopatra, Leaves of Grass; "To a Locomotive in Winter," "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

26. Use two typed hypens (--) to indicate an em dash.

27. Hyphenate noun phrases or compounds used as adjectives: e.g., nineteenth-century literature; African-American poet; upper-income bracket.

28. Use an ellipsis (. . .) to condense a quotation or to show that material has been omitted; use square brackets [sic] to modify a quotation or insert material that is not in the original.

29. Use the "historical present" when summarizing actions or events from a work of fiction. For example: In Chapter 34, Hank and the King are sold as slaves. (But use the past tense do recount actual historical events.) Twain's novel was originally published by a Hartford publisher in 1889.

30. Have regard for your reader when planning typography and layout. Research shows that most readers prefer text formatted in a clear, legible font (a 12-point serif typeface is recommended) and a page with minimal distractions and plenty of white space.