Writing Guidelines

The most important skill you can develop as a student is your writing.

Good writing should be clear and persuasive.

Good writing usually means knowing your audience. If you are completing coursework or research for me, your primary audience is me.   I have set out below what helps and hinders clarity and persuasiveness with me. I’ve compiled most of these guidelines based upon student papers that I’ve graded in past years.  Some of you may disagree with my rules and preferences, but keep in mind that the effectiveness of your advocacy must account for the nature of your audience—as idiosyncratic or uninformed as he, she, or they may be.

 

Formatting

  • One-inch margins

  • Footnotes, not endnotes

  • Text double-spaced, footnotes single-spaced

  • 12-point Times New Roman font for main text (12-point or 10-point for footnotes)

  • Do not include a cover page

  • Use smart quotes (and be sure to convert cut-and-pastes to smart quotes)

  • Place punctuation inside of quotation marks

  • Quotes of more than 50 words should be block quotes: single-spaced, indented left and right, no quotation marks

  • For seminar papers, shorthand references are fine (e.g., “Blasi, p. 185”)

  • Include page numbers

Clarity and style: things to avoid most of the time

  • Cumbersome words (e.g., “utilize,” “operationalize,” “heretofore,” “impactful”)

  • Emphasis adverbs (e.g., “really,” “truly,” “totally,” “completely”)

  • Absolutes (e.g., “always,” “never”)

  • The dangling “this” that lacks an object (e.g., “this is wrong” vs. “this objective is wrong”)

  • Lazy transitions (e.g., “next,” “further,” “also”)

  • Split infinitives

My pet peeves: things to avoid all of the time when writing for me

  • confusing possessive pronouns and contractions (e.g., “its” vs. “it’s”)

  • forgetting possessive apostrophes, especially on nouns ending in “s” (e.g., “Holmes’s view” or “Holmes’ view, not “Holmes view”)

  • Failing to proofread (misspellings, typos)

  • Using made up words (“alot,” “theirselves,” “irregardless”)

  • Ending sentences with a preposition

  • Forgetting or ignoring the Oxford comma

Common flubs

  • “affect” and “effect”

  • “then” and “than”

  • “further” and “farther”

  • “good” (adjective) and “well” (adverb)

  • “to” and “too”

  • “tenant” and “tenet”

  • “disinterested” and “uninterested”

Writing techniques

  • Don’t make your claim bigger than it needs to be: frame the most modest version of the argument that will accomplish your goals

  • On the other hand, don’t undersell your own claim

  • Use fewer words when you can

  • Use the active voice when possible

  • The word “interesting” is often a giveaway that you haven’t thought very carefully about your claim or your sentence

  • Generally avoid throat-clearing introductory phrases like “It is important to note that . . .”

Writing for a supervisor (including a professor for whom you are conducting research)

  • Include your name and date on all documents that you compose (they are often separated from transmittal emails)

  • Include a brief introduction situating the assignment (e.g., “You had asked me to assess . . .”)

  • Keep your supervisor updated on your progress and notify him or her of any unexpected delays

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions along the way (but your first question should be whether your supervisor has any preferences about the frequency, timing, and scope of questions from you)

  • Fight for feedback: ask if you are not sure whether you are doing something correctly

Additional Resources

  • David Foster Wallace, “Tense Present” (a thoughtful and witty consideration of writing with some surprising connections to the practice of legal interpretation)