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Common Writing Questions

Assignments (11)

– I don’t understand my assignment!

Your instructors will usually assign a mix of easier and harder tasks to strengthen your writing and thinking skills.

Generally, weekly responses and discussion board posts are designed to test that you’ve gone over the reading and understand it. When you write these, try to show that you know the course materials. For instance, you might want to use specific details (facts and figures) from the reading and relate them to the topic of the class for that week. Or, use a brief quote from the reading and talk about how it relates to topics you’ve covered previously.

More complicated assignments emphasize analysis over recalling information. This means that you should use facts, figures, and the main points from your reading(s) and relate them to issues that you are interested in. The emphasis is always on your claim, or, how you are using the info (facts and figures) and research (quotes or paraphrases from other critics) to extend your analysis.

For more detailed information about reading and understanding assignments, check out these helpful pages:

Tip: Remember that individual courses that different requirements so check the syllabus carefully for guidelines about format and length!

 

– What is plagiarism, and how do I avoid it?

SPS defines plagiarism as “the act of presenting another person’s ideas, research or writings as your own” (http://sps.cuny.edu/acad_policies/acad_integrity.html).  This can be done intentionally or unintentionally, but is always a serious academic offense that could result in receiving no credit for the assignment, failing the class, or being subjected to disciplinary actions such as suspension or expulsion.

Any time you use someone else’s words or ideas (and you will do this regularly in academic writing), you must make sure to give that person credit. This means you need to include quotation marks around any phrases or sentences that are taken exactly from a source and give a citation for any quotations, paraphrases, or summaries. For example, in the first sentence of this answer, the quoted definition for plagiarism is attributed to SPS, and a link to the original material is given in parentheses. Though that is a very informal type of citation, it tells the reader where and with whom the ideas and words originated, so it is clear that I did not develop them myself. There are various approaches to citation, and your teacher will generally specify which style you should use in your course or discipline.  (If you are in doubt, always ask your instructor what they require.)

While the simple answer to the question of how to avoid plagiarism is that you must properly credit your sources, there are a number of ways you can set yourself up for success.  We have a more in-depth page with tips for avoiding plagiarism, as well as various guides on how to use source material in our Reading for Writing section.

You can also learn more about this topic at these sites:

– What are the different categories of writing assignments?

Writing assignments can be broadly divided into formal and informal ones.

Formal assignments usually follow a very specific format and use the academic tone in writing. They will probably make up a big part of your overall grade, too. Research essays, position pieces, literature reviews, and annotated bibliographies are some of the common formal assignments.

Informal assignments like weekly journal responses, in-class written responses, or brainstorming usually make up a smaller percentage of your overall grade. They often have less structure, and you don’t always have to use the academic tone in writing (although it is better to avoid using colloquialisms in most cases).

The biggest difference is that with informal assignments you are addressing your instructor and can expect them to remember classroom discussions and your previous work. With formal assignments, you are addressing “a reader” (a stranger) who has an understanding of your topic but who was not with you in class, and whom you will have to convince about the importance and validity of your argument.

For more information on understanding different types of written work, see here.

 

– How is a persuasive paper different from an informative essay?

Essentially, an informative essay (also called an expository essay) simply serves to educate the reader about a particular topic, while a persuasive essay is organized around a thesis statement that asserts an opinion.  An informative essay is not intended to convince the reader of a certain position, but rather should just present facts about the topic.  A persuasive essay advocates a particular position that can be argued for or against, and that position will be expressed in a thesis statement.

The wording used in your assignment will usually indicate which type of paper you should be writing, though persuasive writing is generally more common (particularly in more advanced courses).  For tips on understanding your assignment, visit our helpful guide here.

 

– What is a literature review?

During your academic career, you might be asked to write a literature review.  It could be required as a stand-alone project, a preliminary step in writing an essay, or even a section or chapter within a longer paper.  But what exactly is a literature review?

Typically, a literature review gives a critical overview of the published sources (articles, books, dissertations, etc.) on a particular topic.  Though it does not present new first-hand scholarship, the literature review will include your thoughts on the different sources.  In that sense, the literature review includes a combination of summarizing other people’s ideas, evaluating them, and drawing conclusions about the state of research on a certain subject.

It will usually begin with an introduction that sets out the area of research, and a discussion of the relevant sources will follow.  The sources should be presented in a logical manner, for example grouped into different subtopics with the main subject, arguments for or against a certain proposition, the type of approach used, or even just chronologically, tracing the development of the ideas over time.  Each source should be summarized and critiqued, with an emphasis on showing its significance for the topic and the value of its arguments/research.  After all of the sources have been covered in that manner, a conclusion is needed to tie together the different ideas presented in the review, summarize the current state of the research, and introduce possible directions for future research.

For more detailed information about writing a literature review, you can visit these three helpful websites:

 

– What is a research paper?

One of the most common types of writing assignment is the research paper.  This genre of writing involves finding sources that you will read, evaluate, and use to present a new perspective on a certain topic.  Though you will want to incorporate quotations, paraphrases, and/or summaries of information from your sources, your research paper should not just be a presentation of other people’s ideas.  Instead, you need to use your sources to support your own unique argument or analysis.

There are many different formats for writing a research paper in different disciplines, and various styles that can be used for citations and bibliographies (MLA and APA are two common ones used here at SPS).  Check your assignment instructions and/or ask your professor to find out which is required for your research paper.  Regardless of which style is used, you will need to make sure you are always properly crediting your sources when you use quotations, paraphrases, or summaries.  Using appropriate citations will ensure you avoid the danger of plagiarism, one of the most serious issues in academic work.

For more information about writing a research paper, check out these helpful sites:

 

– What should my paper look like?

You should always check your professor’s syllabus or assignment sheet for instructions on the format of your assignments.

If your professor hasn’t given any other instructions, you should use Times New Roman font (this is most professional; alternately, you can use Arial or Calibri, the default font in Word). Font size should be 12-point with 1″-margins on all sides. You should double-space all your writing (what that is, how to do that in Word). If the assignment has more than 1 page, number the pages in the format “Your Last Name  XX” (how to insert page numbers in Word).

Tip: Here is a sample paper in MLA format and a sample paper in APA format.

 

– What does a good Discussion Board post look like?

Discussion Boards are places in which you, the student, should test your understanding of the reading for the week. Ask questions and agree or disagree with the readings. Use short quotes or statistics if relevant from the reading and relate it to the topic or theme of the class for that week. Remember that your instructor wants to see that you have thought carefully about the reading.

 

 

– What is the “academic tone”?

The “academic tone” is how your writing voice sounds in a formal piece where you are addressing a wide academic audience. In other words, it is assumed that you are writing an essay because you want to join in a conversation with other scholars who are interested in your topic but may not (yet) share your views on it. (Maybe you are only writing because your professor requires it–but play along with the idea anyway!)

Because you are speaking to others in this professional setting, “academic tone” usually requires that you:

Avoid using the second person. E.g., instead of saying, “If you read this passage on Galileo, you can see that…,” try to rephrase into something like, “Given Galileo’s ideas on…, it becomes clear that….” This change makes your paper open up from being addressed to a single person (the “you”) to a wider audience. (More on 1st and 2nd person usage here.)

Be to-the-point. Because you are writing professionally, your writing has to be very focused. Edit your work so that it doesn’t sound like you are talking (edit out run-on sentences). Avoid “fluff”–all that extra padding of unrelated ideas we add in when we are speaking or thinking aloud. Keep straight to the point.

Avoid colloquialisms. Replace any expressions that are too casual, and definitely avoid clichés (here is an excellent post discussing this) as you write. As always, never, ever use “text message language” (u instead of younite instead of night, etc.) in any formal writing.

For more on writing in the academic tone, see a short handout here and a longer explanation here.

 

– What is an “academic audience”?

No matter what you are writing–discussion board posts and responses, shorter essays, long research papers, position papers, literature reviews, and so on–your writing will be much stronger, and therefore your grades will improve, if you keep your audience in mind and tailor your writing for it.

For instance, discussion board posts and responses are typically aimed at your peers and instructor, so you can be a little more informal when writing those. However, longer essays and reports are usually aimed at an “academic audience.” When you are writing, imagine that you are addressing someone who is very much like your instructor but not them. This is because you most likely have a personal relationship with your instructor, but your paper should speak to a general academic audience that knows something about your field of study but not your particular ‘take’ on the topic. Usually, this means that you need to define key concepts and guide your reader slowly in logical steps through your claim, what we familiarly call the thesis statement.

You can find out more about the “academic audience” here.

 

– What are Primary and Secondary sources?

There are always two kinds of “sources” of information–those that itself contain the information, and those that talk about where the information can be found. The first type is a primary source and the second type is, well, secondary!

Common Primary Sources || Common Secondary Sources:

The Declaration of Independence || Critical essays about the Declaration
Historical artifacts || Books discussing the same artifacts
A novel or a poem || Essay or book describing and analyzing the same
A criminal’s emails || A report about what the criminal said
A painting || A newspaper article, essay, or write-up on the painting

The Borough of Manhattan Community College has a helpful chart about this issue.  You can view it online here.

 

Citations (8)

– What is plagiarism, and how do I avoid it?

SPS defines plagiarism as “the act of presenting another person’s ideas, research or writings as your own” (http://sps.cuny.edu/acad_policies/acad_integrity.html).  This can be done intentionally or unintentionally, but is always a serious academic offense that could result in receiving no credit for the assignment, failing the class, or being subjected to disciplinary actions such as suspension or expulsion.

Any time you use someone else’s words or ideas (and you will do this regularly in academic writing), you must make sure to give that person credit. This means you need to include quotation marks around any phrases or sentences that are taken exactly from a source and give a citation for any quotations, paraphrases, or summaries. For example, in the first sentence of this answer, the quoted definition for plagiarism is attributed to SPS, and a link to the original material is given in parentheses. Though that is a very informal type of citation, it tells the reader where and with whom the ideas and words originated, so it is clear that I did not develop them myself. There are various approaches to citation, and your teacher will generally specify which style you should use in your course or discipline.  (If you are in doubt, always ask your instructor what they require.)

While the simple answer to the question of how to avoid plagiarism is that you must properly credit your sources, there are a number of ways you can set yourself up for success.  We have a more in-depth page with tips for avoiding plagiarism, as well as various guides on how to use source material in our Reading for Writing section.

You can also learn more about this topic at these sites:

– What are Primary and Secondary sources?

There are always two kinds of “sources” of information–those that itself contain the information, and those that talk about where the information can be found. The first type is a primary source and the second type is, well, secondary!

Common Primary Sources || Common Secondary Sources:

The Declaration of Independence || Critical essays about the Declaration
Historical artifacts || Books discussing the same artifacts
A novel or a poem || Essay or book describing and analyzing the same
A criminal’s emails || A report about what the criminal said
A painting || A newspaper article, essay, or write-up on the painting

The Borough of Manhattan Community College has a helpful chart about this issue.  You can view it online here.

 

– What is a Block Quote and when do I use it?

In most cases, you’re asked to support your ideas in written work with quotations from primary and secondary sources. With complex ideas, it sometimes helps to quote longer passages. If your quote is longer than 4 lines of type, you have to make it into a block quote.

Block quotes should be double-spaced; be careful to omit the quotation marks, as the example below shows:

Looking further than Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems reveals a writer who was an important literary critic as well. As G. R. Thompson notes:

Poe’s personal enthusiasms recur in reviews and essays. Fans of “The Gold Bug” will enjoy “A Few Words on Secret Writing.” Additional articles on South Sea exploration, drama, geography, music, transcendentalism, ancient languages, and modern cities testify to the wide range of Poe’s interests. As a reviewer Edgar Allan Poe was direct, discriminating, and feared; as an essayist he was alert to any possibility that in literature there might be found a sense of unity missing from life. (1)

For more help with quotations, see our guide here.

Tip: You should avoid using block quotes too frequently. Remember that the essay should be primarily about your ideas about what you have read.

– How do I quote in MLA Format in my essay?

Follow this format for in-text citations (inside your essay), being especially careful of where the punctuation goes:

The narrative voice tells us, “Call me Ishmael” (Melville 1).

Or,

The story makes us aware that “[i]t was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Dickens 1).

Tip: You can change quoted words from upper- to lower-case or vice versa to fit your sentence better using square brackets.

– How do I quote in APA Format in my essay?

For citations in APA format, you have to indicate the author, date, and page number of the quotation. There are two ways you can do this.  First, you can introduce the quote with a signal phrase that includes the author’s last name followed by the year of publication in parentheses.  After the quote, give the page number preceded by “p.” all in parentheses.  The parenthetical reference to the page number should come after the closing quotation mark, and the period should come after the closing parenthesis.  For example:

  • Jordan (2013) says, “[b]ased on the collected responses, a confirmed date and time were set” (p. 1).

Second, if you don’t include the author’s last name and date of publication in the introductory phrase, you will need to place that information in the parenthetical citation at the end of the sentence.  This will usually happen if you have already introduced the source in a preceding sentence.

  • The author writes that “[b]ased on the collected responses, a confirmed date and time were set” (Jones, 2013, p. 1).

If you have a quote that is more than four lines, you should use a block quote (see the separate FAQ on this topic).  In that case, you will still want to introduce the quote with some type of signal phrase and then start the quote on a new line.  The whole quote should be indented by one half-inch.  You do not need to use quotation marks, but do include the parenthetical citation after the period of the last sentence in the quotation.  As with shorter quotes, if you do not include the author’s last name and the date of publication in the introductory phrase, you will need to do so in the parenthetical citation.

If you would like more information on APA style formatting, visit this helpful website.

 

– What’s the difference between a works cited list and a references list? How about a bibliography and a works consulted list?

There are a number of different ways you can present the sources used in an academic paper. Some of the common types you’ll encounter are described below.  As always, though, be sure to follow any instructions your professor gives for your particular assignment.

  • Works Cited: a list of the sources cited (i.e. quoted, paraphrased, summarized, or otherwise directly mentioned) in your paper, typically associated with MLA formatting
  • Works Consulted: a list of the sources you cite and those you consult for background information, again typically associated with MLA formatting
  • References List:  a list of the sources cited (i.e. quoted, paraphrased, summarized, or otherwise directly mentioned) in your paper, typically associated with APA formatting
  • Bibliography: a more general term referring to a list of sources on a particular topic, can be done in various formats so be sure to see your specific assignment instructions for more details
  • Annotated Bibliography: a list of sources on a particular topic with brief descriptions of each source’s content, again can be done in various formats so be sure to see your specific assignment instructions for more details

For information on formatting an MLA style Works Cited list, visit this site.  To learn about APA formatting, click here.

– How do I make an MLA “Works Cited” list?

End citations go on the Works Cited page like this (be careful about the placement of punctuation marks and also the hanging indent of 0.5” on the second line!):

[Books]

Tratner, Michael. Modernism and Mass Politics. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995. Print.

Au. last name, First name. “Title of Article/chapter.” Name of Book. City of publication: Name of press, Year of publication. Venue (Print/Web).

[Articles]

Woolf, Virginia. “A Simple Melody.” The American Poetry Review 14.6 (1985): 21-22. Print.

Au. last name, First name. “Title of Article.” Name of Journal. Volume number.Issue number (Year of pub.): page range. Venue (Print/Web).

Tip: For articles you find via JStor or another database, you don’t have to provide the URL unless asked. If the essay appeared in a paper journal–even if you accessed it online–you should write “Print” as the venue in which it appeared.

 

– How do I make a “References” list in APA format?

APA format is very particular about capitalization, so pay special attention to when titles are in “sentence case,” meaning you only capitalize the first word and proper nouns. APA requires a hanging indent of 0.5″ on the second line.

[Books]

Gehman, G. (2013). The kingdom of the kid: Growing up in the long-lost Hamptons. New York, NY: SUNY Press.

Author, A. A. (Year of publication). Title of work with capitals for first word and names: Capital letter for first word in subtitle. Location: Publisher.

[Articles]

Dybas, C. L., Raskin, I. (2007). Out of Africa: A tale of gorillas, heart disease… and a swamp plant. BioScience, 57 (5), 392-397.

Author, A. A., Author, B. B., & Author, C. C. (Year). Title of article. Title of Periodical, volume number(issue number), pages.

Tip: You can create a hanging indent by moving the markers on the ruler at the top of your document. Here is another way to create hanging indents through the “Page Layout” tab.

Grammar (8)

– What about online grammar checkers?

We have tried using Grammarly, a free plug-in for the Google Chrome Browser. It identifies over 250 common writing errors from catching incorrect verb tense to helping you decide between “that” and “which.” Grammarly finds errors as you type that Microsoft Word does not, which is why we recommend trying it. Note that there is a paid version and a free version.

You can download it here.  Still not sure? Read these student reviews.

– What is a run-on sentence?

A run-on sentence is actually two sentences fused together. Every sentence has 3 main parts–a subject (e.g., I, you, Dave, the bus), a predicate verb (e.g., ran, coughed, stumbled, honked), and a complete idea.

From the parenthetical examples above, you can make several complete sentences:I ran.
You coughed.
Dave stumbled. [A longer sentence can say that he stumbled over something specific]
The bus honked. [A longer sentence might specify what the bus honked at]

A “fused” or run-on sentence occurs when two or more of these sentences are joined together, e.g., “Dave stumbled the bus honked I ran.”

A clearer sentence that fully conveys one possible situation is: “Dave stumbled on a pebble in the crosswalk, and the bus honked at him. I ran to help him.”

It is easier to catch run-ons if you read your writing aloud–you will hear the gaps where missing information needs to be in your sentence(s). For a more elaborate grammatical explanation, see here; and you can find a good evaluation of how punctuation can affect your tone in writing if you scroll to the bottom of this explanation.

 

– What is a sentence fragment?

A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence. Every sentence must have 3 ingredients–a subject, a predicate verb, and a complete thought or idea.When all three of these are not linked together, you end up with a fragment.

See here for an extended explanation with many excellent examples for you to practice with.

 

– What is subject-verb agreement?

Subject-verb agreement means that the verb of the sentence needs to match the noun or pronoun doing the action both in number and in person.  The first condition, number, stipulates that:

  • if the noun/pronoun is singular then the verb must also be in a singular form
  • if the noun/pronoun is plural then the verb must also be in a plural form

The second condition, person, means that:

  • if the noun/pronoun is in the first person (“I” or “we”), then the verb must also be in a first person form
  • if the noun/pronoun is in the second person (“you”), then the verb must also be in a second person verb form
  • if the noun/pronoun is in the third person (“he”, “she”, “it”, or really anyone other than “I”, “we” or “you”), then the verb must also be in a third person form

So a sentence with a first-person singular subject must use a first-person singular verb, a sentence with a third person-plural subject must use a third-person plural verb, and so on.

Some special considerations do exist (for example, with mass nouns like water, which are uncountable), so here are a couple good websites with more information on this subject:

– When do I use -s, -es, ‘s, or s’? Or, please help me with plurals and possessives!

Creating the correct plural and possessive forms of nouns can be a very confusing subject for many writers for a very simple reason: plurals and all possessives involve the letter “s” somehow. The trick is figuring out whether you need the “s” by itself or whether it needs some help in the form of an “e” or an apostrophe.

Plural nouns are used to indicate that there is more than one of something.  Most commonly, the plural form of a noun will be formed by adding -s to the end of the word, for example the plural form of noun is nouns.  Any words ending in -ch, x, s or s-like sounds, need -es added to create the plural: one glass becomes many glasses.  There are some nouns, however, that have irregular plural forms that do not include either -s or -es.  Some examples are children, women, mice, and fungi.  For more information about creating and using plural nouns, visit this helpful site.

Possessive nouns are used to show ownership.  These types of nouns can be singular or plural.  An “s” preceded by an apostrophe is added at the end of a singular noun to create its possessive form: the singular girl becomes the possessive girl‘s.  To create the possessive form of a plural noun, start by finding the plural form of the noun and looking at its ending.  If the plural ends in “s” (preceded by any letter), then simply add an apostrophe after the “s” to create the plural possessive. If the plural does not end in “s”, however, you will need to add both the apostrophe and the “s” (like in the singular possessive). For example, the plural form of girl is girls, which ends in “s”; the plural possessive will then be girls.  The plural noun children does not end in “s”, however, so the plural possessive will be children‘s. Always remember, the only type of plural noun that uses an apostrophe is a possessive plural.  Never use the apostrophe just to create a plural form of a noun!

But, wait, how do you know if you should use a singular possessive or a plural possessive? When showing ownership, you will have someone or something who is doing the owning and someone/something that is being owned.  Both of these have the potential to be either singular or plural, which can cause some confusion in determining if you need a singular or plural possessive.  To figure that out, the only information you need to know is how many people/things are doing the owning.  If the owner is singular, then use a singular possessive: the girl‘s cat refers to one girl owning one cat.  If there are multiple owners, use the plural possessive: the girls’ cat refers to multiple girls owning one cat.  The number of things being owned has absolutely no effect on whether or not you should use the singular or plural form of the possessive noun.

If you’d like to learn more about possessives and plurals, check out this online guide. You can also find  some great information and a few practice quizzes here (scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the quizzes). To read more about how and when to use apostrophes, visit this page.

 

– What is a “dangling modifier”, and how do I fix it?

Very often when writing, you will use a short descriptive phrase before the main clause of a sentence. See – I just did it in the last sentence (“Very often when writing”). This is called a modifier, and it is a useful way of providing background information without the need for a separate sentence. Above, the phrase “very often when writing” modifies the subject of the sentence: “you”.  A dangling modifier occurs when a descriptive phrase applies to a word not found as the subject of the sentence.  This common writing can make it more difficult to understand the meaning of the sentence, and there are two main types of dangling modifier.

First, the word being modified may appear later in the sentence, like in this example: “Sleepy and having drunk too much wine, Brian struggled to engage his audience.” Because of the sentence’s construction, it is not clear who the introductory phrase describes. Is it Brian who is sleepy and drunk, or is it his audience? The context suggests that it is the audience, but the grammar suggests it is Brian.  This problem is easy to resolve, though. You just need to make sure the subject of the phrase (the person who it describes) comes immediately after the comma, like this: “Sleepy and having drunk too much wine, the audience was not engaged by Brian’s lecture.” Or, you choose to resolve the problem by extending the sentence and explaining its components more carefully, like this: “The audience was sleepy and had drunk too much wine, so Brian struggled to engage them.”

Another common mistake is to leave out the word to which the modifier applies, as in this sentence: “Having examined the arguments, they are unconvincing.” Students often write things like this, and although they usually make sense, they’re not grammatical because there is no subject for the first phrase. The sentence’s author does not tell us who exactly examined the arguments, so the phrase “having examined the arguments” doesn’t make proper sense. Again, this is easy to fix:“Having examined the arguments, I find them to be unconvincing.” Simply by inserting the word “I” after the comma, the author makes it clear who examined the arguments, and the sentence becomes grammatical.

More information about how to properly use modifiers and other general writing tips can be found in our guide, Five Strategies for Writing More Clearly.

 

– When do I use a semicolon?

Semicolons are a little tricky–they are used mainly to join two independent clauses (i.e., two simple sentences) together to show that the first relates very closely to the second. They are sometimes used in long lists for clarity. This site gives a lot of examples and variations on when to use a semicolon. For a few more examples, see here.

Tip: Never use a semicolon in the place of a comma or a colon (:). If you’re unsure even after going through the examples above, use the comma–a simple but grammatically-correct sentence is always fine!

 

 

– My teacher wrote that my writing was “unclear”. Help!

Professors often complain that students’ writing is “unclear”. But what does this mean, and how can you fix it? There are actually a number of ways you can improve the clarity in your writing – in fact, this is such a large topic that we have created a whole page devoted to it!  Visit our guide, Five Strategies for Writing More Clearly, to learn more.

 

Resources for Students (4)

– What is plagiarism, and how do I avoid it?

SPS defines plagiarism as “the act of presenting another person’s ideas, research or writings as your own” (http://sps.cuny.edu/acad_policies/acad_integrity.html).  This can be done intentionally or unintentionally, but is always a serious academic offense that could result in receiving no credit for the assignment, failing the class, or being subjected to disciplinary actions such as suspension or expulsion.

Any time you use someone else’s words or ideas (and you will do this regularly in academic writing), you must make sure to give that person credit. This means you need to include quotation marks around any phrases or sentences that are taken exactly from a source and give a citation for any quotations, paraphrases, or summaries. For example, in the first sentence of this answer, the quoted definition for plagiarism is attributed to SPS, and a link to the original material is given in parentheses. Though that is a very informal type of citation, it tells the reader where and with whom the ideas and words originated, so it is clear that I did not develop them myself. There are various approaches to citation, and your teacher will generally specify which style you should use in your course or discipline.  (If you are in doubt, always ask your instructor what they require.)

While the simple answer to the question of how to avoid plagiarism is that you must properly credit your sources, there are a number of ways you can set yourself up for success.  We have a more in-depth page with tips for avoiding plagiarism, as well as various guides on how to use source material in our Reading for Writing section.

You can also learn more about this topic at these sites:

– What about online grammar checkers?

We have tried using Grammarly, a free plug-in for the Google Chrome Browser. It identifies over 250 common writing errors from catching incorrect verb tense to helping you decide between “that” and “which.” Grammarly finds errors as you type that Microsoft Word does not, which is why we recommend trying it. Note that there is a paid version and a free version.

You can download it here.  Still not sure? Read these student reviews.

– In what format should I write emails to my professor?

Emails to your instructors count as “professional” emails–which means that they must look and sound different from the ones you send your friends and family. As a general rule, your message must have: a subject line, an address, body paragraphs (with a clear question, if you want your professor to respond to a problem), and a closing signature.

For example:

[In subject line of email] Extension on Midterm Paper

Dear Professor XX, [Use the name your instructor prefers in class]

I have been unable to finish my midterm essay which is due in class tomorrow because of some personal problems. [You don’t have to give a long explanation of your problem unless you want to]
I will keep working on the paper until class meets, but may I have an extension until the weekend? [Show that you have tried to solve your problem on your own, and ask a specific question or propose]

Thank you,

XX [Don’t forget to put your name at the end!]

– What resources does the library give me?

CUNY SPS is affiliated with Baruch College’s library, but as a CUNY student you have access to university-wide books and resources. This means you can look at (and usually, borrow) any book that CUNY owns. You can access the CUNY-wide books catalogue here, and you can find SPS-related information here. You can also watch a video tutorial about the resources available to you here.

 

Structure & Style (7)

– What should my paper look like?

You should always check your professor’s syllabus or assignment sheet for instructions on the format of your assignments.

If your professor hasn’t given any other instructions, you should use Times New Roman font (this is most professional; alternately, you can use Arial or Calibri, the default font in Word). Font size should be 12-point with 1″-margins on all sides. You should double-space all your writing (what that is, how to do that in Word). If the assignment has more than 1 page, number the pages in the format “Your Last Name  XX” (how to insert page numbers in Word).

Tip: Here is a sample paper in MLA format and a sample paper in APA format.

 

– What is a “dangling modifier”, and how do I fix it?

Very often when writing, you will use a short descriptive phrase before the main clause of a sentence. See – I just did it in the last sentence (“Very often when writing”). This is called a modifier, and it is a useful way of providing background information without the need for a separate sentence. Above, the phrase “very often when writing” modifies the subject of the sentence: “you”.  A dangling modifier occurs when a descriptive phrase applies to a word not found as the subject of the sentence.  This common writing can make it more difficult to understand the meaning of the sentence, and there are two main types of dangling modifier.

First, the word being modified may appear later in the sentence, like in this example: “Sleepy and having drunk too much wine, Brian struggled to engage his audience.” Because of the sentence’s construction, it is not clear who the introductory phrase describes. Is it Brian who is sleepy and drunk, or is it his audience? The context suggests that it is the audience, but the grammar suggests it is Brian.  This problem is easy to resolve, though. You just need to make sure the subject of the phrase (the person who it describes) comes immediately after the comma, like this: “Sleepy and having drunk too much wine, the audience was not engaged by Brian’s lecture.” Or, you choose to resolve the problem by extending the sentence and explaining its components more carefully, like this: “The audience was sleepy and had drunk too much wine, so Brian struggled to engage them.”

Another common mistake is to leave out the word to which the modifier applies, as in this sentence: “Having examined the arguments, they are unconvincing.” Students often write things like this, and although they usually make sense, they’re not grammatical because there is no subject for the first phrase. The sentence’s author does not tell us who exactly examined the arguments, so the phrase “having examined the arguments” doesn’t make proper sense. Again, this is easy to fix:“Having examined the arguments, I find them to be unconvincing.” Simply by inserting the word “I” after the comma, the author makes it clear who examined the arguments, and the sentence becomes grammatical.

More information about how to properly use modifiers and other general writing tips can be found in our guide, Five Strategies for Writing More Clearly.

 

– My teacher wrote that my writing was “unclear”. Help!

Professors often complain that students’ writing is “unclear”. But what does this mean, and how can you fix it? There are actually a number of ways you can improve the clarity in your writing – in fact, this is such a large topic that we have created a whole page devoted to it!  Visit our guide, Five Strategies for Writing More Clearly, to learn more.

 

– What is “signposting”, and why should I do it?

Signposting is when you tell your reader what you’re going to say next. This makes it easier to understand why a writer is talking about one topic or another and helps a piece of writing flow better. Readers – like the professors grading your papers – are more likely to understand and appreciate your ideas if they can quickly and easily understand what you’re trying to say.

You should signpost your longer papers with an introduction (say what you’re going to say in the paper as a whole), but you should also use words and phrases to signpost each paragraph. There are also lots of useful little words and phrases that you can use for signposting: additionally, furthermore, nevertheless, however, for this reason, because of, due to, consequently, as a result, in other words, and many more. For example, if you’re about to consider the evidence in support of an idea, you might start the paragraph by saying something like this: “There are many sources of evidence to support this claim, and I will now consider a few of them. For example…”

Of course, you don’t always have to literally tell your reader what you’re about to say. There are lots of little words and phrases that allow you to signpost your topic more subtly. A numbered list works very well. Start by saying something like this: “There are three main objections to this theory…” And then follow up with numbered points: “The first objection concerns the lack of scientific evidence in its favor… the second objection is that the theory has counterexamples, for example… the final objection is that the theory contradicts itself, in the following way…” The other great thing about a list is that it’s much easier to keep things in mind when they’ve been broken up into parts. That makes it easy for your instructor to understand any subsequent points you make and will help you get full credit for your writing.

 

– What is the “academic tone”?

The “academic tone” is how your writing voice sounds in a formal piece where you are addressing a wide academic audience. In other words, it is assumed that you are writing an essay because you want to join in a conversation with other scholars who are interested in your topic but may not (yet) share your views on it. (Maybe you are only writing because your professor requires it–but play along with the idea anyway!)

Because you are speaking to others in this professional setting, “academic tone” usually requires that you:

Avoid using the second person. E.g., instead of saying, “If you read this passage on Galileo, you can see that…,” try to rephrase into something like, “Given Galileo’s ideas on…, it becomes clear that….” This change makes your paper open up from being addressed to a single person (the “you”) to a wider audience. (More on 1st and 2nd person usage here.)

Be to-the-point. Because you are writing professionally, your writing has to be very focused. Edit your work so that it doesn’t sound like you are talking (edit out run-on sentences). Avoid “fluff”–all that extra padding of unrelated ideas we add in when we are speaking or thinking aloud. Keep straight to the point.

Avoid colloquialisms. Replace any expressions that are too casual, and definitely avoid clichés (here is an excellent post discussing this) as you write. As always, never, ever use “text message language” (u instead of younite instead of night, etc.) in any formal writing.

For more on writing in the academic tone, see a short handout here and a longer explanation here.

 

– What is an “academic audience”?

No matter what you are writing–discussion board posts and responses, shorter essays, long research papers, position papers, literature reviews, and so on–your writing will be much stronger, and therefore your grades will improve, if you keep your audience in mind and tailor your writing for it.

For instance, discussion board posts and responses are typically aimed at your peers and instructor, so you can be a little more informal when writing those. However, longer essays and reports are usually aimed at an “academic audience.” When you are writing, imagine that you are addressing someone who is very much like your instructor but not them. This is because you most likely have a personal relationship with your instructor, but your paper should speak to a general academic audience that knows something about your field of study but not your particular ‘take’ on the topic. Usually, this means that you need to define key concepts and guide your reader slowly in logical steps through your claim, what we familiarly call the thesis statement.

You can find out more about the “academic audience” here.

 

– What is a Block Quote and when do I use it?

In most cases, you’re asked to support your ideas in written work with quotations from primary and secondary sources. With complex ideas, it sometimes helps to quote longer passages. If your quote is longer than 4 lines of type, you have to make it into a block quote.

Block quotes should be double-spaced; be careful to omit the quotation marks, as the example below shows:

Looking further than Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems reveals a writer who was an important literary critic as well. As G. R. Thompson notes:

Poe’s personal enthusiasms recur in reviews and essays. Fans of “The Gold Bug” will enjoy “A Few Words on Secret Writing.” Additional articles on South Sea exploration, drama, geography, music, transcendentalism, ancient languages, and modern cities testify to the wide range of Poe’s interests. As a reviewer Edgar Allan Poe was direct, discriminating, and feared; as an essayist he was alert to any possibility that in literature there might be found a sense of unity missing from life. (1)

For more help with quotations, see our guide here.

Tip: You should avoid using block quotes too frequently. Remember that the essay should be primarily about your ideas about what you have read.

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