An essay has a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning states a thesis, idea, or point of view. This idea is more than a description. It is a precise idea or argument concerning the material you are working with, or a direct and specific answer to the question you are asked. In the essay's middle part, support your thesis with evidence drawn from your reading or research. This evidence must be presented in a logical and systematic fashion. Use topic sentences to link each paragraph of the middle section to the paper's thesis. At the end of the paper, recapitulate your main argument and conclude, not merely by restating but by extending it further, perhaps bringing in a related but relevant point.

Think of your paper as an architect thinks of a building. It has a structure. The foundation is the thesis. The frame is the shape of your argument as you develop your main idea. Each floor is a topic area to support part of your thesis joined to the frame by topic sentences. Each room is finished and decorated by well-documented evidence. Working from an outline may help you with this structure.

Write for an average, educated, general reader rather than for your teacher. Do not take your reader's knowledge for granted. Define abstract terms and sketch historical contexts. Avoid imprecise or colloquial adjectives that may mean different things to different people, e.g. "incredible," "amazing," "awesome."


Try to develop a vigorous English prose style. Whenever you can, choose short Anglo-Saxon words rather than multisyllabic, Latin-based words. Balance shorter with longer sentences. If your sentence has 20-25 words, try to make it more concise, say the same thing in a different way, or break it up into two sentences.

Avoid beginning sentences with the boring constructions, "It was" or "There was." Avoid weak helping verbs (forms of "to be" and "to have"); look for stronger verbs that suggest action. E.G., instead of "Napoleon was a great general and he knew how important politics was," write "Napoleon, a great general, understood the importance of politics." The first example also shows another form of weak sentence construction. It links two phrases with "and."

Use the active voice! Passive voice constructions lead to wordiness and are awkward. E.g., "Slaves were seen by their masters as pieces of property." Instead, write "Masters saw their slaves as pieces of property." When writing about the past, use the past tense. Keep your tenses consistent. Restrain your use of qualifiers (adjectives, adverbs) -- use them only when they are essential to your meaning! Never use the first person unless essential. Try to use gender neutral pronouns or the plural.

Subjects and predicates, nouns and pronouns, must agree. Avoid split infinitives, pronouns with unclear antecedents, dangling modifiers and participles. An example of the last: "Considering the problem from a legal perspective, women enjoyed little autonomy in marriage." What does "Considering" modify? Not "women." It's a dangling participle.


Quotations: NEVER USE DIRECT QUOTATIONS FROM SECONDARY SOURCES AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR YOUR OWN WORDS OR TO MAKE YOUR POINTS FOR YOU. Use quotations only when the quotation's language expresses a point you can't make in your own words. Use quotations from primary sources only to illustrate a point you are making in your own words, and always make a comment in your own words after using someone else's. All quotations must be short and to the point. Always attribute the ideas you borrow from others to those who originated them, and be sure you identity them the first time you cite them.

Plagiarism: You must use your own ideas and words! Inserting a lot of footnotes does not necessarily protect you. Be sure you have read or at least thoroughly consulted the sources you cite -- it is dishonest to cite them otherwise.

Proofreading: Never submit a first draft. Sloppy papers get lower grades.

Mechanics: Always keep a copy in case mine is lost. All papers must be typed or printed out in dark ink. They must have a title, page numbers, and margins wide enough for comments: at least 1-1/2" on the left, 1" on the right. Do not use plastic folders; staple papers.


A = "excellent." Strong, well defended thesis; logical transitions between paragraphs that systematically build a case; evidence supporting the thesis is convincing; conclusion interesting; few stylistic, grammatical, or technical flaws.

B = "competent." Thesis moderately interesting, development plausible; writing reliable, but not especially imaginative; only minor organizational, stylistic, or technical problems; conclusion shows thoughtfulness but not depth.

C = "average." Begins with a description rather than a clear focus. Theme is unclear or elusive. Technical errors on each page.

D = "poor." Lacking everything the others have, this paper is not a total failure because it provides at least minimal coverage of a topic and shows some effort.

F = a grade confined to plagiarized papers, or to papers that show neither effort nor serious attempt to deal with a topic.

(This writing guide is a version of the guide by Professor Elisabeth Perry, Lyons Visiting Professor of History, Brooklyn College, Fall, 1991.)


These are the criteria I use in grading essays and papers. I hope that having them in advance will be of help as you work on the essays. And don’t be shy about e-mailing me for advice!


Does the essay come to terms with the question?

Is the point of the essay (thesis statement) clear?

Does the title reflect the content of the essay's thesis?


Consistent/logical thesis development; transitions


Relevant facts support thesis;

Grasp of sources;

Effective use of evidence


Clear standard English;

Effective style;

Appropriate citations.