Archive for the ‘style and content’ Category

Proofreading 2: check those references!

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Last time out, I began to run you through my usual proofreading process. Step one was to give your work a quick read through, keeping an eye out for things like non-sequiturs, the flow of your essay, and misplaced or awkward sentences. The goal was not to fix or even identify all of the mistakes, typos, and omissions that have crept into your work, but rather to focus on how the essay reads as a work of historical prose.

Hopefully you have by now read through your essay, fixed any problems that were identified, and now are ready to move on to step two: checking your references.

Please note that at the proofreading stage you should be checking your references, not adding them! If you are still adding references to your essay it is far from complete and you are still writing it, not proofreading it. This stage of the process may identify places where you need to insert additional footnote, but the bulk of your referencing should be done as you write.

Again, this is a process that I use. Feel free to change it around and adapt it to the way that you yourself work.

When checking references, the first thing I do is to carefully work through all of my footnotes, checking that they are correct in form. Historical writing, like all academic disciplines, has particular standards and conventions that must be observed. The style most commonly used in historical writing is the Chicago style. Several variations of the Chicago style have been developed, but in essence they are the same. The examples below follow the Chicago style convention. You should check with your prof to be sure that this is the appropriate style for your essay. If it is not, ask him or her which style convention to follow, and whether you can have some examples of footnotes and bibliography entries to guide you.

The basic form for a footnote reference in the Chicago system is:
Author(s) name, title of the work, place of publication, publisher name [optional: check with your prof], date of publication, page number(s)

For example:
Chris Given-Wilson, Royal Household and the King’s Affinity: Service, Politics and Finance in England 1360-1413 (London, 1986), pp. 229, 312

Note that the title has been italicized. It is also acceptable to underline titles rather than italicize, but I strongly suggest that you get into the habit of using italics. Why? As footnotes increasingly make use of online sources there is increasing potential for confusion between book titles and URLs.

In footnotes, the author’s name (or authors’ names) follow the form First Name Last Name. Note that bibliography entries follow Last Name, First Name.

You will note also that my footnote above does not include the name of the publisher. This is an example of variation within the Chicago style. I normally do not include the publisher’s name, but would of course add it should a journal or book publisher require it. Similarly, you should add it if your prof requires it.

It is also acceptable to abbreviate second and subsequent footnotes that refer to the same source. These abbreviated footnotes follow the following form:

Author(s) Name(s), Title (an abbreviated version is acceptable here), Page Number(s).

For example if I were to make additional references to the above book, it would look something like this:

Given-Wilson, Royal Household, pp. 17-21.

Immediately following references to the same source can be shortened by using ibid. For example, if the second note above appeared in the footnote immediately following the first one, it would be acceptable to further abbreviate it thus:
Ibid., pp. 17-21.

However, I suggest that you avoid the use of Ibid altogether, and use abbreviated references instead. If you use Ibid for a number of footnotes, then make changes to your essay that adds or moves footnotes, you will then have to go through and change your footnotes from Ibid references to abbreviated references anyway. Save yourself the hassle, and get into the habit of just using abbreviated footnotes. It will save you much time, energy, and frustration.

At this stage, you should work through your essay, carefully reading your references, and ensuring that they are all correct in form. It may sound like a little thing, but shoddily done footnotes can at best loose you marks, and at worst open you to accusations of plagiarism.

  • Do all of your footnotes contain the required information?
  • Are your abbreviated references only in second or subsequent references to a particular source?
  • Are your authors’ names, titles, etc., spelled correctly?
  • Are any footnotes missing page numbers?
  • Have you been consistent? In other words, have you consistently abbreviated or not abbreviated subsequent references? Have you consistently included or consistently omitted the publisher’s name?

Having gone through these steps, you should be confident that your footnotes are at least correct in their form. The next step is to check your bibliography.


The bibliography is a list of *all* sources used in the writing of your essay. All sources that appear in your footnotes must also appear in your bibliography. Any sources that you read or consulted while working on your essay should also be included even if they did not make it into your footnotes. The bibliography is structured alphabetically, sorted by authors’ last names. The individual entries take the following form:

Last Name, First Name. Title. Location, Publisher [as with footnotes - optional]. Date.

If you have multiple entries for individual authors listed together, you can abbreviate your entries. For example these are the first eight entries in my PhD thesis bibliography. As it stretched over approximately 20 pages, I won’t include the whole thing here, but if you are interested, or want to see examples of how to list articles, theses, manuscripts, etc., I have uploaded a copy of it here.

Henry V. London, 1997.
The Hundred Years War: England and France at War, c. 1300-c.1450. Cambridge, 1988.
Crown, Government and People in the Fifteenth Century. Stroud, 1995.
John of Gaunt. Westminster, 1904.
— ‘Henry IV, the Northern Nobility and the Consolidation of the regime’. in Gwilym Dodd and Douglas Biggs (eds.) Henry IV: The Establishment of the Regime, 1399-1406. Woodbridge, 2003. pp. 117-137.
— ‘The Impeachment of Bishop Despenser’, BIHR, xxxviii (1965), pp. 127-148.
Charles VI, la folie du roi. Paris, 1995.
— (ed.) Saint-Denis et la Royauté. Paris, 2000.

As with footnotes, make sure that your bibliography entries are complete and accurate. Don’t mis-spell names or titles, don’t forget the publication date, and be consistent!

Do you trust your spell-checker?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Something that I have always tried to instill in my students is a healthy skepticism of the abilities of the spell-checker. Having a button that will catch most spelling mistakes in a document is a wonderful thing. It saves time and improves accuracy, both of which are good. But it is far from infallible, and far from perfect.

For example, it will not differentiate ‘their’ from ‘there’ or from ‘they’re’. It will not be able to tell a ‘councillor’ from a ‘counsellor’. It will not be able to tell you that Jack Kerouac was ‘on the road’, not ‘on the rode’. Similarly, it will not tell you that you wrote ‘dog’ when you meant to write ‘god’, which can make for interesting theological discussions. There are many, many examples of such words that sound alike but have completely different meanings, or which are one misplaced keystroke away. If you are lazy with your proof-reading, it is very easy for these errors to slip through into your written work. Even the New York Times is not immune from making such errors.

So how can you avoid these mistakes?

  • Most importantly: proof-read your work carefully. By this I do not mean simply skimming over an essay before it is submitted. I mean taking whatever time is necessary to carefully and methodically read through your essay:
    • Go word by word. When we read, our eyes naturally skim, taking in several words at once. Try to avoid this when proof-reading, focusing instead on each and every word.
    • Many people find it helpful to use some kind of marker (finger, pen, whatever – it doesn’t matter) that moves along under the words as you read. This will help prevent your eyes from jumping ahead
    • Remember that you are focusing on accuracy here, not speed – do not try to proof-read in record time!
  • When proof-reading make sure that you are armed with the necessary tools and information:
    • As suggested here, you should always have at least a couple of good reference works handy when writing such as a good dictionary and a guide to English usage.
    • That way, if you are unsure whether you mean to write ‘eminent’ or ‘imminent’, you can quickly find out
  • If your word processor has a grammar-check feature, use it.
    • Grammar-checks will catch some, but nowhere near all such errors.
    • Grammar-checks can also be deeply annoying, finding errors where there are none, so use it as a tool, but do not let it re-write your essay
    • Incidentally I lost a little faith in grammar checkers when one told me that a chapter from my PhD thesis was written at a grade 7 level. That was not encouraging.
  • Have someone else proof-read your work
    • There is often no substitute for fresh eyes
    • If you have written, edited, re-written, proof-read, re-edited, etc., your essay, you will miss mistakes. Having someone look at your work with fresh eyes will usually catch mistakes that you have seen and ignored multiple times. Don’t feel bad about this – it happens all the time and is one of the reasons why authors work with editors
    • If you do not want a friend or family member to see your writing, offers a proofreading service.

To sum up:

  • Be aware that all writers make mistakes – to borrow a line from the Blues Brothers, this includes me, you, them, everybody.
  • Before submitting an essay, take the time needed to carefully proof-read it
  • Arm yourself with the tools necessary to answer questions about spelling, meaning, and usage of words
  • Give your grammar-checker a shot. It may help, it may not
  • Have someone proof-read your work for you. If you want a professional opinion, can help.

Cicero and the laws of History

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Nam quis nescit, primum esse historiae legem, ne quid falsi dicere audeat? Deinde ne quid veri non audeat? Ne qua suspicio gratiae sit in scribendo? Ne qua simultatis?

These words were written by the Roman statesman, orator and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero, better know to us simply as “Cicero”. This passage was taken from his work de Oratore which he wrapped up in the middle of the first century BCE. Although he invoked historians and their craft, Cicero was really writing about orators and how they should adopt some habits of good historians in order to improve their own oratory. However, his advice is as sound today as it was over 2000 years ago, and historians should give it the attention it deserves:

For who does not know history’s first law to be that an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth? An its second that he must make bold to tell the whole truth? That there be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings? Nor of malice?*

Cicero touched on several aspects of historical writing in this short passage, so let’s look at each of them in turn.

1. “…an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth”

This really should go without saying, but it does bear repeating. Be honest in your research, your analysis and your writing. Seek the truth. One of the wonderful things about historical research is that it can dramatically change and inform the way you see the world. But this is only possible if you approach historical research and writing with an open mind.

Don’t set out to ‘prove a point’. Let your research guide you. Let your analysis inform you. Let your writing enlighten both you and others.

If you find evidence that your previously-held opinions are incorrect or ill-informed, don’t reject the evidence simply because it does not fit with your preconceptions. Consider the evidence. Consider your own opinions. Can they co-exist? Do you need to reconsider your opinions? What does the other evidence suggest?

It is only through an open mind that the historian can arrive at anything approaching truth.

For example, before starting my Ph.D., I blindly accepted the notion that the far north of medieval England was a wild, lawless place that was run by a nobility that craved nothing more than chaos, unrest, and war. But through my research I came to understand that this was far from the truth. The North had a long-established system of border law that strove to quell disagreements before they precipitated cross-border reprisals or even war, and the most powerful man in the region during the late 14th century sought consistently and loyally to preserve the peace, not to profit from unrest. (his 1 1/2 rebellions notwithstanding…)

This research fundamentally altered my understanding of the region. It changed my perceptions, allowed me to achieve a greater understanding of that society, and has provided the basis of an historical novel that I am now writing.

The point here is that I obeyed Cicero’s command to seek the truth, and I emerged a better historian for it.

2. “[the historian] must make bold to tell the whole truth”

When writing history, you will encounter contradictory evidence. This is unavoidable, and it is best to realize and accept this fact early on. There are too many reasons for this to get into here, so just know for now that you will come across evidence that disagrees with your analysis and conclusions.

But what should you do when this happens? Should you ignore the problematic evidence, pretend that it doesn’t exist, and work only with evidence that agrees with your conclusions? No. To do that is disingenuous. It is dishonest. It is also lazy: it is much easier to pretend that something does not exist than to explain why you disagree with it. Being disingenuous, dishonest, and lazy is no way to approach any kind of research, and history is no different.

Remember the reason why we study history in the first place. We are trying to understand past human society. Because human society is made up of a lot of individual human beings, it is inherently contradictory. People disagree. They have different perceptions. They have different biases. They have different physical, intellectual, and mental abilities. If five people witness the same crime, do you think they will remember it in exactly the same way? Probably not. This is one of the reasons why eyewitness testimony can be so unreliable in criminal investigations.

So don’t pass over evidence that you disagree with. Try to understand it. Where was the author coming from? Why do you think he or she is out of step with your other evidence? What can it teach you about the person, place, thing, event that you are studying?

Sometimes these oddball sources can lead us to really unexpected and enlightening places. But they can only do this if they are taken seriously.

But this advice goes beyond simple disagreements between your sources. What happens if, for example, you are writing a biography of a truly great person who did wonderful things for her society, when you find evidence that she had secretly been an arsonist on weekends who was also mean to puppies and a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur. Do you suppress this new information? Do you use it to launch an iconoclastic attack on this undeserving “hero”?

Neither of these options is ideal. Suppressing the information would undermine your goal of telling the whole truth and would present a skewed picture of the subject of your research. At the same time, radically altering your approach to ignore all other evidence and launch a withering attack on this otherwise good person based only on this new evidence would be equally unbalanced.

The best thing would be to take this new evidence into account without allowing it to overwhelm your analysis. If you are writing a longer piece, add a section or a chapter to deal with it. If you are writing a short essay, you can always use a footnote to include this new evidence and a brief comment.

The truth can be an elusive thing, but do what you can to seek it with an open mind. And remember to seek the whole truth.

3. “[Ensure] that there be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings? Nor of malice?”

Partiality is the enemy of good scholarship. Malice is the enemy of truth. Do what you can to keep them both as far away from your research and writing as possible.

If you embark upon a research project with your mind made up about your subject, your research and your writing will both suffer. Again, it bears repeating that your job here is to seek truth. You simply cannot seek truth if you believe that you already have the answers.

Take for example those who deny the truth of the holocaust. Such people often approach their scholarship with a terrible combination of both partiality and malice. In fact their partiality is based in malice, as their belief in hate-filled neo-Nazi nonsense has both skewed their perception and fueled their malice. Anyone coming from a mental standpoint such as this will be utterly unable to produce anything even approaching balanced, considered, unbiased, thoughtful, and credible scholarship.

This is an extreme example, but its lesson is an important one. Try to be aware of your own biases: we all have them! We all come from different ethnic, religious, national, regional, linguistic, educational and social backgrounds, and so we all bring with us a particular set of beliefs and biases. But this need not be fatal to your quest for truth! Be aware of your own biases and you will be able to prevent them from rendering your research unreliable. For example, did you spot the manifestation of one of my biases above? I do not really equate being a Spurs supporter with arson and puppy abuse: it is after all an affliction that deserves sympathy, not just condemnation.

Hopefully we are not all filled with malice in the same way that we are all subject to bias, but it is worth keeping your own feelings in check when writing history. As Historians, we often encounter difficult, disturbing, even enraging people, ideas, and events. If you encounter something that elicits a strong emotional response, be aware of it. But don’t let it drive your research ahead of the evidence.

Even if you are researching something as terrible as the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacre of innocents in Jerusalem during the first Crusade, the excesses of the European witch hunting craze, or the Holocaust itself, remember to seek truth, not historical retribution.

Good ideas, but…

…how do I put them into practice?

Stay tuned. My next blog post will give some concrete examples of how you can become a more honest, unbiased and effective research and writer!

*Both the Latin text and translation above are from Cicero, De Oratore. Trans E.W. Sutton. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1942. pp. 242-245. You can find an electronic version of this book here.

Historiaster how-to

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Although I have adopted the word historiaster, I want to help you to avoid becoming an historiaster yourself. In this spirit, here are some things that historiasters do:

  • Plagiarize! There is no better way to be thought of as ‘a contemptible historian’ than to steal others’ words and ideas. Plagiarism is theft and there is simply no excuse for doing it. Take a look at your school’s course calendar. It probably has a section in the policies chapter that outlines your school’s policies and procedures regarding academic dishonesty, cheating, and plagiarism etc. Read this section. Then read it again. It is important, so make sure that you understand it fully. If you do not, talk to your prof about it.
    Schools, colleges and universities take these things very seriously, and they are right to do so. Penalties for plagiarism can range from a reduced mark on your assignment to a failing mark in your class, to suspension or expulsion from your school. I cannot stress this enough: do not plagiarize. If you do, you deserve whatever penalty is imposed by your school.
  • Be lazy! There are many ways to be lazy when writing an essay, and they will all hurt you in the long run. For example, you can simply use the first sources that come to mind without evaluating them or spending the time required to find good sources. The most obvious example of this is Wikipedia. These days, the first place that many people go for information is Wikipedia. Students are particularly prone to this kind of laziness! Wikipedia is in many ways a wonderful idea, and it is slowly getting to be more reliable. But the fact remains that anyone can edit Wikipedia entries. This means that you never really know what the source of the article’s information is, what the biases of the editors are, or whether the entry is entirely bunk. You may even find out the hard way that your prof has edited entries on your topic just to see if you use Wikipedia blindly. Trust me – I know that this has happened!
    But Wikipedia is not the only online culprit. One of my students made use of this page as a source for a medieval history essay. While it may well be an excellent source of information on “metaphysics” and “science” (and messages from other realms!), it is certainly not a reliable source for an essay on medieval Europe! This particular student Googled something to do with his topic, grabbed the first website that he found, made extensive use of the “information” contained on the site, and failed his essay. Incidentally, his essay also made reference to this game. While it is an outstanding game, it is completely unsuitable as a source for an essay! Here is a hint: unless you are writing an essay about video games, you should not make use of video games as historical sources!
    You can also be lazy by not taking the time to carefully edit or proofread your essay. If you want a professional to proofread and error check your essay, can help you. But at the very least, proofread your essay, pay attention to the language that you have used, and check your footnotes carefully. This all takes time, and it all takes effort. But like anything that requires hard work, the end result will be worth it.
  • Be sloppy! This is not unrelated to the point above re laziness. If your language is sloppy, your essay will be poor. If your arguments and analysis are sloppy, your essay will be poor. If you do not follow your prof’s instructions regarding formatting, font size, spacing, etc., your essay will be poor.
    Don’t simply trust the spell-checker in your word processor. For example, if you type “its” instead of “it’s” or “their” instead of “there”, it will not recognize the mistake.
    To cut down on spelling mistakes, and improper use of words (ie. “their” instead of “there”, “council” instead of “counsel” etc.) there is really no substitute for a couple of good reference books sitting within easy reach of your desk. Two to consider are:
    The Concise Oxford English Dictionary

    A Guide to English Usage
    You don’t need these specific volumes, but a good dictionary and a dictionary of usage are essential tools for anyone who values accuracy of language. Yes, there are online dictionaries available, but they do not offer the depth of information available ina  good printed edition and, even more importantly, they do not offer the possibility of browsing for the perfect word!
  • Be inconsistent! I have already touched on the importance of being consistent in your use of the past tense when writing history. There are other facets of language where consistency can be a problem. For example, what kind of English are you using? Canadian? British? American? Unless your prof says otherwise (and this is something worth checking with him or her), it usually does not matter which version of English spelling and usage you adopt. But it will look terrible if your spelling flips randomly between “color” and “colour”. The point here is that you should be consistent. Consistent in your use of tense. Consistent in your spelling. Consistent in your formatting, and so on.

So there you are. If you are intent on becoming an historiaster, then by all means plagiarize, be lazy, be sloppy and be inconsistent. If you aspire to being something other than contemptible, then do all that you can to avoid these things!

Apostrophe’s and plural’s

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Much like the question of its and it’s, the use and abuse of apostrophes is one of the many things that can deeply irritate your prof. There are many ways in which apostrophes are used incorrectly, and they all are annoying to people who care about language. Your prof is most likely one such person, so avoiding this mistake is one of the ways that you can avoid putting him or her into a very bad mood. And of course it is one of the many ways that you can make yourself into a better writer.

Put simply, apostrophes do not make the plural.

In other words: “soldier’s” is the possessive form of “soldier”, not the plural. It means “of the soldier” or “belonging to the soldier”, not “more than one soldier”.

This sentence: “There were thirty soldiers in the field.” makes perfectly good sense while this one: “There were thirty soldier’s in the field.” makes no sense whatsoever. In the second sentence, the word soldier’s is not a noun, rather it offers a description of something that is absent. Thirty soldier’s what were left in the field? What the second sentence really means is “There were thirty belonging to a soldier in the field.”

It is easy to see why this has become such a common error in essays as we are surrounded by messages that include this mistake. Retailers are particularly guilty of this! How many times have you seen signs advertising prices for “iPod’s”, “shirt’s”, “orange’s”, or “used car’s”? These are all incorrect, and to pedantic people like yours truly, they tend to cause a kind of simmering anger and frustration. You do not want the person marking your essay to be in such a mood!

Key points:

  • adding ’s to the end of a word does NOT make it plural!
  • adding ’s to the end of a word indicates the possessive form of the word

Profs’ pet peeves

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Believe it or not, teachers and professors are actually human beings. As such, they too are subject to personal biases, annoyances and pet peeves.

Should this affect your writing? In a perfect world, probably not. In a perfect world we would all be completely free to express our ideas in whatever way we chose. This is not the case in academia!

When writing academic essays, theses, articles or books, there are certain restrictions and conventions that must be followed. There are good reasons that lay behind these restrictions and conventions. They have evolved over decades of use, and must be respected if you are to succeed in your classes.

The first thing you should acknowledge is that these formal restrictions will be placed on your research and writing. But those are topics for other days. What I want to bring to your attention today are some of the less formal, much more personal things that can negatively affect your grades: your profs’ pet peeves.

To begin, I will list just a few of the many things that have deeply annoyed me about students’ essays:

There are many others! One of these issues is universally unacceptable, while the others are sylistic and linguistic errors that simply annoy me. As a student, one of your goals should be not to annoy the person marking your work. This does not mean that you should bow without question to any unreasonable demands placed on you by your profs. It does mean that you should take the initiative and discover what you can about your prof, and what he or she is expecting from your essay.

I always addressed these issues directly and openly with my students in an essay guide distributed at the beginning of the course. If a student wanted to know what kinds of things should be avoided in an essay in one of my classes, they simply had to read their essay guide.

If your prof has given you an essay guide, read it! Such things take a great deal of extra time and effort to produce. As a result, your prof will expect you to have read it, and to have followed the guidelines that it contains. If you do not follow its guidelines, your mark will suffer and it may suffer badly! But don’t just give it a once-over. Read it actively. By this I mean that as you are reading it, ask yourself whether you really understand it. Is there anything that does not make sense? Is there contradictory advice or instructions?

If there is anything that you do not understand, talk to your prof. If he or she is unwilling to fully explain what is expected in an essay, then he or she is not doing his or her job. Once you have fully understood the essay guide, then follow its instructions closely. If your prof wants you to use the Arial font, but you like Times, use Arial. If your prof wants you to double-space your essay but you really, really think it looks better single-spaced, double space it! Remeber the golden rule: do not annoy the person marking your work!

If such a guide has not been provided, your first step should be to talk to your prof. Be specific in your questions:

  • Do you want page numbers? Where should I place them?
  • Does it matter what font I use?
  • Are there any lunguistic or stylistic guidelines you want me to follow?
  • How long should the essay be? [many profs hate this question: an essay should be as long as it needs to be. But ask it. Some profs have very specific requirements when it comes to word count, # of pages, etc.]
  • What kind of sources am I expected to use?
  • How many sources am I expected to use

and so on…

Your second step should then be to talk to other students who have taken classes from that particular prof. They should have received feedback on their essays, and may be able to pass this information on to you.

Ask questions. Be informed. Discover all you can about the prof and her/his demands, likes, dislikes, etc. Find out what you can about your prof’s expectations, and then produce work that satisfies these expectations. Do this, and you will receive a better mark.

Key points:

  • if your prof or teacher has given you an essay guide, read it, understand it, and follow its instructions.
  • if no such guide is available talk to your prof
  • talk to other students
  • don’t go into an essay blind: ask lots of questions, inform yourself, then incorporate this information into your writing