Ten Commandments for Writing Essays and Exams

I Don't make the reader guess your point of view. The introduction to your essay should have a clearly stated thesis so that the reader knows what you are going to do. The introduction should contain your primary thesis and a statement explaining how you are going to substantiate it.

II Organize your essay. Decide on three or four main points you intend to use to substantiate your thesis or answer a question. Go through these points one at a time.

III Do not use large blocks of direct quotations. The essay is supposed to be your work, not someone else's. Part of the purpose of writing is to explain other people's ideas. It is a good guideline to use no quotes of more than two lines. Reserve such quotations for short passages that are either exceptionally brilliant (such that it could not be said any other way) or exceptionally stupid (such that no one would believe you unless you included the actual quote). Footnotes should be used instead of direct quotes to cite sources of your information.

IV Substantiate your points with concrete examples. An example of a general statement: "Nineteenth century novelists were preoccupied with issues of madness, poverty and disease." Concrete examples: Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte. Is there contrary evidence that has been considered in the course? If so, you have to bring it up and explain how it fits or isn't relevant to your thesis (an example in this scenario: Mark Twain).

V Don't be vague with names, dates, and ideas. Imagine how ignorant it would sound for someone to claim that Bob Dylan was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln. Yet students routinely make similar errors with regards to people and events from the past. It matters that Pearl Harbor occurred before Hiroshima. Also common are vague statements like "the people thought. . ." Which people? All of them? It is generally dangerous to make sweeping claims. Example: "Germans unswervingly followed Hitler" (ignoring the presence of dissenting elements of the population interned in concentration camps).

VI Clearly explain all concepts and unusual terms. Terminology which isn't in general usage should always be defined. Example: kavannah, "intention", refers to concentration in prayer. Do not assume reader omnipotence. Assume that you are the teacher and the reader is the student. This perspective has the added advantage of insuring that you show the professor you know what you are talking about.

VII Link your points with effective transitions. A good essay builds incrementally so that each point clarifies your overall argument, and is clearly related to earlier points. Example: an essay on features of rabbinic Judaism might include a discussion of the roles of Torah, liturgy, and commandments, and would explain how each of these concepts are linked together in a way that makes them both "rabbinic" and "Jewish".

VIII Provide a good conclusion. The conclusion should succinctly restate your thesis and sum up what you've done. An example from this guideline: Explain what you are going to do, do it, and then explain what you've done.

IX Proofread your paper. This essay represents your own work. Take enough pride in it to make sure it is the best it can be. Spelling and syntax errors make the reader suspect your thought as well as your typing is sloppy. Most computers have spell checks and grammar checks. Use them.

X Use a consistent and recognized format for footnotes and the bibliography.
Citations should enable a reader to refer to your sources. Sloppy footnoting is poor scholarship. Examples of recognized formats: Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Manual. Be aware that different disciplines use different citation formats because they view the purposes of footnotes differently. For example, in Religious Studies and History, in addition to reference citations, footnotes often furnish information that is not in the body of the paper. In Psychology footnotes are generally limited to reference citations. Thus Psychology uses a shorter citation format (APA style). Information about style formats is available in the library. Ignorance of the format is no excuse!