Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

CLAB05/HISB10: History and Culture of the Greek World

The Writing Process: General Tips

Marine life. Museo Archaeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples, Italy (Mary Harrsch, Flickr)

Professors have their own methods of preparing students for their papers. This methodology varies, and as the course level increases, fewer professors give out instructions. The following is a compilation of preparation points some professors have given their students in their classes. The assumption is that students will follow these guidelines prior to writing and handing in a paper. In a semi-random order: 

Discuss the topic with the Professor. Most professors hand out a paper topic in class. If it seems unclear, ask the professor for help. It is impossible to write a coherent paper without understanding the question. 

Check the Course Reserves. Some professors use the reserve room to display examples of good writing. These models will help a student understand the expectations of the professor. 

Use verbs. Students forget to use verbs from time to time. It seems a basic grammatical mistake, but some students believe that clauses can stand on their own as a complete thought. 

Read your paper out loud. If a student is unsure of the structure of the paper, or whether it makes sense, reading the paper out loud proves to be the best exercise for making sense out of it. 

Spell-check your paper. There is absolutely no excuse for misspelled words. Very few word processors are incapable of performing a spell-check, and all of the computers in the computing center have one. With such an accessible resource, it should be used. 

Cave Canem ('beware of dog'). Museo Archaeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples, Italy (Mary Harrsch, Flickr)Quotations. Quotations should accomplish two goals. They should weave into the body of the paper, and they should serve as a topic of discussion within the framework of the paper. A quote should be included only if it is discussed in the body of the paper. If an idea is taken from another reading it is better to paraphrase (and still cite), which allows for a better flowing paper. 

Use Small Words. There is no need to impress a professor. Using words that seem excessively large is unnecessary. If it seems that a larger word would help get a point across, be sure to understand its definition and use. 

Be Concise. Get to the point of a paper right away. Talking around the subject can only confuse the reader and muddle an argument. Short concise papers are just as elegant and eloquent as long wordy papers. 

Page Limits. Although they are more a suggestion than requirement, page limits are given for a purpose. If a professor suggests a certain page limit, then the professor believes that an argument can be made and supported within that framework. Too short a paper may not cover enough material, while too long a paper may be over-ambitious and not succinct enough. 

The Introduction. The introduction to a paper should explain everything the paper is intended to do. There is no need for excessive detail, but the introduction should inform the reader of the thesis and the progression the paper will take to prove it. 

Topic Sentences. After making an introduction, students should make sure that the topic sentence of every paragraph is in line with the introduction. Furthermore, the text of the paragraph should correspond to the topic sentence. 

Appearance. Papers should be typed, double-spaced, stapled and pages numbered. 

Lion. House of Liber Pater (detail), Roman Museum of Sabratha, Libya (Sebastià Giralt, Flickr)Style. Most papers work best when they have a clear introduction, development and conclusion. In the introduction state the problem to be addressed, the attempted answer, and the program of the paper (major points, etc.). In the body, explain the details: the reading, events, trends, etc. Also, use the body to clearly develop the argument. The conclusion should compliment the introduction by reinforcing the points of the introduction, while explaining why they are correct in the context of the paper. 

From The Writing Workshop at Wesleyan University.

Essay Writing

Purpose of Essays

One purpose of an essay is to test and assess the writing skills of students within a relatively brief format. Yet essays serve other intellectual purposes:

    * to organize one's thinking
    * to respond critically and personally to a problem or issue
    * to select and use information to support an argument
    * to present this argument in a structured and sophisticated way. 

None of this will happen at once. The composition of essays is a continual process of learning and improvement. Pay attention to the feedback you receive from your instructors - and your peers, when possible. You will strengthen your writing most by pinpointing your weaknesses.

Understanding Questions and Topics

Essays, whether as part of examinations or as separate assignments, are usually introduced by questions or topics, which pose a problem to be examined or issues to consider. One of the first things an instructor will look for in an essay is the extent of your response to the question or topic.

The wording of the essay question is therefore vital. Your first task is to decide exactly what is being asked of you. If you are wrong, the essay could be a complete disaster. When in doubt, ask for clarification.

In particular, make sure you understand the meaning of key words. Key words are of two types:
     instructional - discuss, compare, contrast, describe, examine
     conceptual - nationalism, classes, genders, societies, periods.

As you think about the key words, it may be worth rewriting the essay question in your own way. In fact, you might want to incorporate the rewriting into your essay, defining the terms and drawing out the overall meaning of the question in your introduction.

You should also think about the built-in assumptions in the essay question, if any. For example, "To what extent did Athens increase its influence in the mid-fifth century B.C." almost invites you to agree with the assumption that the city of Athens did increase its influence. You might think otherwise. If you choose to disagree in your essay, your argument should be well supported with evidence.

Planning the Essay

Although it might be tempting to begin writing right away, you should outline your essay in detail - especially if you are writing an essay for an examination. There are several reasons why:

1. Outlining focuses your thoughts on the topic at hand.
2. It gives you a chance to develop your argument.
3. It helps you avoid confusion and repetition.
4. It indicates whether you are ready to being writing.

By outlining you are actually producing the essay in its simplest form - one that lays out the main points in your argument, in the order that you intend to make them. This might be paragraph by paragraph, or at least sub-heading by sub-heading. How much detail goes into in planning inside each paragraph or sub-heading is up to you.

It is usually helpful to plan your essay according to a tripartite structure: the initial introduction, the final conclusion, and the intervening paragraphs, or body.

    * The introduction must be concise and direct. It should demonstrate your understanding of the question / topic and state the argument you will adopt in the body of the essay. It should also briefly state how - via what method or evidence - you intend to develop your argument. Leave most of the details and facts for the next section.
    * The body should contain a number of logically connected paragraphs, which present the ideas that are relevant to the question or topic. The order of the paragraphs should be parallel to the outline of your paper.
    * The conclusion should refer back to the question or topic, and it should restate your main argument - although not necessarily verbatim. You might also provide some additional information, such as a proposal of research that would allow a fuller answer to the question.

Writing the Essay

After drawing up a detailed outline, many students now write the final version of the essay or paper straight away. You should, however, consider writing a first draft to use as a bridge to an improved final draft. (Admittedly, during an examination you may have to settle for an outline.)

Your first draft will test whether your outline, which is more a theoretical construct, works in practice. Do not rush the first draft or allow it to become sloppy - you will make more work for yourself later. As you add each main idea, try to follow the model of "Statement, followed by reasons." Feel free to leave something out if it does not fit.

Once you have written the first draft, read it through and ask yourself the following questions:

    * Have I answered the question / topic?
    * Have I done what I said I would do in the introduction?
    * Does the argument progress logically and clearly?
    * Is there a healthy balance between discussion and detail?
    * Are my arguments supported by evidence?
    * Is anything missing?
    * Have I left out anything important?
    * Does the conclusion show how I have answered the question?
    * Are there any errors of grammar or spelling?
    * Could the style be improved?

Your answers to these questions will define the work to be done in your final draft

Sample Outline

What follows is an example of an outline for a short essay on an ancient history topic written by a Skidmore student.

The essay was generated from the following topic:

Write an essay in which you describe the Roman attitude toward expansion in the Mediterranean. Did Rome have precedents for expanding its boundaries to the world outside Italy? If so, draw parallels between early and later periods of Roman expansion.

Outline:

I. Introduction / Argument
     A. Conquest of Italy in early Republic prepared Rome for
         subsequent conquest of the Mediterranean
     B. Conquest fueled by political ambition and national pride

II. Early Republican Conflicts
     A. Etruscans

     B. Latin League: Battle of Lake Regillus
          1. alliance = foedus aequum
          2. earlier alliance with Carthage as model

     C. Volsci, Aequi
          1. patrician/plebeian dissent and Roman response
          2. strengthening of army
          3. Rome destroys Veii in 396

     D. Celts
          1. Rome sacked in 390
          2. Rome's acquiescence
          3. Rebuilding of Rome and army
          4. Rome's prestige diminished
          5. Rome conquers Italy by 338
          6. Roman treatment of vanquished

     E. Samnites
          1. Similarities between Rome and Samnite League
          2. Potential benefits of conquest over Samnites
          3. Battle of Caudine Forks
          4. Battle of Sentinum
          5. Roman conquest of non-Celtic Italy

III. Impact of Italian Conflicts on Rome
     A. Plebeian secession

     B. Lex Hortensia

     C. Focus on southern, Greek Italy
          1. Tarentum
          2. Pyrrhus

IV. Conclusion
     A. Conquest of Italy prepared Rome for conquest of the Mediterranean

     B. Expansion driven by nationalism and ambition

From Skidmore College's Department of Classics.