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The Essentials of Writing

The Hamilton College Style Sheet

Organizing Your Paper/Disciplinary Differences

Every piece of writing, no matter how long or short, should present a sequence of ideas. Before you begin to write anything, you should work out this organized sequence mentally. Different disciplines expect different organizing principles.


It's your standard paper.

The most common form of essay required in college is the argumentative or persuasive essay. In such an essay, the organizing principle will be your thesis, the point that you wish to support and defend.  Within that larger structure, each paragraph functions as a building block.  Begin each paragraph with the point that you will prove, support, or explain in that paragraph, and do so.  With these paragraphs, build toward a fuller and more complex understanding of your thesis, and demonstrate this understanding in your conclusion.

This principle of organization also applies to research and expository essays.

 Although both David and Ingres are called Neo-Classical painters, David's best paintings reveal a severe style, an idealized form and a didactic intent, whereas the finest of Ingres' work is characterized by sensuous surfaces, elegantly distorted figures, and sublimated self-expression.

For more information on writing a thesis, refer to Developing Your Thesis.
  

That's great, except I'm writing a lab report.

Style. Scientific writing is usually in the past tense because you are reporting on experiments that have been completed. Avoid being too self-referential, and avoid the passive voice as much as possible. Remember: past tense, active voice.

Presentation. The first page of a lab report should be a title page with the title of the report, your name, the date, the course, and the names of your lab partners. There should then follow text that is a minimum of two pages and a maximum of five double-spaced, typewritten pages in length (tables, figures, and references do not count in this total). The best length is shorter than the maximum, so don't expand a shorter report to reach a five-page limit. It is important to write concisely.

Audience. Write the report as if you were writing to other students who are taking a similar course but have not done this experiment. Assume that they have some familiarity with the subject matter but no expertise. Do not write specifically for the instructor.

Format. Your scientific report should include the following sections (indicated by an underlined heading at the beginning of each section): Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion, Acknowledgments, Literature Cited, and Appendix.

For more information on scientific reports, refer to Writing in the Sciences, Lab Reports for Biology, Sample Bio Lab Report, Sample APA Lab, and other resources at Writing Center Handouts


So what would I do with a philosophy paper?

As in any discipline, clear, concise writing is essential in philosophy. Your language should be simple and direct, and your argument should be clear and well supported and should show evidence of sufficient preparation. In your paper, you should explain the writer's argument. This step may be relaxed or done subtly as long as the writer's argument is sufficiently illustrated.  If you are writing an expository essay, strive to explain philosophical concepts clearly and thoroughly. If you are writing an argumentative essay, demonstrate the relationship between your claim(s) and the author's by examples or analogies to support your thesis.

Once you have addressed the writer's argument, evaluate that argument. In the body of your paper, examine both the strengths and the weaknesses of the argument, and provide evidence to support your claim. Ask yourself,

  • Do the premises seem true/reasonable?
  • Does the conclusion follow from the premises?
  • Does the argument take anything questionable for granted?

If you think the argument is convincing, defend it against what would be major objections to it.  Support the argument only if you think it is a convincing argument, not simply because you agree with its conclusion.

If you do not think the argument is convincing, develop a major criticism of it. You may criticize on the grounds of the truthfulness of the premises or the logical structure of the argument. Your evaluation of an argument should be judicious. Consider the opposing viewpoint in as charitable a way as possible; this will make your own criticisms appear stronger.

As you write, ask yourself,

  • Are my claims true and accurate?
  • Can I say what I want to say more clearly?
  • Does each sentence contribute directly to my thesis?
  • Does each paragraph develop a single idea, and do your paragraphs follow a logical progression?
  • What can I do to make my paper more enjoyable to read?


Make sure your argument clearly explains and supports your conclusion. Above all, remember:

For more information on writing about philosophy, refer to Writing Philosophy Papers.


Writing about Poetry

Thinking and writing about poetry necessitates yet another set of conventions. Poetry evaluation can be difficult and demands considerable time for preparation and analysis.

Get to know the poem. If you have a choice of poems to analyze, choose one you like.  It will make your task easier.  Your ear will notice things your eyes miss, so before you organize your essay, read the poem aloud several times. Describe its structure, meter, images and themes, rhyme scheme, etc. Then paraphrase the poem. Put it into your own words (even the parts that seem particularly unintelligible).

Analyze how the poem works. Your analysis will be the bulk of your essay; approach it with care. Look beyond the surface meaning of the words and consider how elements of the poem work together.  In poetry, form and content are inseparable; you must not overlook the relationship between what the speaker says and how he or she says it.  Also, do not confuse the poem's speaker with its author. Frequently, they are not the same person.

Using this analysis, interpret the poem.  You may suggest an interpretation of the speaker's state of mind, the poem's subject, or the nature of the experience that the poem creates. Be sure that your analysis is not merely a paraphrased restatement of the poem; you may include a brief sentence by sentence paraphrase, but you must develop your own claim that you will support with evidence from the poem. Let your interpretation follow your analysis, not the other way around, and be selective with your evidence.

Do remember to cite your evidence properly; indicate where lines of poetry end by separating them with a slash mark "/". If you are quoting more than three lines, single space the passage, indent, and present the passage as it appears in the poem, following the quotation with the appropriate line numbers enclosed in parentheses. For example, one might cite, "She dealt her pretty words like Blades -- / How glittering they shone -- / And every One unbared a Nerve" (1-3) or

"She dealt her pretty words like Blades --
How glittering they shone --
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone --" (1-4)

For more information on writing about poetry, refer to Form for Quotations and Citations, and Writing About Poetry


What about writing papers in other disciplines?

If you are not sure what kind of organization your instructor expects for a particular piece of written work, be sure to ask your professor. For resources relating to other disciplines refer to Writing a Good History Paper, Writing Mathamatical Proofs, and other resources at Writing Center Handouts.