What is Research?


Imagine that you arrive at a party, and everyone in the room is discussing the same topic. Some people are passionate and animated, some try to sound rational or conciliatory, and others appear to be mumbling to themselves. As it turns out, you also have an opinion on the subject. You might even have the urge to yell at everyone to be quiet so that you can address the entire room. However, deep down you know that wouldn’t do. It would be more polite to first get to know the crowd. You might introduce yourself and hear what others have to say. You might ask questions when you don’t understand something. Only then will you be you in a position to state your own opinion. And, when you do, you can have a real conversation in which everyone’s voice is heard.

In academic writing that conversation is called research. Research is the attempt to understand the viewpoints of others. In the process, your own ideas and opinions will evolve, and may even change entirely. When you then turn to writing an academic essay or book, you are able to express your conclusions in a way that is interactive, constructive, and respectful. And, if you do all these things, you will be the star of the party.

Primary and Secondary Sources

Scholars often split their sources into two kinds: primary and secondary sources. Here’s how to tell the difference.

Primary Sources

A primary source is either the main focus of your discussion (e.g., a novel you’re analyzing), or it’s a source that provides first hand information about a particular topic or event (e.g., a newspaper from the time period you’re studying).

Primary sources are valued for their immediacy. For instance, when you do historical research you’ll want to hear from eye witnesses who were close to the action. Here are some common types of primary sources:

  • newspapers
  • letters
  • diaries and autobiographies
  • original books and articles
  • government documents
  • legal records
  • scientific experiments
  • interviews
  • photographs
  • artifacts (clothing, historical objects, etc.)
  • buildings and architecture

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are a kind of commentary on primary sources. For example, if I write an analysis of a Shakespeare play I’m producing a secondary source. Here are some more examples:

  • book reviews
  • academic books or articles
  • biographies
  • documentaries
  • encyclopedias
  • textbooks
  • dictionaries

These lists are not exhaustive, and there is often considerable overlap between primary and secondary sources. For instance, how would you characterize an older work of criticism (say a medieval commentary on Aristotle)? Obviously, the lines get blurred a little, but the main point is that good research is about finding the best sources–which often means looking for primary sources that get us as close to the action as possible.

Using Sources

As you incorporate your research in your writing, you’ll need to decide on the purpose of each source. Here are some of the most common ways to use a source:

Proof. By citing or quoting from a source you can demonstrate that you have sufficient evidence for your argument.

Agreement. You can explain what parts of the source meet your approval.

Background. Perhaps you just want to add some flavour or context to your writing. You can do this by providing background information.

Clarification. Sometimes a source says it better than you can. Alternatively, sometimes your source provides additional perspective and broadens the point you’re making.

Advancement. It can happen that you agree with your source, but you want to share how the insight gained might be applied in a new context or in a different way.

Disagreement. When you find sources you disagree with, you can point out their inaccuracies and shortcomings.

Once you’ve decided how you want to use your source, the next step is to interact with the source in your writing. This is where you have to decide how important the source is to your argument. If your source illustrates a minor point, you might be content with a quick mention or a paraphrase. You might even relegate the source to a footnote. If you source is absolutely central to your argument (say your entire essay is a reply to one person’s opinion), you’ll need to introduce it early and spend some time explaining why your audience should care.

Either way, it’s important to remember that your essay belongs to you, and not to your sources. That’s why we generally discourage people from using quotations in their thesis or in topic sentences. First clarify your own argument and then relate it to the viewpoints of others. Even if an entire paragraph is dedicated to a single source, we still want to know your opinion about it.

Integrating Sources

When you use a source, there are typically three things you need to do. First, you’ll have to introduce the source, which means that you have to give enough context that we can understand it. For a quotation this might mean explaining who is talking, or what the quotation means. For an illustration or graph you might want to point out what it demonstrates and how it relates to your argument.

Next, you need to provide the source, whether by quoting, paraphrasing, or inserting an image. Make sure you cite the source, following the appropriate style guide in your discipline. For the rules on quoting and paraphrasing, please consult our pages on integrating quotations (in the section on Essay Writing).

Finally, you need to interact with your source. Explain any difficult aspects (key words, concepts, ideas), indicate if you agree or disagree with your source, and connect your source to the rest of your argument.

Tip: Don’t go overboard when you introduce a source. If you’re quoting, for instance, you often just need to provide the author’s name. You don’t have to mention the title of the book or article (or publication information) unless it’s immediately relevant to your argument. All such details can be saved for your Works Cited page.


The following excerpt from an essay on the death penalty is just one example of how sources can be incorporated. In this case the author has a mixed opinion about a source:

A New York Times editorial notes that in 1966 support for the death penalty was lower (42%) then it is now (“The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End”). Yet the author of the article nevertheless concludes that the United States “has evolved past it [the death penalty], and it is long past time for the [supreme] court to send this morally abhorrent practice to its oblivion” (“Nearing Its End”). Such rhetoric assumes that as societies evolve and become more progressive, they will abolish the death penalty. Yet people do not change that quickly, and it is quite possible that should homicide rates creep up, the public may clamour for the death penalty to be brought back.

Source: “The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End” [Editorial]. New York Times, 24 Oct. 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/24/opinion/the-death-penalty-nearing-its-end.html

Notice that the author clearly introduces and explains the source. That way the reader can easily make sense of the information.


Research is not meant to be antagonistic. You don’t have to critique everyone else. Instead, research allows us to learn from others so that through collaborative effort we can all gain in knowledge.

That also means that the tone of academic writing should be constructive. There is no need to make fun of others, or go out of your way to point out mistakes. Of course you can try to correct errors, and you may need to find flaws in other people’s arguments. Yet it is also important to point out areas of consensus and have something original and valuable to say.

So avoid adjectives like ridiculous or nonsensical, and be generous even when you’re being critical.


Students often ask how many sources or quotations their essay is supposed to have. The answer is that there is no set number. It’s always a matter of balance, of presenting sufficient evidence, of respecting the views of others, and of making sure your voice is also heard. If your entire essay is a string of quotations then your reader will wonder if you have anything meaningful to add. If you don’t provide proof or interact with other critics, your interpretation will lack depth. Doing research and incorporating research is thus an essential skill, and hopefully reading this page has given you the knowledge to write with confidence.



Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, once wrote a poem comparing the work of writing with manual labour. In the poem “Digging,” he describes how his Irish ancestors have always dug for potatoes and have found a sense of fulfilment in such backbreaking work. Although Heaney savours the smells and sounds of the earth, he prefers to write poems:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it. (25-31)

Heaney realizes that by making poetry his vocation he is breaking with family tradition. He himself is cutting through “living roots” (27).

“Digging” expresses an anxiety many of us feel. What is the value of immersing ourselves in a world of words and ideas? Is there not more satisfaction in honest work than in staring at a screen for an hour, wondering how to express ourselves? Should we feel guilty if the “pen rests” (30) and we don’t know what to write?

Heaney suggests that it is okay to take our time. Writing is a slow process, and when we rush it the results are often predictable.

That’s why before we talk about the nuts and bolts of essay writing it’s good to have the proper mindset. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this introduction took over an hour to write.

What is an essay?

The word essay is derived from the French verb essayer, which means to try. In other words, an essay is a first attempt at something. It’s not the final word and you can always change your mind about what you’ve written. If you do, you simply write another essay.

This also means that an essay doesn’t have to solve all the world’s problems. You can zoom in to the one specific question that interests you. If someone shares your concerns they will read your work; if not, they’ll move on. Not everyone cares about the Spanish Civil War or the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine, and though your prose should be accessible, you do not need to come up with some lesson or moral that applies to everyone. So make your subject matter your primary focus.

Essay Structure

In high-school, a lot of students get taught the five paragraph model, where every essay has an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion.

We don’t believe in such a rigid structure. Ideas are fluid and your essay structure needs to be adaptable. In fact, a good essay structure is organic: it grows and branches out like a tree. And every tree looks a little different from the next.

So be prepared to be flexible, to adapt the rules to your own needs. If you avoid short cuts you will write much better essays.


Writing is one of the most difficult things to master, but at the same time everyone can do it. As long as you accept the challenge and do your best, your writing will improve. To back up this claim we could give you a money back guarantee, but then this website is already free.

Good luck!

Works Cited:

Heaney, Seamus. “Digging.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47555.

Electronic Grading


Electronic grading is a great option for anyone looking for something more convenient than the traditional paper format. Whether you’re taking an online course, want to provide better feedback, or just like to save a few trees, electronic grading provides a great opportunity to improve the educational experience of students and teachers alike.

In this tutorial we’ll cover all the nuts and bolts of electronic grading, from creating a good workflow to providing better feedback. For our grading app we’ve used iAnnotate (for iPad), which we think is the best option available at the moment. If you don’t have an iPad or want to use a different PDF reader, you can certainly still make use of most of the advice on this page.

Note: this tutorial is aimed primarily at instructors, but students might like to understand the process and draw this grading option to the attention of their teachers.

Pros and Cons

Electronic grading is not for everyone. It’s not for traditionalists who are too scared to try something new. It’s not for people who enjoy a mild cramp in their hand after marking dozens of essays. It’s certainly not for people who suffer from technophobia. For most of us, though, electronic grading should be easy to try out, and only once you’ve properly experimented can you decide if it’s for you.

It takes a little bit of courage to go paperless, but there are definite benefits. Some of these might surprise you:

  • No more worrying about missing staples or paper clips, lost pages and incomplete documents
  • The due date is flexible. Papers don’t have to be handed in at the beginning of class.
  • Receiving or handing out papers does not take up valuable class time (or cause a distraction)
  • Assignments are time stamped, so there is no dispute when something was submitted
  • Late assignments don’t accrue additional late penalties when a student lacks the opportunity to hand in the document
  • Apps like iAnnotate allow graders to create custom stamps for the most common errors or feedback
  • Emailing back an assignment is more likely to start a conversation, as students are generally comfortable replying via email.
  • While electronic grading is not likely to save you a tremendous amount of time, it does create certain efficiencies. Most importantly, all longer written comments can easily be replaced by oral feedback. The latter can be more in-depth and personable.
  • Instructors retain a copy of the assignment for as long as they wish. This also helps in case students try to pass off another student’s document as their own (a case of plagiarism).

We could go on, but you get the idea. Of course this is not to say that there are no challenges. For example, if you’re giving audio feedback, you can’t be marking in a coffee shop. You’ll need a quiet place to do your work. Looking at screens can also create eye strain for some people. On the whole, though, electronic grading provides enough advantages that it’s a great option to try.


If you’re going to try electronic grading, it’s usually a good idea to start with one class, or even one assignment. In addition, we recommend that students always remain able to hand in paper copies if they feel uncomfortable with online submission. Over time, most students will switch to the latter anyway, but it’s good to give them the choice.

However, before you can grade a single assignment you’ll have to create a proper workflow. This requires a bit of work up front, but once that’s done the process is very efficient. In what follows we’ll describe our recommended setup.

Suggested Workflow for Electronic Grading


For this tutotial we’ve mainly used Dropbox for uploading and storing files. That’s because Dropbox syncs beautifully with iAnnotate, our preferred grading app. However, if you’re worried about security issues, you can instead use Google Drive. In that case, check out our video tutorial (above) for how to use Gmail effectively.

Dropbox has a feature that allows you to request files. With a couple of clicks you get a link (a URL) that you can share with everyone in the class. Students open the link and can easily upload their file without needing to have their own Dropbox account.

Students should save their assignment as a PDF before submitting, but if they forget it’s easy enough to convert the file to a PDF in iAnnotate. The only thing that presents a problem is when students don’t use either a .doc or .pdf file, but upload something like a Pages document. In that case you might not be able to read the file and it may not sync with Dropbox.


We use Gmail, but you can use another email service if you like. There are a couple of things you’ll have to do to get set up.

First of all, make sure you import your students’ email address into your contact list. This is so that when you send back the assignment (in iAnnotate itself) you don’t have to type out the entire email address. You can start typing a few letters and the full address will pop up. The easiest way to import student emails is if your institution provides a CSV file, but there are other ways too. Make sure you do this before the semester starts to avoid headaches later.

Secondly, you’ll want to make sure that iAnnotate is synced with Gmail on your iPad. That way you can email assignments back from right inside iAnnotate.


iAnnotate, our grading app of choice, is best used on an iPad. Other than buying an iPad (the bigger the better!), this is the only thing you’ll have to pay for. The good news is that it’s about $10 to $15.

Once you’ve downloaded iAnnotate, you’ll want to customize the settings. You can create custom stamps and set up your own tool bar. In addition, you can write a template email message for whenever you return an assignment. Here’s an example:

Dear student, please see attached your marked assignment. To listen to the audio, please download the assignment and open it in Adobe. Do not open it in your browser. For more detailed instructions, go to Moodle [or a different learning platform]. If you use a Mac, you’ll have to change the default PDF viewer to access the audio. If you don’t know how to do this, use a PC to access the audio or come see me for help. Best wishes, _______.

Do note that at the time of writing this post, the current version of iAnnotate has had some issues with template messages. They still work but you’ll have to add the message tool to your tool bar and use that to send your emails.

Microphone App

If you want to provide audio feedback, you’ll have to use a microphone app on your iPad. The good news is that there are plenty of excellent free mics available. Find one you like and you’re off to the races.

Adobe Reader

When students receive their essay back, they can open it in any PDF reader (even a browser). However, there is a catch. Not every PDF reader will display audio files. For that reason we recommend that students use Adobe Reader (which is a free download) to open their file.

Student Support

To make sure that you’re not forever answering student questions, you’ll want to provide good support up front. Here’s what we recommend you do ahead of time.

Provide easy to follow instructions about how to upload the assignment. Here’s an example:

In this course, written assignments may be submitted either in printed form or electronically–your choice! Electronic submission is due at midnight (after the class); printed copies are due at the beginning of class.

If you submit your assignment electronically, the following guidelines apply:

  • Please save your document as a PDF.
  • When you save the document, include both your name and the assignment name in your title. E.g., John Smith Essay 1.
  • In the week leading up to the due date, I will provide you with a link (via email and Moodle) so you can upload your assignment to Dropbox. You do not need to have a Dropbox account yourself.
  • Upload your assignment and you’re done! 

Additional notes:

  • Submit your assignment as one document (e.g., no separate Works Cited file).
  • Once you have submitted your assignment, you cannot do further editing and resubmit later.

I will use the app iAnnotate to mark your paper.  This allows me to give audio feedback, which you may find a more personable approach to marking. For more information about how to upload your assignment or open your marked assignment, please see Moodle.

Feel free to adopt these instructions as your own.

If you want to go all out, you can also provide a video tutorial. Here are a couple of sample videos as an example:

Again, you can share these if you find them useful. Whatever you do, the more resources you provide up front, the less trouble shooting you’ll have to do when the essays are due. In fact, the process is so straightforward that few students run into problems.

Better Feedback

We think that the best reason to go paperless is to give oral feedback. Instead of spending a long time writing comments, you can just talk to the student. It’s as if you’re having a conversation. Of course it’s a one way conversation, but still …

The app iAnnotate allows you to create audio clips of up to 1 minute in length. The time limit takes a bit to get used to, and it’s normal to mess up the odd comment and start over. Once you get the hang of it, though, it is incredibly rewarding to simply explain in detail what you think — whether you’re talking about a specific sentence or the whole assignment.

We recommend you produce on average no more than 5-6 audio clips per document, as the file size will start to creep up. In addition, for the final comments, 2-3 min. of feedback is usually sufficient. If you had to write that all out by hand you could fill well over a page.

The other thing that is great on an iPad is that you can use audio recognition on your type pad to simply speak written comments. For example, instead of writing “Great choice of quotation” you can just say it. Plus if this is a frequent comment you can turn it into a stamp!


Finally, if you ever run into technological issues, the most common fix is to make sure you update all your settings. Make sure you have the latest version of iOS on your Ipad. Check that your email password is still correct and that your emails are being sent.

That’s not to say that you’ll never face challenges. If you do, consult an IT person or contact Branchfire, the company behind iAnnotate.

On the whole, though, electronic grading should be a seamless experience. Give it a try and you might be pleasantly surprised.

General Editing Advice


The division between drafting and editing is a porous one. Most of us tidy up our prose as we write. Still, once we’re reasonably happy that we’ve made all our points, it’s time to do some final editing. This process can range from rearranging entire paragraphs to tweaking the odd sentence. Either way, make sure you save enough time for editing. Even a quick read through will often reveal a number of obvious errors.

Editing Tips

Set It Aside

If you’ve got the time, set your work aside for a day or two. Once you’ll come back to it, you’ll be well rested and you’ll see the text with a new pair of eyes (well, not literally, but you get the point).

Print It Out

If you’ve been staring at the screen too long, print out your work instead. You might even consider changing the font size (or even the spacing), so that nothing is quite in the same place. It’s amazing how quickly our eyes gloss over mistakes when we’ve seen something a hundred times.

Read Aloud

Another great strategy for spotting mistakes is to read the text aloud. Some people even suggest reading your essay backwards, one sentence at a time. Sounds like great advice, but who is really going to read backwards? You’re better off just reading aloud slowly, questioning all the time whether your prose sounds natural. If you’ve written sentences that you would never utter in a normal conversation, then perhaps your writing may be a bit stilted.

Reading aloud also makes you aware of the pace and rhythm of the text. Are you using one long sentence after another, or do you mix it up? Are the sentences clearly connected to each other? There’s nothing like reading aloud (particularly with another person in the room) to make you aware of the peculiar features of your own writing.

Run a Spell Check

It’s easy enough to run a quick spell or grammar check. No need to be embarrassed by silly mistakes.

Check for Coherence

One of our favourite proofreading strategies is to use a marker and go through a paragraph highlighting all the key words. After that, just ask yourself whether all the key words are connected to one central idea. If not, you may need to do some rewriting to create more coherence.

Check for Relevance

Constantly ask yourself “why is this important?” or “who cares?” Quantity does not guarantee quality, so cut out anything that doesn’t add something new and interesting.

Another good question to ask yourself is whether your audience is likely to find your point obvious, or if you provide a unique angle or spin on the subject matter. Highlight what is different about your particular perspective.

Finally, if you’re completing a specific writing assignment, it’s never a bad idea to read instructor’s guidelines again. Have you fully answered the question, and do all your subpoints back up your central idea?

Fix the Formatting

No need to lose marks over bad formatting. Make sure you use our guides on essay formatting and citation. A bit of time spent on making your essay look professional will make your instructor very happy.


If you’re still unsure about your assignment, don’t be shy to visit your instructor or go to a writing centre (most universities have one). Although there are plenty of cranky and obnoxious professors out there, most will be happy to sit down with you and help you develop your ideas.

Finally, you can also do more editing, but at some point it’s time to stop. Don’t be embarrassed by the final product. If you’ve put in the time and effort, that’s all anyone can ask for. Reward yourself a little and then move on to your next writing project.

Using Metaphors


Former US President George W. Bush was famous for scrambling his metaphors. He once said, “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”

We might laugh at his gaffe, but metaphors are easily misused. The truth is that language contains countless metaphors, and when we forget their literal meaning the results are often embarrassing.

In this lesson, we’ll teach you how to avoid two common errors: dead and mixed metaphors.

Mixed Metaphors

A mixed metaphor occurs when you’ve used two or more metaphors in a sentence or passage. If the metaphors clash then you’ve got a problem:

On our journey we came to a fork, where the road branched out in multiple directions.

I’m taking a history course. I’m looking forward to digging into some meaty subjects from the past.

Notice that in the second example looking forward contrasts with the study of the past (where we look back in time).

It’s easy to mix metaphors, especially when we forget  the literal meaning of a word:

She’s such a night owl. She stays up late reading and ruminating.

In this sentence, ruminating means thinking, but literally it also means to chew the cud, which is an action associated less with owls than with ruminants such as cows.

A mixed metaphor is not necessarily wrong, but if the metaphors are incompatible then you’re better sticking to a single set of images.

Dead Metaphors

When we use a metaphor with no regard for its literal meaning, then it can easily become a dead metaphor:

When our water-polo team plays, we’re all on the same page.

In this sentence we’ve used the expression on the same page figuratively to mean all together. Literally, however, water-polo is played in a pool, and not on a page.

A dead metaphor, then, is when the literal meaning of a figurative expression clashes with the rest of the sentence. Here are some more examples:

My broken toe is a pain in the neck.

Your talk on fasting has given me food for thought.

Dead metaphors are a symptom of a lazy attitude to language. If we care about making our prose come alive, then we’ll want to avoid killing off the literal meanings of words.


The Goal

Writing a proper essay is quite the challenge, and it may be difficult to know where to start. That’s why it’s best to learn to write essays in easy stages. If you follow these steps and do the various activities, you will quickly develop the skills to write a complete essay.

It’s good to remember though that there are all kinds of essays. Some are personal. Others are formal and abstract. Still others are comparative, argumentative, or descriptive. So don’t think there is just one kind of essay you should write. There are lots of ways to communicate. After all, an essay is simply an attempt to share some ideas in a way that makes it easy for the reader to follow. And how you structure your ideas depends on your topic and what you want to say.

So we’ll start by picking a topic and doing some research, and then we’ll figure out how you might best organize the information.

Your assignment will be to write an essay about a natural disaster. You’ll be able to choose which disaster you want to write about. How you want to approach your topic is also up to you. You can provide a scientific explanation of what causes the disaster. You can talk about the deadliest disasters in history. You can even talk about your own experience dealing with a disaster. The main goal is to write an essay that’s engaging, educational, and interesting.

Essay Analysis

Before you start writing your own essay, you may want to study other people’s essays. To that end, here is a question sheet you can use. Writing down your answers will help you formulate your thoughts, and will make it easier to contribute to class discussion.

Read more: Introduction to Essay Writing

Pick Your Topic

(“Devonian Light Show,” by John Vanveen, with permission)


It’s time to pick an essay topic! You’ll need to pick one of the natural disasters listed below. Once you’ve picked your topic you can of course adjust your focus and make it more specific.

As you pick your topic, it’s good to be a bit strategic. Do you already know something about your topic? How hard will it be to find relevant information? Do you have some books and materials on your topic at home? Have you had any experience with the natural disaster you’re interested in? The more you know ahead of time, the easier it is to plan and write your essay.


Please pick one of the following topics:

  • Hurricanes
  • Tsunamis
  • Earthquakes
  • Tornadoes
  • Droughts
  • Wildfires
  • Landslides
  • Blizzards
  • Sinkholes
  • Avalanches
  • Ice Storms
  • Sand Storms

You can also focus on a specific disaster such as Hurricane Irma or the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Here are some more examples:

  • Hurricane Katrina (2005)
  • Hurricane Harvey (2017)
  • Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami (2011)
  • Christchurch Earthquake (2011)
  • Haiti Earthquake (2010)
  • Tri-State Tornado (1925)
  • Yellow River Flood (1887)
  • North Sea Flood (1953)
  • California Wildfires (2017)
  • Great Fire (1910)
  • Ethiopia Drought (2017)

Another option is to choose a natural disaster that has struck close to your home. For instance, if you’re living in Edmonton, Alberta, you might research one of the following disasters:

  • Edmonton Tornado (1987)
  • Fort McMurray Fire (2016)
  • Alberta Floods (2013)
  • Frank Slide (1903)

If you’re interested in another historical disaster, just pass it by your teacher first.


Divide into groups and have each group pick a different natural disaster. Then write down on a large sheet of paper ideas about how you might write an essay on the topic. For example, you can write down questions you have, key terms you might need to look up, or specific subject areas you can explore. After each group is done you may repeat the activity for a different natural disaster. Finally, come together as a class and take a look at what ideas other groups came up with.

Tip: Try not to google your topic as you brainstorm. First see how much you already know.


(Geothermal activity, near Lake Taupo, New Zealand)


Before you start writing it’s a great idea to do some brainstorming. What can you write about? What kinds of emotions, thoughts, and feelings does your topic evoke? What would be a good angle for investigating your topic further?

You might be surprised by how much you know already. You may be able to come up with a good list of subjects to research.

On the other hand, if you find it difficult to come up with anything, you can try one of the following solutions: talk to a classmate, skim through a few books and web pages, or pick a different topic.


There are many possible brainstorming activities you can do. Here we provide a few examples for natural disasters. For more activities, see our page on Brainstorming Strategies.


(Skip this activity if you’ve already done brainstorming when you picked your topic).

You can do this activity by yourself or in a group. Grab a big sheet of paper and write your topic in the middle. Then draw arrows in different directions and write down any key terms you associate with your topic. It’s okay if you’re a little fuzzy on the details. The main thing is to get an idea of how you might break up your topic into manageable chunks.

Here’s an example of how you might get started:


In this brainstorming exercise you will need to use all your senses to give a vivid description of a natural disaster in its various stages. You can start by writing down some adjectives, or you can use full sentences. When you write your essay, you can use some of this description to make your writing more dramatic and evocative.

As an example, here is how a firefighter describes what it sounded like to fight the blaze in Fort McMurray in 2017:

[I]t’s too hard to describe what this all sounds like. It is constantly loud. For hours. Essentially, you have large diesel engines or gasoline engines on high idle all over the place. The pumps themselves have a way of screaming when they’re working hard. People’s houses were collapsing, barbecue propane tanks were blowing up, and people were running around yelling things at each other. (48)

Source: Hawley, Jerron, Graham Hurley, and Steve Sackett. Into the Fire: A First-Hand Account of Battling the Beast. McClelland & Stewart, 2017.

Want to try this yourself? Use our Senses Brainstorming Handout.


As a brainstorming exercise you might make a list of key terms that relate to your topic and then find suitable definitions. You can use a good dictionary or reference work, or you can see what a specific book or webpage has to say. Here, for instance, is an in-depth classification of different types of volcanoes.

Volcanoes were once categorized as either active, dormant, or extinct, according to the frequency of their eruptions, but volcanologists no longer use this classification. Some volcanoes are still categorized as extinct if they clearly no longer have a magma supply. All other volcanoes are considered active, though a distinction is made between volcanoes that have erupted at least once in recorded history (called historically active), and those for which there is evidence only of an eruption in the past 10,000 years (Holocene active). There are about 1,550 holocene active volcanoes in the world of which 573 have historical eruptions. (89)

Source: Dinwiddie, Robert, Simon Lamb, and Ross Reynolds. Violent Earth. DK Publishing, 2011. DK Smithsonian.

Don’t forget to also write down definitions when you do research and have to keep notes.

Journalistic W’s

The Journalistic W’s are particularly useful for specific disasters. Here is just one example:

What? North Sea Flood of 1953

When? Jan. 31, 1953

Where? Holland, Belgium, England, Scotland. The most devastating impact was in the Dutch province of Zeeland.

Who? Over 2,500 people were killed, most of those in the Netherlands.

Why? The tide was unusually high when a powerful wind storm created higher than normal sea levels. The system of dykes and defensive barriers was not sufficient to withstand the waves.

Notice that you can apply some of the questions in multiple ways. For instance, instead of asking why did it happen? you could also ask why is it important? In this case you might note that the 1953 flood led to the construction of both the Delta Works (one of the engineering wonders of the modern world), as well as the storm surge barriers on the Thames.

Can you apply the Journalistic W’s to your chosen topic?



Doing Research

(In Bruges, living with water is a daily reality. Photo by John Vanveen, with permission)


Research is an important part of writing an essay. The reader is not going to be satisfied with generalities, so we need specific and accurate information. However, we can’t be satisfied with just any book or article. We have to find sources that are reliable and trustworthy.

Finding Sources

For your essay you will need a minimum of three sources, of which at least one has to be a book and one a webpage.

To help you get started, here is a list of the kinds of books on natural disasters that you may find in your local library:

  • Abbott, Patrick Leon. Natural Disasters. (2013)
  • Barnard, Bryn. Dangerous Planet: Natural Disasters That Changed History. (2003)
  • Bechtel, Stefan, and Tim Samaras. Tornado Hunter, Getting Inside the Most Violent Storms on Earth. (2009)
  • The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. (2010)
  • de Boer, Jelle Zeilinga, and Donald Theodore Sanders. Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions. (2005)
  • Dinwiddie, Robert. Violent Earth. (2011)
  • Fecher, Sarah. Freaky Facts About Natural Disasters. (2006)
  • Fradkin, Philip L. The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself. (2005)
  • Griffey, Harriet. Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters. (1998)
  • Guiberson, Brenda Z. Natural and Man-made Catastrophes Through the Centuries. (2010)
  • Hyndman, Donald, and David Hyndman. Natural Hazards and Disasters. (2013)
  • Jones, Lucy. The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them). (2018)
  • Langley, Andrew. Hurricanes, Tsunamis, and Other Natural Disasters. (2006)
  • Lundin, Cody. When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes. (2007)
  • McDonough, Brendan. Granite Mountain: The Firsthand Account of a Tragic Wildfire, Its Lone Survivor, and the Firefighters Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice. (2017)
  • Mother Nature Goes Nuts! Amazing Natural Disasters. By the editors of Klutz. (2008)
  • The Natural Disaster Survival Handbook: 151 Survival Tactic and Tips. By the editors of Outdoor Life. (2016)
  • Natural Hazards, UnNatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention. By the World Bank. (2010)
  • Nature’s Extremes: Earthquakes, Tsunamis and the Other Natural Disasters That Shape Life on Earth. By the editors of TIME. (2011)
  • Tagliaferro, Linda. How Does An Earthquake Become A Tsunami? (2009)
  • Watts, Claire. Natural Disasters. DK Eyewitness Books. (2006)
  • Ylvisaker, Anne. Droughts. (2003)

If you are doing your topic on a Canadian natural disaster, here are some possible resources for you:

  • Asher, Damian, and Omar Mouallem. Inside the Inferno: A Firefighter’s Story of the Brotherhood that Saved Fort McMurray. (2017)
  • Daffern, Gillean, and Derek Ryder. The Great Kananaskis Flood: A Disaster That Forever Changed the Face of Kananaskis Country. (2016)
  • Dixon, Joan. Extreme Canadian Weather: Freakish Storms and Unexpected Disasters. (2009)
  • Hawley, Jerron, Graham Hurley, and Steve Sackett. Into the Fire: The Fight to Save Fort McMurray. (2017)

Note that we haven’t provided full bibliographic information, or else you wouldn’t have anything to do!

Next, you will also need to find some reliable online sources. Don’t rely on Wikipedia for your topic. Watch out also for sources that are mostly pictures (such as this photo essay). Find a quality web page with detailed and scientific information.

Here are some further resources to help you do online research:

What is Research?


Reading Sources Effectively

Tips for Doing Research With Google

Evaluating Online Sources

Understanding Your Grade


Receiving feedback on an essay is often a frustrating experience. It’s hard to deal with all the red ink and focus on learning from our mistakes. In addition, students often disagree with instructors on what constitutes a good grade. An instructor might see a B- as a perfectly respectable mark, whereas the student is satisfied with nothing less than a B+.

To prevent misunderstandings, we’ve tried to describe how most instructors think about each type of grade. These grading criteria should give you some rough idea of whether your instructor’s mark is fair or not.

Common Grading Criteria

The following grade descriptions are commonly used for marking essays at the university level.

A Grade

An A grade is reserved for an outstanding essay that provides genuine insight and a persuasive argument. While complete originality is not required, the writer’s thesis should be complex, nuanced, and compelling. In addition, the essay structure is coherent and logical, the evidence is well-integrated, the analysis is detailed, and the writer is able to deal fairly with possible objections and other points of view. Essays that deserve an A grade require little correction in terms of spelling and grammar, though there is no expectation that the writing is flawless.

B Grade

A B grade is given to a strong essay that has a clear structure and an effective argument. This type of essay does require some more polish and editing, but it has an interesting thesis backed up by a sufficient amount of evidence. A B essay may be a bit rough around the edges (both in terms of content and style), but it successfully accomplishes the main objectives of the assignment.

C Grade

A C grade does not stand for crappy. It stands for competent. A C signifies that your writing meets all the basic requirements. Your work has structure, a decent argument, and an adequate amount of proof. In short, your work has potential. With a bit more work and editing you can turn your competent paper into something really good. To improve, you’ll likely also need to fix quite a lot of writing errors. If you struggle with a persistent error such as comma splices or apostrophe problems, your instructor may not give you anything higher than a C until you deal with the issue.

D Grade

A D grade is given to essays that are deficient and provide barely enough content to merit a passing grade. Such essays also contain a significant number of writing errors and tend to lack at least one of the basic aspects of an essay (a thesis, a coherent argument, sufficient evidence, and good paragraph structure). A D essay often reveals some misunderstanding of the topic or assignment and requires major revision.

F Grade

A failing grade is given to essays that are so illogical, poorly organized, and underdeveloped that the instructor cannot find any justification for passing the assignment. An F suggests that the writing is riddled with errors and that the argument is inadequate or incorrect. Note also that essays that are heavily plagiarized will automatically receive an F.

Grading Abbreviations

Can’t figure out what your instructor’s scribbles mean? Check out our sheet of Grading Abbreviations used by editors and academics.

Planning and Outlining

(Christchurch Cathedral, after the devastating 2011 earthquake)


Now that you’ve done some research, it’s time to plan your essay! You’ll need both an outline and a rough idea of what your argument or thesis will be. Don’t get stressed out if you don’t know exactly what your essay is going to say. The planning stage is not like drawing a precise map. It’s more like a rough sketch. Once you start painting the details, the whole picture will come into focus.

Thesis Statements

The thesis statement is your main argument. It typically comes at the end of the introduction.

The thesis encompasses everything in your essay. That’s why it needs to be quite broad. Yet if it’s too general then the reader will not read on. Compare, for instance, the following statements (arranged from most to least detailed):

One of the factors that led to the Dust Bowl was overuse of the disc plough.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was caused by a number of factors, including over-farming, changes in technology, and a lack of precipitation. By analyzing these causes we can try to prevent droughts in the future.

The Dust Bowl was a major disaster for the United States.

The middle thesis is best. It is both specific and general, and makes the reader excited to learn something new and interesting.

Need some more practice? Try our Thesis Statement Exercise and visit our separate page on thesis statements,


Preparing an outline is a great way to plan your essay. The traditional way to organize information is to use roman numerals for the main sections, followed by capital letters for sub-points. If you want to zoom in even more, you use lower case roman numerals, followed by lower case letters.

Here is an example of how a student has started an outline for an essay about a specific natural disaster:

I. Introduction: Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004)

A. Vivid description from a survivor

B. Explanation of Importance

C. Thesis: The Indian Ocean Tsunami taught the world the importance of early warning systems and proper education about natural disasters.

II. Impact of the disaster

A. Damage

i. Number of dead and injured

a. Statistics for individual countries

b. Comparison with relative distance from the epicentre

ii. Financial cost of the disaster

B. Other types of impact

III. How a tsunami works

IV. What made this one so deadly

V. International response

VI. Future response and preparedness

VII. Conclusion

A lot of the sections still need to be fleshed out, but this is a good start.

Remember that a section can be more than one paragraph and that it’s a good idea to include your thesis statement. As you develop your outline, try to think about whether your points connect to each other and tell a single story.

Finally, it’s up to you how detailed you want to get. If you want to add some quotations or examples, that’s great. Just make sure the main structure of your essay is clear.


  • Use colour coding to distinguish the various levels of organization
  • Make your outline with Powerpoint and place each section (including sub points) on a separate slide
  • Ask another student to review your outline to see if it makes sense


Paragraph Writing

(“Wrecked,” by John Vanveen, with permission)


A paragraph is the expression of a single idea. All the information in a paragraph should connect to that central idea. When a paragraph is unified it is said to be coherent. When it’s not, it’s choppy or incoherent.

As you work on your final essay it may be easiest to start not with your intro and conclusion, but with some of your main body paragraphs. It’s easier to make some specific points than to know exactly how you will tie everything together. Even if you have an outline prepared (as you should!), starting in the middle will help you to focus on the particulars before you worry about the final argument. In fact, as you work on your paragraphs, your thesis will slowly lose its fuzzy outline and come into focus.

On this page you will find some general instruction in paragraph writing, as well as some activities for developing your own writing skill set.

Paragraph Structure

Most paragraphs start with what’s called a topic sentence. Your first sentence introduces the main point of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph consists of facts, quotations, and other forms of proof. Some paragraphs end with a brief conclusion, whereas others assume that the reader will have understood what the paragraph was about.

Here is a sample paragraph from a critical source:

It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the Western Hemisphere. On May 31, 1970, at 3:23 in the afternoon, a massive earthquake struck Peru. With a magnitude of 7.8, it was felt throughout the country–but it was in the department of Ancash, along the coast in central Peru, that the quake was most catastrophic. Entire cities, towns, and villages were destroyed, and some 76,000 people died. Another 140,000 were injured, and as many as 800,000 were left without homes. It has been estimated that 160,000 buildings were ruined. The cataclysm destroyed roads, railroads, bridges, businesses, schools, and government facilities. Water, sewerage, telephone, and electrical systems were put out of operation. All this because of an earthquake that lasted less than a minute. (194)

Source: de Boer, Jelle Zeilinga, and Donald Theodore Sanders. Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Notice how the first and last sentence are more general, and how everything in the paragraph backs up the central idea, namely that this was a devastating earthquake.

Let’s look at another example. The following paragraph uses quotations to strengthen its claims. In this case, the author’s main point is that firefighters in British Columbia face a unique challenge. Not every forest is the same, and some forests need regular forest fires for revitalization. When this does not occur (because of successful fire fighting), then those fires that do break out are unusually destructive:

In the Interior’s forests of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, fire is a natural cleansing force that sweeps away undergrowth, renews grasses, releases seeds and generally revitalizes the forest. The cycle is so regular that fires are seldom severe enough to burn the trees themselves. But as John Betts, a forester with the Western Silvercultural Contractors Association, explains, decades of successfully fighting forest fires has created an unnatural forest, one thick with undergrowth and carpeted with generations of dead pine needles. The result is kindling, and when a fire does take hold, it does so with an unnatural ferocity, consuming trees it might otherwise have left unscathed and destroying healthy bacteria in the soils of the forest floor that nourish life. “The forest systems are out of whack due to our well-intentioned conservation practices, which dictate not letting the forests go up in smoke,” says Betts. “The true root of the problem is the long-term denial of fire’s rightful place in the forest.” (17)

Source: Anderson, Charles, and Lori Culbert. Wildfire: British Columbia Burns. Edited by Shelley Fralic, Greystone Books, 2004.

This paragraph has a rather complex argument, and it takes the author a few sentences to connect the dots.

As you read your sources, you will find that popular books and articles are quite relaxed about paragraph structure. Often there’s no clear topic sentence and the argument simply carries on from the previous paragraph.

In your own essay you will want to be a bit more formal. Begin by stating your main idea and by connecting it (if necessary) to what came before.

For more information, please visit our separate pages on paragraph writing and paragraph transitions.


Paragraph Writing

Print out our Paragraph Writing Assignment to practice creating a paragraph from scratch.

Transitional Expressions

When we write we usually know in our own mind how our sentences relate to each other. Yet to a stranger the connections between them may not be immediately obvious. So, to get better at connecting your sentences, try our Transitional Expressions Assignment.

For more information, check out also the pages on conjunctive adverbs and connecting sentences.

Writing the Essay

(A geyser erupting in Yellowstone National Park)


Once you’ve done some research, made an outline, and practiced composing paragraphs, you’re in a great position to write your whole essay. This page provides some resources to help you assemble the various parts into a unified whole.


Use the following resources whenever you need some specific advice:


Writing a complete essay is not an easy task. Use your outline to keep you on track, but don’t be afraid to make changes if you come up with a better way to structure your material.

Always remember to tie everything back to your main argument. Remind your readers where you’re going, yet don’t bore them with endless repetition.

Ask yourself if you would want to read the essay. Is it interesting and exciting? Do you present the information in a way that’s both clear and compelling?

For this assignment you are allowed to use illustrations. Just make sure you provide a caption with a proper citation.

Finally, and most importantly, remember that this is your essay. Nobody wants to read a long string of quotations or a tedious series of facts. Add your own perspective. Interpret the evidence. Explain why the information is important and relevant. This is your essay, so make sure you have the final word.


(Cliffs with clearly exposed strata, or layers of rock or soil)


Experienced writers think of editing as a way to add polish to their paper. Spending time fixing mistakes adds some extra shine to your writing.

Our top two suggestions for editing are to print out your paper and to read through it aloud. By looking at a printed version you will be able to see text in a new light, and you won’t gloss over mistakes as quickly. Similarly, reading aloud makes you realize when something just doesn’t sound quite right. If you would never say it to someone, then you probably shouldn’t write it either.

Peer Editing

By the time you get around to editing you might be sick of your paper. So find someone else to read it over.

You can give them this sheet to check for errors: Editing Checklist

When you edit someone’s essay, don’t just criticize the little things. Make sure you think about the big picture, about how everything connects. What is the main point? Are you eager to read on? Are you left with any questions?

Give feedback that is positive and up-building. Focus on how the essay can be improved.

Reverse Outlining

Another great activity you can do is what we like to call “reverse outlining.” This is where someone who is totally new to your essay goes through it and tries to make an outline. You start by reading each paragraph and circling all the key words. Then you try to write a short sentence that captures what the paragraph seems to be saying. When you’re done, check if all the paragraphs relate back to the main argument. Is there any information missing? Could something be added or changed? Reverse outlining helps you understand how others might interpret your essay.


Check out the following resources to help you develop your editorial skills:


You can’t go on editing your paper for ever. When you feel you’ve done your best, hand in your essay and relax.

And if you’re a perfectionist, and you have a hard time letting go, just remember that an essay does not have to be a masterpiece for the ages. If it were, your teacher wouldn’t have anything to do. So clean up your desk, thank your editors, and go have some fun!

Sample Essays

(New growth. Photo courtesy of John Vanveen)


Guess what? We don’t have any sample essays yet, but we would love to see student essays. So if you’re a teacher and you’ve used our module, please be in contact, and we will sample some of the great writing your students have produced. Thanks!



Plagiarism is stealing other people’s words and ideas and passing them off as your own.

Plagiarism is a serious offense. At the university level it will usually get you an F on your assignment. If you plagiarize repeatedly you may even get kicked out of the institution.

Outside the academy, the penalties vary. Being caught plagiarizing certainly hurts your reputation and you might lose your job.

But you shouldn’t obey the law just to avoid getting caught. If you value original thought, personal integrity, and scholarly research, then you will naturally want to avoid plagiarism. That’s why it’s important to cite your sources and know how to integrate quotations properly.

Common causes

You might think that you would never plagiarize. However, many plagiarism cases are the result of negligence, ignorance, or a lack of self-confidence. Here are some reasons why even good students sometimes plagiarize:

  • Last minute panic
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Misunderstanding what constitutes plagiarism
  • Sloppy note taking
  • Slavishly copying someone’s ideas, often in the same order
  • Working on an assignment with others and handing in similar papers
  • Citing sources in the bibliography, but not in the paper itself

Yet even when plagiarism is inadvertent and unintended, ignorance is no excuse. You need to cite your sources and present your own argument.


Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re plagiarizing. This is especially the case when you are paraphrasing the ideas of others.

A paraphrase is when you put someone else’s ideas in your own words and provide only a citation (so no quotation marks).

Let’s say you’ve read the following passage about the Aztec ruler Montezuma, and you would like to borrow some ideas:

Motecuhzoma may have been elected tlatoani [Aztec ruler], but his coronation awaited the successful conduct of a war. He decided to wage his coronation war against the cities of Nopallan and Icpatepec. . . . One day into the march, Motecuhzoma ordered the Cihuacoatl [senior advisor] to return to Tenochtitlan and execute all the tutors of his children and all the court ladies attendant upon his wives and concubines. . . .In these acts, he set the tone for his reign.  He instilled fear with sudden and inexplicable executions, tested the loyalty of his ministers, and constantly checked to see if orders had been executed promptly. (29)

Source: Tsouras, Peter G. Montezuma: Warlord of the Aztecs. Potomac, 2005.

An inadequate paraphrase is one where you retain many of the original words and phrases:

The tone of Motecuhzoma’s reign was one of fear and terror. For example, shortly after his coronation Motecuhzoma ordered the Cihuacoatl to execute his children’s tutors and the court ladies who accompanied his wives and concubines (Tsouras 29).

This paraphrase is too close to the original, and you should just use a quotation instead.

Of course, you are allowed to repeat key words (reign, fear, Cihuacoatl, etc.), but you should not copy an entire phrase (Motecuhzoma ordered the Cihuacoatl), and you should as much as possible change the wording.

Citing Common Facts

There is a limit to what needs to be cited. You do not need to provide a source for information that is widely known.

Here are some examples of the kinds of things that do not need citation:

  • famous dates (e.g., the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue)
  • well known facts (e.g., the atomic mass of Cadmium)
  • the main outlines of historical events (e.g., the Protestant Reformation)
  • proverbs and maxims (e.g., don’t look a gift horse in the mouth)

It can of course be difficult to know whether a fact is well known, especially if you are not familiar with the subject matter. One way to check is to consider whether multiple sources share the same information without providing any citation. That’s usually a good indication that you’re dealing with a universally acknowledged fact.

For example, you don’t need a source if you’re claiming that spiders have eight legs or that the mountain gorilla is in danger of extinction.

On the other hand, many apparent facts can be contested. Few sources, for instance, agree about the number of casualties in World War I or about the approximate age of the earth. In fact, almost any time you’re dealing with statistics you should provide a citation.

Finally, if you are writing about literature, there is no need to quote or paraphrase when you’re summarizing the plot of a novel or short story. You should be able to come up with a plot summary yourself.

Defining Originality

Students often voice their frustration with research by saying, but I didn’t know anything about this topic before I began researching it. So how can I avoid plagiarizing?

This is a valid objection. Students may feel they have no original ideas and are just regurgitating material from various sources.

Fortunately, originality is largely defined by how you interact with the information, not by how much you knew at the start.

Even if you go into a project with very little knowledge, as soon as you start reading various books and articles you will begin to form an opinion. So don’t read passively. Evaluate your sources, crosscheck supposed facts, and synthesize various ideas. In this way you will gradually form your own argument and avoid plagiarism.

It’s quite common for undergraduate research papers to be a patchwork of quotations and paraphrases, but it’s the careful selection and interpretation of the evidence that makes the essay original.

Advice to Instructors

Instructors may find it difficult to know how to deal with student excuses, so here is some advice for them. (Students may also find it interesting to know their instructor’s perspective.)

Any experienced instructor has heard all the excuses. Here are just a few examples of what students might say:

I did a similar paper for a different class and when I went back to my old notes I didn’t realize that they contained some words and phrases that were direct quotations.

I asked my brother for some help with editing and he added the plagiarized passages. He is not a university student, you know.

I was tired. I’m overwhelmed with assignments, I have a full time job, and my grandmother is in the hospital. I guess I made a mistake, but I hope you will understand.

In my culture plagiarism is acceptable. It’s customary to honour wise people by repeating their ideas.

How can instructors tell if an excuse has merit? While it’s important to be sympathetic (and it doesn’t hurt to have a Kleenex box handy), the focus should stay on the assignment, and less on the life circumstances that may have been a factor. At the beginning of the course, the instructor should have spelled out clearly what constitutes plagiarism is, and what the penalties are. That way the student cannot claim ignorance, and both parties have a clear reference point.

The instructor should also know the institution’s rules inside and out. Too often instructors are much more draconian than the rules themselves. If an essay has a few phrases that are plagiarized, but the rest of the paper has adequate citation, it’s hardly fair to assign an F to the assignment. It would be better to assign a smaller penalty (e.g., a 10% deduction). The instructor thus has the duty to know the rules and to apply them generously in favour of the student.

Doing so will make most grade appeals unnecessary. In fact, instructors have to be absolutely sure that a passage is plagiarized before they can act. Noting that a few ideas are broadly similar will not be enough in the case of an appeal. The onus is therefore on the instructor to provide adequate proof of plagiarism (highlighted phrases, URLs of the original web pages, etc.). It’s also a good idea to keep a photocopy of the assignment when returning it to the student.

But above all the instructor has a responsibility to design assignments that are difficult to plagiarize. If a student can google the topic and immediately find an entire essay on the same question, then the instructor is partly to blame.

An easy solution is to assign comparative topics (then at least the student would have to plagiarize from multiple sources and somehow piece them together). However, there are often better approaches. Try to assign topics for which there may be academic sources, but relatively few popular web pages. Ask the students to approach the subject from an unusual angle. Be specific about which secondary sources the students must interact with.

If the assignment is constructed properly in the first place, then plagiarism will at best be sporadic and minor, and likely not in the student’s best interest. Instructors who are proactive will have fewer plagiarism cases and fewer appeals.

A Culture of Plagiarism

Why is plagiarism rampant across university campuses? Some of it has to do with the way in which we access information. Don’t know the answer to a question? Just google it! We are a bit like Pavlov’s dogs that way.

The same behaviour affects how we research. In high school, students are often not taught adequate research skills, and so they look everything up online.

This culture of googling has a detrimental effect on students’ self-confidence. Instead of thinking for themselves, students begin most assignments by seeing what other people have to say.

As a society we have a duty to encourage students to believe in themselves, to trust that they can be great independent thinkers. That’s the only way to deal with plagiarism properly.

Integrating Quotations | Part 1 (MLA)


If you want to see dramatic improvement in your writing, then focus on integrating quotations. It is an area where many people struggle. Whereas in ordinary speech we easily introduce the words of others (he said; she was like), it somehow seems more difficult in writing. That is why learning the rules is time well spent.

Being able to integrate quotations gives you the confidence to interact with the ideas of others, to be part of a larger discussion. Quoting is not just about referencing a few lines of text that seem vaguely relevant. It is about having a conversation.

On this page we will cover the basics of integrating quotations. All examples follow the MLA style rules.

The Basics

The Parts of a Quotation

In academic writing, nearly every quotation is made up of three parts: a signal phrase, the quote itself, and some kind of citation:

Signal Phrase + Quote + Citation

Example: As Kurt Ramble argues, “Urban farming should be incorporated in the elementary school curriculum” (78).

The signal phrase consists of your own words that signal to the reader that a quotation is coming.

The quotation can be long or short. If it is quite long, then it may have to be formatted differently as a block quotation.

As for the citation, in this guide we will be using parentheses, but you could use footnotes or endnotes if you are not following MLA conventions.

Now that we know the three basic parts of a quotation, we can zoom in a little. Most quotations share the following details:

The Parts of a Quotation Formatted Using the MLA Style Rules

Notice that this passage is not crammed full of bibliographic information. Most of the time you need mention only the author and the page or line number. Other details can be saved for the works cited page. For example, titles are normally only mentioned if they are directly relevant, or if you are citing multiple works by the same author.

When a quotation is followed by parentheses, final punctuation is removed from the end of the quotation (with the exception of question marks and exclamation marks found in the source) and your own punctuation follows the citation.

Types of Signal Phrases

Quotations are categorized by the way they are introduced, and there are three main types of signal phrases.

The Short Expression

One of the easiest ways to introduce a quotation is to announce who the speaker or author is and to add a verb that describes the way in which the idea is expressed:

Jonathan Truculent writes, “The best part of the pizza is the crust” (314).

As Iris Evans suggests, “Cell phones and tablets have increasingly overlapping capabilities” (58).

There are plenty of other verbs that work equally well:

argues, believes, notes, states, implies, observes, etc.

Note that many of these constructions are introduced by the conjunction as:

As Smith argues …

Of course, your signal phrase can include more than the author and the verb. Here are some instances where the “short expression” is not all that short:

As Imagen Randolph suggests, in a salacious memoir that caused quite a scandal, “There was always inappropriate behaviour at his parties.”

John Connelly mentions the contrary opinion of Judge Gavel, who writes, “[N]0 jury should convict on those grounds” (qtd. in Connelly 23).

It was George Fandangle, the nineteenth-century antiquarian, who famously wrote about the Greek philosopher Stroumboulopoulos, “Just like the popular culture he analyzed, he is now mostly forgotten” (117).

However, at the core of these signal phrases we still have the author and the verb. In all such cases we use a comma between the signal phrase and the quotation.

After this type of signal phrase, the first word of the quotation is usually capitalized. You can use square brackets around the capital letter if the word in the source was in lowercase.

Checklist for the short expression:

  • Does your signal phrase include at least a subject and a verb (e.g., He suggests)?
  • Does your signal phrase end with a comma?
  • Have you capitalized the first word of the quotation?
  • Is the quotation a complete sentence?
  • Have you put the appropriate closing punctuation after the parentheses (e.g., a period) rather than at the end of the quotation?

The Formal Introduction

Next, we have a more stately way to introduce quotations. The formal introduction consists of an independent clause that typically makes a claim about the quotation that follows. The quotation then acts as proof or evidence of the signal phrase:

Godfrey Boggart, on the other hand, claims that opera is a dead art form: “While classic operas like Carmen or The Magic Flute are still being performed, most new operas receive little public attention and are in any case overshadowed by musicals” (49).

The formal introduction does not require a verb of expression (writes, believes, argues, etc.). It just needs to be a complete sentence that allows us to make sense of the quotation.

As with the short expression, the quotation is usually a complete sentence too. The one exception is if the quotation is an appositive phrase:

To describe the reasoning of toddlers, child psychologist Martin Frost coined a humorous portmanteau word: “toddlerlogical” (205).

If you find this an awkward construction, then just use the next method of integrating quotations: the run-in quotation.

To determine if you need to capitalize the first word of the quotation, check your source and follow the same formatting.

Checklist to the formal introduction:

  • Are both the quotation and your introduction complete sentences? (exception: the quotation is an appositive noun phrase)
  • Have you followed the same capitalization as in your source?
  • Does your introductory phrase end with a colon?

The Run-in Quotation

Often you can combine your signal phrase with the quotation to form one complete sentence. In that case you don’t need any punctuation in between. You will have to be selective about which words you quote, as the transition needs to be seamless.

The transept “first became popular in Romanesque architecture, and it gave the basilica the appearance of a Latin cross” (Chevet 5).

Buchanan contends that “despite being the longest ice age, the Huronian era remains understudied” (3).

The signal phrase may include the author and a verb of expression, but neither is essential. The key is that the signal phrase and the quotation together form a complete sentence.

So, there you have it: if you pick one of the three signal phrases, you should have no trouble introducing your quotations.

Checklist for the run-in quotation:

  • Do your words combine with the quotation to form a complete sentence?
  • Have you left out all punctuation before the quotation?

Minor Variants

Occasionally, you may come across a quotation that has no signal phrase. It just sits there, all by itself in the middle of a paragraph. Kind of sad really, as the reader may have no idea what to make of it. Our advice is to play it safe and always provide a signal phrase.

A more acceptable variant is where the order is flipped around, and the signal phrase comes afterwards:

“The high costs of drugs are as much an effect of government intervention as a by-product of free market capitalism,” writes economist Hugo X. Santana (19).

Notice that by default the citation comes at the end of the sentence. As a result, the comma has been placed inside the quotation, even though it was not there in the source. Sometimes, for the sake of clarity, you may wish to place the citation immediately after the quotation.

You can also place the signal phrase in the middle if you like:

“The high costs of drugs,” writes economist Hugo X. Santana, “are as much an effect of government intervention as a by-product of free market capitalism” (19).

This way of integrating the quotation (placing the signal phrase later in the sentence) is more common when the words are spoken rather than written down:

“I will shoot anyone who thinks gun control is unnecessary,” shouted Ella Pringle, at a rally in Utah.

Another acceptable variant is to introduce the quotation with a short prepositional phrase:

According to Virgil Cain, “Japanese gymnasts have managed to improve their elasticity by eating copious amounts of calimari.”

Make sure your signal phrase and the quotation form a complete sentence.

While you are free to experiment, in academic prose the default is to place your signal phrase before the quotation. Otherwise, your reader won’t immediately know what to make of the quotation and has to wait for an explanation.

Continuing After the Quotation

You might be asking yourself, do I need to end every sentence right after the quotation? Can I extend the sentence?

Yes you can.

The only caution is that continuing after the quotation is best done when your signal phrase runs right into the quotation (see above) and when the quotation is relatively short. Here is an example:

Odysseus is “the man of twists and turns,” an apt description of both his character and his wanderings coming home from Troy (1.1).

This is also a great way to string together a number of shorter quotations:

Matilda Anderson, in a recent address to the Anthropophagy Society, argued for a “redefinition of cannibalism,” so that the restaurant industry “might have a new source of protein” (1, 5).

Note that with multiple quotations you are allowed to combine citations. If those citations are from different sources, separate them with a semi-colon.

If you feel uncomfortable about extending your sentence after the quotation, then use a period and start a new sentence. Don’t fudge it by adding semi-colons.

Checklist for continuing on after the quotation:

  • Do your words combine with the quotation(s) to form a complete sentence?
  • Have you left out all punctuation before the quotation?
  • Have you placed parentheses either at the end of the sentence or immediately after the quotation?
  • Have you put punctuation after the parentheses as appropriate?


Now that know how to introduce a quotation with a signal phrase, check out part 2 of our guide on quoting to learn about all those finicky exceptions! Don’t worry though–with a bit of practice you will master the rules soon enough.

If you would like to print a version of this page, please download our handy Guide to Integrating Quotations.



Outlines are an effective way to organize your ideas. They provide structure and direction, they organize your thoughts, and they free your mind to focus on one section at a time. Outlines are a key tool for any writer, and it’s good to know how to create them quickly.

Outline Structure

You can normally use whatever outline structure suits you. The main thing is to differentiate between the various levels of organization. As an example, here’s an outline that uses a classic hierarchy:

Topic: A History of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

I. Introduction

II. The Original 1994 Agreement

A. Key Figures

i. Reagan’s idea

ii. Mulroney’s support

a. Liberal and NDP opposition

iii. Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s contribution

B. Provisions and Exceptions

III. Later Additions

IV. Notable Disputes

V. Trump’s Protectionism

VI. The Future of NAFTA

VII. Conclusion

As you can see, this is only a partial outline, as many of the sections can use further subdivision. It should nevertheless indicate how you can create a clear outline structure. In this case we’ve used letters and roman numerals, but you can use other formats too.

Tips for Effective Outlines

While an outline provides structure, it can easily remain static and disjointed. To make it come alive we suggest you do the following:

  • Include a rough description of your thesis, so you can check if all your points relate back.
  • Jot down some notes about how your sections connect to each other.
  • Be ready to modify your outline so that your points flow logically
  • Zoom in far enough that you have a sense of what examples and evidence you might use. If you have too much material you may need to add new points to your list.
  • Format the list in a way that works for you (you can add colour, change the font type and size, modify the indentation, etc.)
  • Ask a friend if the outline seems clear and interesting

Editing for Metadiscourse


Even if you’ve only ever written a single essay–or even a line of an essay–you’ll be familiar with metadiscourse and the challenge it presents. Metadiscourse is a fancy word for the language we use to frame our ideas:

In this example of metadiscourse, the phrase "nice shirt" is framed with the words "I've got to say."

It’s hard to write without using metadiscourse. For instance, anytime you indicate a change in direction, you end up using expressions like howeveron the other hand, or yet one might argue that. All of these are examples of metadiscourse.

Use too much of this kind of language and your prose will seem stilted and cumbersome; use too little and the reader will be lost in a jungle of disconnected observations. Let’s take a closer look, then, at how you can use metadiscourse to frame your ideas effectively.


The word metadiscourse consists of two parts. The word discourse means communication or debate. The prefix meta comes from Greek and means something like about. In other words, metadiscourse refers to the language we use to talk about our regular communication.

If your thesis reads “I will argue that according to Plato thinking for yourself is antithetical to an oral tribal culture,” then the phrase “I will argue that” is metadiscourse. It frames the idea and tells the reader how you want your words to be understood.

Metadiscourse is important because it allows us to put our stamp on the material, to give direction and relate the various facts and opinions to each other.

Here’s how one scholar defines metadiscourse:

Essentially metadiscourse embodies the idea that communication is more than just the exchange of information, goods or services, but also involves the personalities, attitudes and assumptions of those who are communicating. (Hyland 3)

In other words, your choice of metadiscourse affects your writing style. It affects how readers perceive you as a person.

Editing for Metadiscourse

Here’s a sample essay introduction filled with metadiscourse:

When comparing two pieces of literature, there are many different aspects that a person can analyze. When we take a closer look at Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass or C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe we see that this is true. For example, Lewis shares a Christian message, whereas Pullman promotes an atheist worldview. In this essay, I will demonstrate that these themes come up especially in relation to lying. Whereas Lewis condemns Edmund for being a liar, Pullman makes his heroine, Lyra, an accomplished liar and praises her for it.

Clearly this paragraph is very self-referential. The writer constantly reminds us that literary analysis involves comparison, analysis, close reading, and argumentation. Much of this language is redundant, and we could easily do with a shorter version:

Philip Pullman wrote The Golden Compass in part because he hated C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Whereas Lewis shares a Christian message, Pullman promotes an atheist worldview. We see this especially when it comes to lying. Lewis condemns Edmund for being a liar, but Pullman makes his heroine, Lyra, an accomplished liar and praises her for it.

The revised version is more direct. By minimizing the frame we can focus on the picture.

The point, then, is that metadiscourse should be used judiciously. Some writing instructors go overboard and launch a crusade against metadiscourse, deleting as much self-referential language as they can. Instead, the challenge is to find a happy medium, where your metadiscourse makes the reading process smooth and easy.

Finding Your Voice

A common struggle for writers is to decide what pronouns to use (or whether to use them at all). Let’s review whether it’s acceptable to use “I” and “we” in academic writing.

Using “I”

I can’t tell you how often students have come to me and said “But my teacher told me never to use ‘I’ in my essay.” While such advice may be well-meant, it has the unfortunate effect of making the act of writing seem somehow impersonal and distant, as if essays have to be composed in a different language.

Now it is true that in some disciplines (e.g., history) the first person voice is frowned upon, mostly because the author is expected to seem objective and unbiased. It’s also true that “I” is often redundant. If you’re writing a book review and you open with “I think that Slade House was a gripping read” you could just as well say “Slade House was a gripping read.”  The reader will assume that the statements on the page are your opinion.

Despite these caveats, using “I” is not forbidden, and is often preferred. The first person voice is particularly useful when you’re distinguishing your ideas from those of others:

Whereas Sarah Jones argues that … I would suggest that …

I agree with Michael Smith that …

The first person pronoun is also great for indicating shifts in your argument:

I will argue that …

Having seen that … , I think we can safely conclude that …

Even if you later decide to delete some of those “I’s,” they will have helped you to get your ideas on paper, and that’s a good thing.

Royal We

Another pronoun that tends to confuse writers is “we.” Here’s how to use “we” without sounding pompous.

First, avoid using the “royal we,” where “we” is just a grander way of saying “I”:

We will argue that …

As we have demonstrated …

Unless you are coauthoring a piece of writing, this use of “we” is not advisable.

On the other hand, you can use “we” if you’re actually referring to multiple individuals:

In our study group we found that …

As we examine the evidence, we will see …

Notice that in the second example “we” refers to the writer and the reader(s). This use of the pronoun can be an effective way of making your audience feel part of the process.


Much of essay writing consists of learning to use metadiscourse properly. It’s about discovering your own voice, of developing your writing personality.

At first the tendency will be to do too much, to start every sentence with a transitional word (therefore, thus, etc.), or to add unnecessary modifiers (e.g., essentially). Then the pendulum might swing the other way, and you feel self-conscious every time you write “I will argue,” or “we will see.”

But in the end you’ll find the right style for you, and that’s really all that matters.

Works Cited

Hyland, Ken. Metadiscourse: Exploring Interaction in Writing. Continuum, 2005.

Writer’s Block


Every writer will experience writer’s block. We’ve all stared at the screen or paper, not knowing what to do next. Sometimes it’s a lack of ideas; sometimes we can’t find the right phrasing. On this page we’ll diagnose the problem and suggest some possible remedies.

Common Causes

The first step to beating writer’s block is to examine what’s actually bothering you. Even experienced writers sometimes get blocked, and in fact the more you know–about grammar, audience expectations, or even your subject matter–the more you may struggle to know where to start. It’s a good idea, then, to determine what is causing your writer’s block, so that you can be more purposeful in addressing the problem.

Lack of Confidence

Lacking confidence is a downward spiral. The more you stare at a blank page, the less confidence you’ll have.

Linear Composing

Often people think they have to write from beginning to end, when they’re better off starting in the middle, with what they know. Writing is messy, and it’s okay to jump around and connect your ideas later.

Rigid Rules

Rules can be constraining. When writers know their writing will have to conform to a million different rules (from punctuation and mechanics to essay structure), they may be hesitant to “just write.”

Premature Editing

When you don’t allow yourself to write freely, you end up perfecting each sentence before moving on. This kind of premature editing will not only slow you down but can also make you lose your train of thought. In fact, it may even make you afraid to write down any unfinished thoughts.


Some writers worry that words will not be able to capture the complexity of an idea. Or at least they know that it will take several sentences or paragraphs to fully explain what’s on their mind. They’re worried then that as soon as they start writing they’ll have to make changes to qualify their initial point. At the back of their mind they think they should be able to do a perfect first draft, and they’re frustrated by the reality that their first attempt may need significant revisions.

Fearing the Audience

It can be daunting to write with confidence when you believe that your audience is smarter than you, or will judge you if you make a mistake.


Writers are often encouraged to split the assignment into smaller tasks (something we also encourage), but this practice may also make it difficult to see the whole picture. Writers are blocked when they have to start connecting the dots, when they have to create some kind of overall story out of their disjointed notes or paragraphs.

Personal Distance

If you don’t have any emotional or personal interest in a writing project you may not experience much motivation to get started. On the other hand, if you’re too invested in your writing you may have a hard time knowing how to reach a more general audience. It’s important, then, to be both interested and objective when you start typing.

Poor Planning

Finally, without proper planning you will not succeed. It’s a good idea to create a rough outline and make some initial notes before you get started. On the other hand, if you collect too much data you may have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.


The main way to beat writer’s block is to be active. You’re better off to write half a sentence than to worry how you might finish it.

In addition, many of us may need to change our conception of how writing works. In the preface to his massive Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin famously quotes Augustine, another prolific writer, who confesses, “I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.” In other words, even great writers recognize that writing and learning are intertwined, that writing is the process through which we learn. We don’t always come up with a thought and then write it down. We often start with some vague idea and write until the whole picture emerges like a sculpture from a block of stone.

With that in mind, here are some techniques to help you overcome writer’s block.

Thinking through Writing

If writing is part of the thought process, then it’s okay to start with whatever you are thinking about your topic. Imagine that you’ve been assigned to write a paragraph about your philosophy of leadership, and all you can think about is how your boss at work is a lousy leader. Then start with that. Write a list of everything you detest about your boss. Vent a little. Have some fun. Even if most of this material won’t make it in your final paragraph, the exercise will get you thinking about what does make for good leadership.

Avoiding Procrastination

In this digital age we’re all easily distracted. If you can’t write a sentence without checking your Facebook status, perhaps it’s time to write by hand for a while. You can also set a timer or turn off your internet connection.

For longer assignments a good strategy is to make a schedule for different tasks. For an academic paper you might start by just making a list of useful sources. Then you might read each one and make some notes. After that you can brainstorm what your own argument or thesis might be. If you spread these tasks out over successive days (and plan them out in your calendar), then the whole task will seem less overwhelming.

Asking Questions

All writing is an answer to some imagined question. When you get stuck, start asking as many questions as possible. What made you pick your topic? Why should anyone care? What do others think? Have you always thought the same thing or has your thinking changed? How do your ideas connect? Can you think of other examples or facts? What might someone who does not share your perspective say? If you regularly struggle with writer’s block, come up with a list of questions and force yourself to write out the answers.

Talking it Over

When you’re stumped, talk to someone. Sometimes it’s easier to explain your topic by talking with a real person.


Even the most analytical essays tell some kind of story. Indeed, it may help you to think of your writing as a narrative that relates an ever more complex series of events. And just like a storyteller cannot introduce all the facts at once, so it’s best to start with a few details or ideas and move gradually from the known to the unknown, from a consensus view to what is contentious, new, and difficult.


In the world of sport, consistent practice allows you to build up muscle memory, so that in a game situation your body knows what to do. The same is true for writing. Start by writing short paragraphs that include a topic sentence, some examples, and a conclusion. Once you master the paragraph, write two and connect them. A good writing instructor should be able to help you start small and build up your confidence gradually.


Writing is difficult when we either have too little direction or feel constrained by the demands of others. With too many rules we lack the freedom to be creative. Without any guidance we are left to flounder by ourselves. That’s why giving students an open topic may be the worst thing an instructor can do. Students feel lost, and may view their teacher as acting like the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: … So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

The problem is that we might not have the time to go on walking. Yet when we’re truly stuck, when all the solutions described above don’t work, perhaps it is time to go for a walk, get some fresh air, and come back when we’ve had a chance to think things over. Writing is never easy, and even taking a break may be part of the process.

Further Resources

If you’d like to read more, we recommend the following two studies:

Evans, Kate. Pathways Through Writing Blocks in the Academic Environment. Sense Publishers, 2013.

Rose, Mike. Writer’s Block: The Cognitive Dimension. Southern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Doing Research With Google


The tide is turning, and using Google for research is no longer taboo. Indeed, most instructors will encourage you to discover the amazing resources available on the web. The difficulty is in narrowing down the search results.

On this page we provide some tips for making your searches more effective. Be sure also to watch our tutorial on Google Scholar (video above) to find quality academic articles and books.

General Advice

You’ll want your search terms to be as detailed as possible. It’s better to search for general anxiety disorder than just anxiety. The order of search terms matters too. Try place your most important terms first.

At the same time, you can always refine your results, so don’t be afraid to start with just a few key words and see what you find.


Specify the Type of Source

When you’re doing a search, be sure to use Google’s tabs to refine your search:

As you can see, you can search for images, news, maps, and more. If you click on Tools you can also display the toolbar:

Play around with the different options to see what’s available.

If you click on Settings you will be able to set some parameters to your use of Google. You can adjust your preferred languages, you can clean up your search history, and you can do an advanced search.

Use Quotation Marks

To search for a specific phrase, place quotation marks around it.

Search Titles

To search just the titles of websites, use the tag intitle: before your key word(s).

Search URLs

If you want to search URLs instead, place inurl: before your key word(s).

Search Text

You can also search just the text by inserting intext: before your key word(s).

Search File Types

One cool feature of Google is the fact that you can specify what file type you’re looking for. Here are some examples:

filetype:ppt (for PowerPoint)

filetype:pdf (for PDF documents)

filetype:xls (for Excel spreadsheets)

filetype:doc (for Word documents)

Find Older Versions

If a website has changed, or if you’re just curious about previous versions, type in cache: followed by the URL. Check out also the Web Archive to go back in time.

Find Similar Sources

Found a website you liked? Use the tag related: followed by the URL to find similar websites.

Find Linked Pages

If you want to see what other sites linked to a website or page, type in link: followed by the URL.  If you have your own website this is a fun way to see who’s sharing your site.

Find Definitions

You can use Google as a dictionary by adding define: to your search.

Search a Specific Website

If you want to restrict your search to a specific website or page, write site: followed by the URL.

Alternatively, you can press Control + F  to bring up a search box for the page you’re looking at.

Use an Asterisk

If you’ve forgotten some part of a phrase, use asterisks to indicate the missing words:

Search: Ne * * Pas

Find: Ne Me Quitte Pas (song lyric)

Try a Reverse Image Search

You can find where else an image has been used by right clicking on the image and selecting “search google for image.” You can even upload your own image (drag and drop it into Google) and Google will do its best to identify the image and find related pictures.

Search Social Media

Insert @ before a word to search social media. Add # to a word to search for hashtags.

Search a Range

Looking for a range of numbers or dates? Place two period between the numbers to indicate a range:

E.g., 1964..1968

Use OR

You can specify an alternative search term by inserting OR. Note that you usually don’t need to add AND.

Eliminate Search Terms

If you want Google to ignore a particular search term, place a hyphen (a minus sign) before it.

E.g., if your main search term is mongoose, you can add -cobra to eliminate a third of the results.

Search Old Newspapers

Google provides an excellent depository of old newspapers for you to search.

Have Some Fun

Finally, if you want to have some fun, Google has created all sort of in-jokes or Easter eggs. For just one example, type in “do a barrel roll” and see what happens. There are many more funny search terms for you to discover.


Using Google is increasingly an art, so try out the different tips on this page. They will help you find exactly what you’re looking for.

Evaluating Online Sources


More and more research is done online, and there is nothing wrong with that. The key is to know when a source is trustworthy and credible. In an ideal world, we would cite only research that is peer-reviewed (vetted by other experts in the field). However, there are many excellent sources (like this website!) that have not been officially peer-reviewed. Most students will instinctively recognize when a source is suspect, but it’s still worthwhile to review the key indicators that distinguish good sources from bad ones.

Lousy Sources

Check out the following website and see if you can spot why this is not a quality online source:

This is clearly a blog post that has been written in a hurry and contains mostly plagiarized or irrelevant content. The presence of annoying pop-up windows and advertisements tells you that this is not an educational website. Quoting from this source would only hurt your own credibility.

Good Sources

There is no one key indicator that will tell you if a website is trustworthy. For instance, a blog post is usually a more subjective source, but some blogs are incredibly detailed and useful.

The best approach, then, is to apply a number of criteria at the same time:

If a website generally meets these criteria, you can mine it for ideas and quotations. It is rare, however, to find a source that’s perfect.

The Best Sources

The best online sources are often not found with just a simple Google search. Refine your searches by using Google Scholar, look for institutional archives and repositories, or search a library database.

Further Resources

There are many resources for evaluating websites. Here are a few of the more useful ones:

Teaching resources

Fact checking websites

General statistics

Comparing multiple perspectives

Webpage analysis

Analyzing your own online behaviour

Tone and Audience


You wouldn’t talk to your instructor the way you talk to your friends. In the same way, a piece of writing has to suit its audience. If it does, then it strikes the right tone.

This page teaches how to achieve the proper tone for an academic audience.


If you’re writing an academic essay, you might think that you’re just writing for your instructor. Yet your intended or implied audience should be much broader.

It’s best to pretend that you’re writing for a general audience that consists of people who are generally educated, but may not have an intimate knowledge of your subject area.

For instance, if you’re writing about a literary text, you can assume that your reader has read the text, but does not grasp the full significance. That’s why you don’t need to give endless plot summaries or provide definitions of common literary terms (e.g., climax, iambic pentameter, protagonist, Romanticism). Your implied reader should have some general competency in your subject area.

The same goes for other disciplines. Try to figure out what counts as common knowledge and build on that. The term behaviorism may not need a definition in psychology, but in a different field some explanation may be appropriate.

Finally, avoid making reference to the course you’re taking or to the directions on the topic sheet. Don’t title your essay “Topic 1” or include phrases such as the following:

As mentioned in class …

The topic I have chosen …

Instead, write as if your essay might be published in an academic journal. Who knows? If your research is original, it might happen.


Academic essays avoid casual language and aim for a certain degree of formality. You don’t want to sound stiff and boring, but neither do you want to use slang.

Here’s a chart that will help you distinguish some common features of formal and informal writing:

Formal Informal
abstract, objective personal, subjective
complete sentences casual syntax
no contractions contractions allowed
serious tone lower register, incl. comedy
no hyperbole more emotional
elevated diction slang, colloquial language
logical and focused digressive

These distinctions are not set in stone. Academic writing can include humorous observations. Popular writing can be perfectly objective. In other words, think of tone as a continuum, and try be conscious of the difference between formal and informal language.


Students often feel that academic writing is a foreign language. It sounds more abstract and has a unique vocabulary. The temptation might be to mimic this perceived level of difficulty in one’s own writing. Resist the urge, though, to sound smart. If you would never say it aloud, don’t write it.

To keep your writing accessible and natural, avoid excessive use of the passive voice, keep your sentences concise, and use clear diction. Above all, don’t rely on a thesaurus.

MLA Essay Format


There are various ways to format your essay, and your instructor might have their own preferences. Here we share how to format your essay in accordance with the MLA Handbook (9th ed.). The instructions are for MS Word, but you can easily adapt them to whatever word processing program you use.

MLA Essay Format

Essays are printed on standard 8.5 x 11 inch paper, which happens to be the default size of a Word document.

MLA Research papers don’t require a title page. All the important information appears on the first page.  Here is what the top of your first page should look like:

Now that you have a rough sense of how to start your essay, let’s take a closer look at the finer points of proper formatting.

Publication Details

Always follow the same order when you share your publication information:

Your name

The instructor’s name

The course name

The date you completed the assignment

This information should appear only on the first page, so make sure you don’t place it in the header area (where it will get repeated on every page).

Also, don’t add labels such as “Date” or “Course,” and double check that you’ve spelled your instructor’s name correctly.

For group projects, the MLA Handbook suggests that you use a separate title page. Again, place the publication information in the top left, but this time lists all the group names under each other (before adding the instructor, course, and date). Then move your essay title down to the centre of the page. Start your essay on the next page.


The header section includes your last name and the page number.

To insert the page number, press Insert > Page Number > Top of Page > Plain Number 3.

As soon as you do this, the cursor is automatically placed before the page number so you can type your last name. Don’t forget to leave a space.

To access the header area, double click near the top of the page. To leave it, double click anywhere below the header area.

Now you should have the same header on every page.


Since 2007, the default margin for any Word document has been 1 inch all around. Fortunately, MLA format has the same requirement. If for some reason you need to fix the margins, go to Layout > Margins > Normal.


Use a common font that is easy to read. A popular choice is Times New Roman, size 12.


Resist the temptation to make your title look fancy by underlining it, adding colour or bold font, or putting it in italics. All you have to do is centre your title and capitalize key words.


Make sure the text of your essay is left-aligned. Look for these buttons in Word:

You might think that justified text looks better, but your instructor will likely disagree.


All the text in your essay should be double-spaced. To make this change quickly, first press Ctrl + A to highlight all text and then press Home > Line and Paragraph Spacing (symbol) > 2.0. Make sure you also click on “Remove Space After Paragraph.”


It is customary to indent your first paragraph (use the tab button). Subsequent paragraph breaks should also be shown by indents, and not by extra spacing between paragraphs.

To get rid of extra spacing, highlight the sentence before and after the paragraph break and press Home > Line and Paragraph Spacing (symbol) > Remove Space After Paragraph.

Works Cited Page

Make sure that your Works Cited is on a separate page. It’s a good idea to insert a page break before the Works Cited page. To do so, place your cursor at the end of your conclusion and press Insert > Page Break.

Headings (Optional)

Longer texts may benefit from headings to divide and organize the content. If you choose to add headings in your paper, be consistent in how you style them. As an example, here are three different levels of headings:

Level 1 Heading

Level 2 Heading

Level 3 Heading

In other words, the level 2 and 3 headings are subheadings. You can use font size, bold font, italics, or other typographic changes to distinguish the heading levels.


For more information, see chapter 1 of the MLA Handbook or consult the MLA Style Centre.

The MLA format is not flashy or cluttered. Unless your instructor asks for additional information (such as the word count), don’t go out of your way to add it.

Finally, for your convenience, here is a Word Template you can use. Just replace the instructions with your own information.

MLA Essay Template

Essay Structure


When students first learn to write essays, they’re often taught some version of the “five-paragraph essay.” The five-paragraph essay typically makes three related points, each with its own body paragraph. While this kind of rigid essay structure can be helpful for first time writers, it easily becomes predictable and boring. That’s why we’d like to present a different model of essay writing. On this page we provide some general advice about how you can craft essays that are organic and natural. While structure is important, we provide guidelines that are flexible and meet your needs.

Basic Parts

Every essay obviously has an introduction and a conclusion. In the middle you’ll find a bunch of paragraphs. So much for the obvious.

What’s important is that there is no set rule as to how many paragraphs you can use for any section of your essay. In a long essay, your introduction might take up two or three paragraphs. In a short essay (e.g., 3-4 pages) it makes sense to keep your intro and conclusion sweet and short. You can also have as many middle paragraphs as you like.

In other words, as long as you introduce your topic, argue your case persuasively, and provide some closure, the number of paragraphs is completely irrelevant.

In fact, writing an essay is a bit like crossing a stream. Think of the paragraphs as the stepping stones that let you get to the other side high and dry:

If the stream is wide, you’ll need more stepping stones. The same is true for an essay: the longer the essay, the more paragraphs you’ll need.


Don’t overthink your introduction. There’s no need to cram all kinds of things into your introduction. Just introduce the topic and your argument:

In other words, instead of coming up with some artificial hook (e.g., a quotation or surprising fact), assume that your topic is interesting enough to grab your reader’s attention. Focus your effort on explaining the research question or problem that drives your research. Why is your topic significant? Why should people care? If you answer the “why?” question, your reader will care enough to read on.

The Thesis

The thesis is a succinct statement of your overall argument. It should come at the end of the introduction. If you introduction is multiple paragraphs long you have more flexibility where you place the thesis.

Some teachers advice their students to come up with three points for their thesis. That is generally a terrible idea. What invariably ends up happening is that you end up writing three mini-essays that are only loosely connected.

While you can have sub-points, the most important thing is that you come up with ONE coherent argument that ties together everything in your essay.

If it takes you a few sentences to fully express your argument that’s no problem: a thesis doesn’t have to be just one sentence long.

Body Paragraphs

The middle paragraphs form the body of your essay. These paragraphs are a bit like vases: they hold the contents of your essay, and they come in all shapes and sizes:

Like vases, paragraphs tend to be more narrow in the middle. That’s where you’ll find the specifics of the argument, the quotations and the facts.

The beginning and end of a paragraph are usually more general in scope. The opening sentence (the topic sentence) indicates what the paragraph is about. It also connects the paragraph to what came before.

The trick with writing paragraphs is to remind your reader of the general argument. However, there’s no need to conclude every paragraph with a summary of what came before. Just make sure you paragraphs transition nicely from one to the next.

Lastly, each paragraph should make just one point. If you’re starting to say something new, even if it’s just a different aspect of the same point, start a new paragraph!


The difficulty with conclusions is avoiding needless repetition. Don’t let your reader zone out when you zoom out.

Try to explain why your findings matter. Point out those nuances and complexities that your thesis only hinted at, but that can now be fully understood.  Provide observations that keep your conclusion fresh and interesting.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have some general idea about how to structure your essay, take the time to study our more in-depth lessons on the various parts of the essay (introductions, paragraphs, conclusions). And, if you’re still not convinced that the five-paragraph essay is generally a bad idea, check out John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, or read his blog post on the subject.

Essay Titles


Somewhat like a billboard, an essay title is an advertisement. A successful title makes people eager to read on and discover what your essay has to offer. The best essay titles, then, are both creative and informative. Readers not only want to know what your essay is about. They also want to be inspired.

Key Words

The first step to creating a good title is to find a few words that describe the topic of your paper. If your instructor has given you a research question, you can pick some words from there, but a better place to look is your thesis statement (once it’s written). What is your argument about?

Let’s say you’re writing an essay about the potential benefits of electric toothbrushes.

At first the number of potential key words may seem overwhelming:

manual, electric, pros and cons, bristles, benefits, plague, gums, cavities, pressure, braces, cost, timer, flossing, bad breath, brands, safety.

Depending on what we want to argue, the first step is to choose the most appropriate key words. Here are some examples of basic titles:

The Safety Record of Electric Toothbrushes

The Surprising Benefits of Electric Toothbrushes

Manual or Electric: Which Toothbrush is Better at Fighting Plague?

Of course this is all very basic yet, but it’s a start. And who knows—perhaps this outlandish example may come in handy when your writing skills land you a job in advertising…

Focusing Your Title

Once you’ve figured out a few key words, the next step is to make your title as specific as possible.

Here are some sample titles that sound dramatic, but are lacking in detail:

Hitler’s Final Days

David Livingstone on Safari

Decriminalizing Marijuana

Fundraising for Terrorism

Each of these titles can be more specific:

Fear and Paranoia in the Führerbunker: Tracing Adolf Hitler’s Final Days.

David Livingstone’s Impact on Christian Missionary Activity in Africa

The Financial Impact of Decriminalizing Marijuana

Fundraising for Terrorism: How the Columbian Drug Trade Benefits Rebel Groups.

Always ask yourself if your title sufficiently captures the ideas in your paper.

Formatting Titles

You should capitalize key words in your title. As a general guideline, we provide here the MLA rules for capitalization (also covered here).

According to the MLA rules, you do not need to capitalize the following parts of speech unless they are the first word in your title or come right after the colon:

  • Articles (aanthe)
  • Prepositions (e.g., withinofbeside)
  • Coordinating conjunctions (andbutfornororso, yet)
  • The to in infinitives (e.g., to loveto be)


The Creative Touch

In academic writing, the emphasis is on being informative. Since you’re writing for a general audience (and not just your instructor), try make your title as clear as possible.

In a less formal context, you can be more dramatic or enigmatic. Whatever you do, though, avoid corny and melodramatic titles such as the following:

Everlasting Love

To Be or Not to Be

Into the Mist

Of course, creative titles are often on the cusp of being lame, so it’s a matter of knowing your audience and acting accordingly.


If you’re feeling experimental, you could use a question as a title:

Why Can’t We Impeach the President?

Whatever Happened to the Novella?

Be careful though: using a question will make your tone more casual.

Using a Colon

Academic titles often employ a colon to connect ideas and phrases. The usual method is to insert a creative phrase or short quotation before the colon:

Suspiciously Delicious: A Brief History of Poison

“These Romans are Crazy”: The Representation of Julius Caesar in Asterix 

While such introductory phrases add flavour, they are easily overused. That’s why some people consider this use of the colon an abomination. Be careful, then, not to abuse this device.

Remove Metadiscourse

The term metadiscourse refers to language that describes the process of thinking and writing. Often you don’t need to draw attention to the act of doing research:

With metadiscourse: My Meditations on the Effects of Mediated Bargaining at Three Carefully Selected Australian Universities.

Without Metadiscourse: The Effects of Mediated Bargaining at Three Australian Universities

The exception is if you’re trying to be clever:

An Analysis of Dialysis: Recent Advances in the Treatment of Kidney Failure.

Of course, such titles can easily seem corny.


Crafting a good title is not easy. It’s often best to add the title at the very end, once you have a clear idea what you’ve actually been meaning to say. So as you put the final touches on your essay, spend some time crafting a great title. That way you will make a great first impression.

Essay Introductions


Students often think that an introduction to an essay is a bit like a billboard, flashing “Read me! Read me!” Like false advertising, such introductions begin with the most grandiose claims, promising something interesting for everyone.

The good news is that the introduction doesn’t have to do everything: it doesn’t have to include the most original “hook” or the most creative lead up. The main thing is to introduce your essay’s argument, and if you’re passionate about the point you’re making, your reader will be too.

What To Avoid

Let’s first review what not to do in your introduction!

A Tacky Hook

Many teachers suggest that an introduction should start with a creative hook. However, the results are often corny and melodramatic. Here are some examples of the most stereotypical hooks:

  • A dictionary definition (especially of common words)
  • A quotation from some famous person
  • A question (“Have you ever wondered …?”)
  • A startling fact or statistic

You’re not forbidden from using one of these hooks. In fact, we recommend the judicious use of an example or two. However, it’s best to write organically, so that your opening flows naturally from your topic.


A truism is an observation that is so obviously true that it usually doesn’t need stating. Here are some examples:

Few things are as destructive to a country as a civil war.

Women have long been excluded from positions of authority.

Many people struggle with depression.

Just because something is true doesn’t mean it needs to be mentioned. Try refine your point as quickly as possible.


A generalization may contain an element of truth, but does not take into account exceptions to the rule:

History always repeats itself.

The Vikings were courageous pagan explorers.

People who don’t actually like their job will inevitably reveal their dislike.

Check that you don’t start your essay with a needless generalization.

Wrong Tone

Unless you’re writing a book review, or you are writing for a popular audience, you do not need to praise (or condemn) your object of study. There is no need to say that Shakespeare was a genius or that Picasso was the greatest modernist artist.

Neither do you need to provide some moral lesson. Madame Bovary may demonstrate that adultery does not always lead to happiness, but that shouldn’t be the focus of your argument. Concentrate on analysis instead.


Avoid including too much material in your introduction. If your essay is relatively short (e.g., 3-5 pages), your introduction shouldn’t be much longer than half a page.

To prevent your introduction from looking like an overgrown garden, keep background information to a minimum, use quotations sparingly, and focus your attention on your own argument.

Remember that later paragraphs can still include some introductory material. For instance, an essay on the Black Lives Matter movement might follow up its introduction with some general body paragraphs on the history of race relations in the United States.

Focus on the big picture first and save many of the details for later.

What To Do

In general, we recommend that you construct your introduction around your thesis statement. Come up with your argument and then use the preceding sentences to lead up to it. In what follows we provide some strategies for writing effective introductions.

The Research Question

A good introduction seeks to answer a particular question. The thesis statement is the most direct answer to this question, and the rest of the introduction gives us enough context to make sense of that answer.

Let’s take as an example the following introduction to a comparative essay:

William Shakespeare’s sonnets 115 and 116 have long been seen as a pair. Both sonnets explore how the passage of time affects love. They also share a common vocabulary. Each poem describes how Time “alters” things, and each claims that whereas other poems “do lie” (115.1) and contain “error” (116.13), they will provide a truthful definition of love. Yet the answers they provide appear vastly different. Sonnet 115 claims that love grows and changes, whereas Sonnet 116 states that true love is constant and unwavering. The only way to reconcile these two perspectives is to realize that a constant and undying love may include an element of change, and that not all of Time’s effects are harmful.

This introduction begins by pointing out some similarities before noting that the sonnets seem to provide a radically different attitude towards love. The research question, then, is as follows:

If Shakespeare’s Sonnet 115 and 116 are meant to be companion poems, yet provide such different perspectives on the relationship between love and time, can we reconcile these perspectives?

As you can see, this is a complex question, and the better our question, the more interesting our answer.

When you write your introduction, try formulate your research question, even though you won’t be likely to include it. The research question can be the instructor’s question or your own. Either way, check that your introduction is focused entirely on answering this question.

Create Tension

If your research question is a good one, your introduction will have an element of tension. Since you’re trying to address a problem or solve a conundrum, there is something at stake.

The following introduction creates tension by asking how a novel can be both comical and terrifying at the same time:

G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday has a rather nonsensical plot. Gabriel Syme, a neurotic poet and detective, infiltrates an anarchist cell only to discover that his fellow conspirators are all policemen. This ludicrous plot leads to many comical situations, including the novel’s final sequence, where the character of Sunday escapes on an elephant, rides on a fire engine, and throws a strange party at his house. Yet these comic moments are also frightening, and the novel is appropriately subtitled “A Nightmare.” This odd mixture allows Chesterton to depict the absurdity of the universe, an absurdity that might lead atheists to despair but for Chesterton provides a glimpse of God’s unique sense of humour.

As you can see, the tension is resolved at the end: the odd mixture of comedy and nightmare is said to create an absurdity that for Chesterton points to God.

So ask yourself: does my introduction raise a problem? If it does, have I provided an adequate solution?

Final Advice

When writing your essay, the introduction is often best saved for last. You have to know what you’re arguing before you can tackle the introduction. That also means that in revising your essay you will constantly have to fine tune the beginning: as your essay takes shape, the thesis will likely change with it.

In addition, your introduction will become more specific over time. Notice that our two sample introductions start as close to the topic as possible. They don’t mention all the author’s works or give an elaborate biography. In fact, you may find that after you’ve written your introduction you can chop off the first few sentences. It often takes us a surprising amount of time to zoom in.

So use your introduction to raise an interesting question or problem and provide a solution that’s clever and intriguing.

Additional Resources

If you struggle with writer’s block, try fill out our Essay Introduction Questionnaire and use the accompanying diagrams to help structure your introduction.

Thesis statements


A thesis summarizes what your essay is all about. Think of it as a sign post that provides a sense of direction.

A thesis usually states an argument. Even when it’s mostly descriptive, the thesis makes a strong case why the information is relevant.

A good thesis answers the question why should I care? In fact, behind every thesis statement you will find an interesting research question:

Question: How did Qatar, a tiny country with scorching temperatures, win its bid to host the World Cup in 2022?

Thesis: Though Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup involved bribery and backroom deals, organizers such as Mohamed bin Hammam were simply exploiting the lobbying system put in place by FIFA.

Why is this a good thesis? Because it makes a provocative argument: it questions our assumptions and presents a unique case.

Where do I place the thesis?

The thesis normally comes at the end of your first paragraph.

However, in a longer piece of writing—such as an undergraduate thesis, a lengthy article, or a book—it may take you multiple paragraphs to get to your thesis.

Either way, your introduction should gradually lead up to your thesis.

What makes for a good thesis?

To answer, this question, let’s look at some examples.

Let’s say you’re analyzing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55.  Here are some arguments you might make.  Note that your thesis can be more than just one sentence.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 offers the beloved great fame, yet ironically fails to give any description of the beloved.  The result of this discrepancy is that only the poet, who has the ability to bestow poetic immortality, becomes famous.

Sonnet 55 reveals a tension between a humanist sense of time, which focuses on the here and now, and a Christian sense of time, which places greater importance on life after the “ending doom.”

Shakespeare constructs Sonnet 55 like a rational argument with distinct steps, rather than as an emotional plea.

By contrast, here are some bad thesis statements:

Sonnet 55 describes Shakespeare’s passionate love which will last forever.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 was written in the Renaissance period and is still read today.

Shakespeare’s sonnet 55 contains a hidden code that reveals that he slept with a prostitute.

These theses are too broad, state the obvious, or consist of speculation. Your thesis needs to be specific and provable.

A Good Thesis is a Work in Progress

Writing is a process, which means you won’t know the exact shape your thesis will take until you do your research, discover what you want to say, and write your body paragraphs. In that sense, drafting an essay is not like building a house, where it helps to have a blueprint or model of the finished structure. You should always be ready to adapt your thesis as your argument comes into focus.

It’s not a bad idea, then, to start by just jotting down a topic or a few key words. All you need for now is a placeholder. As time goes by, and you gain a clearer idea of how things fits together, you can tweak your argument, just like you might adjust a microscope to achieve the right magnification.

In other words, good writing is inductive. It’s about openness and discovery. That’s why the worst thing you can do is to stick to a preformulated argument at all costs, even to the point of ignoring or twisting the evidence. Let the thesis come to you naturally, when you’ve figured out what you truly want to say.

More tips

Be concise

Avoid cramming too much information or detail in your thesis.  There is plenty of time to develop your argument later.

Use your own words

Don’t use someone else’s words as your thesis: save quotations for the rest of your essay.

Formulate the research question

As mentioned, see if you can turn your thesis statement into a question.  If it sounds like an interesting question, then you’re on the right track. Here’s the question that lead to one of our previous examples:

Question: Is sonnet 55 written from the heart or from the mind?

Thesis: Shakespeare constructs Sonnet 55 like a rational argument with distinct steps, rather than as an emotional plea.

In other words, the answer is that the sonnet is more logical than passionate.

Note that often you can refine your thesis further. In this case you might ask, why is this sonnet so logical? Answering this question might lead to an even more specific thesis.

If you are a very confident writer, or you want to try a more casual approach, you can replace your thesis with the research question and save your conclusion for the end of the essay. Alternatively, you can include both the question and the answer in your introduction.

Slay the three-headed monster

Not every essay has to have three points, nor do you need to list each point in your thesis. If you do decide to include subpoints, don’t forget to relate them to your overarching argument.

Minimize meta-discourse

A lot of thesis statements are filled with cumbersome phrases like This essay will argue or I will demonstrate. This kind of language is called meta-discourse, and it’s concerned with the process of writing and researching.

Try to minimize meta-discourse as much as possible:

As a close reading of the text demonstrates, and as I will argue in this paper, Winnie-the-Pooh’s love of honey can be diagnosed as an eating disorder.

Better: A psychological diagnosis of Winnie-the-Pooh reveals that he suffers from an eating disorder.

Of course, not all meta-discourse is bad. Sometimes it is important to let your own voice be heard (I believe that…).

Avoid empty words

Don’t dress up your thesis with emphatic words like important, fascinating, or interesting. Let the argument speak for itself.

Spot circular statements

Circular statements are often the result of using synonyms:

The importance of NASA lies in the critical effect it has on our understanding of space exploration.

Synonyms: importancecritical

All this sentence argues is that the subject matter is critically important. No reason is given as to why this is the case.



A paragraph is more than a bunch of loosely related observations or facts. A good paragraph explores just a single argument.

The argument is usually expressed right at the beginning. This opening statement is called the topic sentence.

You can also zoom out a little at the end of the paragraph and provide a brief conclusion.


As a guideline, the typical paragraph is between 3 and 12 sentences long. If you go over a page double-spaced then you may want to split up your paragraph.

Of course, there is no law about paragraph length. The main criterion is that your paragraph should express just one idea.

If you find it difficult to capture your point effectively, that may be a sign that you need to break it up into smaller sections. Just because your essay makes two or three general points doesn’t mean that you are limited to that many body paragraphs!


A paragraph is coherent if all the sentences are smoothly and logically connected and together express a single point of view.

A quick way to check if your paragraph is coherent is to highlight or underline some key words and phrases:

The moon greatly influences our life on earth. For instance, its gravitational pull helps to create the ebb and flow of the tide. But how did the moon itself come into being? There are various hypotheses for how our moon was formed. The most common theory is that at one point a planet the size of Mars collided with the earth and broke into many pieces. Remnants of this planet (sometimes called Theia) came together to form the moon. The proto-planet that hit the earth would have had to be moving quite slowly, or else its impact would have exceeded the binding energy of the earth. So far twelve people have actually walked on the moon.

We can already see that the paragraph deals with quite a few topics (the moon’s influence, the tide, the formation of the moon, the number of people on the moon).

We can also see that our topic sentence (the first sentence) is not nearly broad enough to cover all the points that are being made. For instance, the fact that twelve people have walked on the moon does not prove that the moon “greatly influences our life on earth.”

The next step, then, is to make a quick outline of the various points made in the paragraph:

1. The moon influences life on earth.

example: the tides.

2. There are different theories about how the moon was formed.

example: a planet collided with the earth

3. Twelve people have walked on the earth.

As it turns out, we have three separate points!

Let’s say we decide that the second point is the most interesting. We can then delete the other material, and now we have a decent draft for a paragraph:

There are various hypotheses for how our moon was formed. The most common theory is that at one point a planet the size of Mars collided with the earth and broke into many pieces. Remnants of this planet (sometimes called Theia) came together to form the moon. The proto-planet that hit the earth would have had to be moving quite slowly, or else its impact would have exceeded the binding energy of the earth.

Now we’re also in a position to zoom in a bit more, to give a more precise explanation, and to insert some relevant quotations.

Integrating quotations

One of the hardest things to learn is how to incorporate quotations in your paragraph.

Our first suggestion is not to use a quotation in your topic sentence. This is where you get to give your opinion. So why quote someone else?

When you do use quotations, the key is to know how much to say about them. When you introduce a quote, be sure to give enough context so your reader can immediately make sense of it. If you think it’s obvious how the quotation connects with your argument you may not have to explain its relevance.

The following paragraph uses a number of shorter quotations and paraphrases. Note how the quotations function as evidence for the claim made in the topic sentence:

Odyssey Paragraph

Note also that the final sentence does not merely repeat the point made in the topic sentence. The key is to bring the paragraph to a close without being formulaic.

Internal Transitions

A good paragraph is like a river: it flows in a certain direction. To create that sense of flow we need to use transitional words and expressions.

In the paragraph above, the writer creates a sudden shift in perspective with a few well-chosen words:

On the surface, Helen seems repentant. . . . However, even though she is once more married to Menelaus, we sense a great deal of tension in their relationship.

Here is just a small sampling of similar connecting words:

By contrast
On the other hand

If you visit the page on conjunctive adverbs, you will find plenty of other examples.

Yet, if you constantly use the same words, your writing will feel clunky and wooden. That’s why experienced writers try to make their transitions as unobtrusive as possible. Here is an example where a little rewriting makes the prose more stylish:

Karl Marx believed that capitalism produces alienation for workers. First of all, the worker sells his or her labour to the employer. As a result, the worker receives merely a wage and does not own the final product. In addition, because of the division of labour the worker loses sight of the complete process of production. The worker thus becomes narrowly focused on a small number of mind-numbing tasks. This finally causes the worker to be alienated from his or her creative potential and from the life-giving forces of nature. Therefore, the worker is turned into an animal.

Karl Marx believed that capitalism produces alienation for workers. This happens as soon as the worker sells his or her labour to the employer. The worker receives merely a wage and does not own the final product. Because of the division of labour, the worker also loses sight of the complete process of production. Work then becomes a small number of mind-numbing tasks. Such conditions alienate the worker from his or her creative potential and from the life-giving forces of nature. In the end, the worker is turned into an animal.

The point is not to get rid of every transition; rather, we want the ideas to flow naturally, without a constant series of signposts pointing out where we’re heading.


Students often have a hard time splitting up paragraphs. This is especially the case when multiple examples are used to demonstrate a particular point. If the examples are brief and similar in nature you will likely want to keep them in the same paragraph. On the other hand, if the examples demonstrate slightly different aspects of the same argument, or are simply longer in length, you may want to use separate paragraphs. Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to press Enter when you feel that paragraph break would help to organize the material.

In fact, the more you write, the more you will want to experiment with paragraph structure. In academic writing, paragraphs are more tightly structured than elsewhere. If you’re a travel writer, you might start a paragraph in Tokyo and end up in Yokohama. If you’re writing your memoir, you might tell an anecdote without having a clear argument or topic sentence. Similarly, many history books, in following the timeline of events, will occasionally digress from their main thesis. In such cases, paragraph breaks indicate less a ninety degree turn than a slight bend in the road or a change in scenery.

Paragraph Transitions


So far we have mostly looked at paragraphs in isolation. In an essay, however, we need to link our ideas together. This page provides a few tips to help you craft strong paragraph transitions.

The Weakest Link

Let’s first review what not to do.

1. Don’t introduce your next point too early. Don’t end a paragraph by announcing what you will talk about next:

… In the next paragraph, we will see how the teaching of phonics can help young children diagnosed with ADHD.

(¶) Some researchers have argued that if all students were taught phonics we would have fewer cases of ADHD.

2. Avoid cumbersome expressions:

Expanding on the aforementioned point …

With regard to the argument that …

Despite what I have described in the previous paragraph …

If you would never say these things in an ordinary conversation, think twice about writing them down.

3. Be careful when you use words such as another, also, further, or moreover. These words merely state, here is an additional point about the same subject. They say very little about how the two paragraphs are actually connected:

… Electric armor on a tank would thus vaporize an incoming rocket-propelled grenade.

(¶) Another interesting technology that is being developed is the wireless charging of electronic devices.

In this example, both paragraphs are about new technology, but that’s about the only connection.

4. Watch out you don’t let other people’s ideas take over your topic sentence. While it’s okay to start or end a paragraph with a quotation, it’s also risky:

… In Greece, marriage between first cousins is generally frowned upon.

(¶) By contrast, Sue Blundell points out that “[i]n Classical Athens, close-kin marriages were relatively common” (120).

(Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. British Museum P, 1999.)

If you do decide to use a quotation to make a transition, be careful that the reader doesn’t lose the thread of your argument.

Strong Transitions   

The key to a strong segue is the impression that each paragraph builds upon the last. Whether it provides a counterargument or strengthens and deepens a previous point, it is important that we feel a sense of development.

Take the following transition:

… Given that Fantastic Mr. Fox explores the differences between urban and natural living, it is not surprising that the film opens with “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” an homage to the “land of the free.”

(¶) The film subsequently uses the Beach Boys classic “Heroes and Villains,” which provides a more nonsensical perspective on the subject of the wild frontier.

Both paragraphs are clearly trying to determine what the songs in the film share in common.

Sometimes the transition is more abrupt. Here is an example of a literary analysis that picks up on the conclusion of the first paragraph to make a new point:

… The Man Who Was Thursday is subtitled “A Nightmare” precisely because the universe can easily seem absurd.

(¶) Surprisingly, for Chesterton it is this absurdity that paradoxically proves the existence of God.

No matter whether your transitions are subtle or sudden, you want your paragraphs to act like building blocks: the more you pile on top of each other, the further you can see.

Implicit Connections

As always, we prefer a natural, flowing style, and so we suggest that you keep formulaic transitional expressions such as however or nevertheless to a minimum.

Often the connection between paragraphs can be left implicit. Take the following example:

… My grandmother’s total fortune came to $900,000.

(¶) However, when she passed away in 2015, I received only an old photo album.

To make the transition more natural we could pick a different word (unfortunately, sadly, yet). We could also remove the transitional expression (however) altogether, as the reader will immediately see the connection.

Such minimalist transitions are especially common in two places: right after the introduction and before the conclusion.

When you conclude an essay you can a leap from the last detailed point to the overall argument. While you might use a transitional phrase such as “therefore” or “what we have seen then,” you can rely on your reader to notice that you’re starting your conclusion. The blank space after the conclusion makes that abundantly clear.

Similarly, after the more general thesis statement, the first body paragraph has to start somewhere specific, and so the linkage can be more casual:

… In Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock the playing of Ombre conveys the poem’s theme of sexual conquest.

(¶) Ombre is a trick-taking game, played by three people at a time.

The entire essay is about the significance of Ombre, and so the first paragraph begins by explaining the basic rules of the game. A less confident writer might have used the following topic sentence:

In order to see the symbolic significance of Ombre in the poem as a whole, the first thing we need to understand is the rules of Ombre.

Such a sentence is unwieldy and redundant. Just cut to the chase.


Each paragraph needs to link up not only with the previous paragraph, but also with the thesis of the essay. It can be helpful to repeat a key word from the thesis or simply remind the reader directly how far the argument has advanced. While you want to minimize expressions such as “what we have seen thus far,” you may sometimes want to summarize some previous paragraphs before moving on.

In the end all the advice on this page comes down to this: great transitions are invisible. The real aim is to let the reader focus on the flow of ideas. And, of course, no amount of rewriting will help a weak argument.

Integrating Quotations | Part 2 (MLA)


Once you are familiar with how to introduce a quotation using a signal phrase, you are ready to learn the more advanced rules on this page. You don’t have to memorize every rule, but try get a general sense of things and then consult specific sections when you have questions.

Additional Rules

Block Quotations

If your quotation is rather long, you have to set it off differently.

In MLA format, the rule is that when a quotation is longer than three lines of text (i.e., four or more lines) you should turn it into a block quotation.

To check the length of a quotation, just start typing it out in your own text and if it exceeds three lines then you know it should be a block quotation. In the case of poetry, you count the number of poetic lines in the original text, even if there are only a few words per line.

Here is an example of a block quotation:

I have always found Ellen Grammar to be extremely repetitive, as she shows in this passage from Why I Love Quotations:

Let me repeat myself for clarity. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. Got it yet? (315)

In a block quotation, almost all the regular rules for quoting are inverted or changed. There are no quotation marks, the entire quotation is indented one tab space, and the final punctuation comes before the citation, and not after.

Most block quotations are introduced by a formal introduction. The reason is that if you are quoting a significant amount of text you need to give it a fairly detailed introduction. Otherwise, the reader may have a hard time making sense of the quotation.

In particular, you should typically avoid continuing your sentence after the quotation, even though you will often see this in older academic texts.

Finally, after the block quotation there is no need to indent your next sentence. Usually you will want to continue with your paragraph and explain the significance of the quotation.

Quoting Poetry

Here are the essential rules for quoting poetry.

If you are quoting 2 or 3 lines of poetry, use slashes to indicate line breaks:

In “Aristo-cat,” Emily Thompson confesses her mixed emotions about her pet: “I love my cat / Though he’s a brat” (1-2).

Make sure you put a space on either side of the slash. If your quotation skips a stanza break, use a double slash (//).

As with a regular quotation, delete the final punctuation (unless it is an exclamation mark or question mark).

If you are quoting 4 or more lines of poetry, use a block quotation. Do not use slashes, but copy each line (including its punctuation) on a separate line just as it appears in your source:

One wonders whether Ella Pencil’s poem “Spaced Out” parodies itself:

This is yet another poem that
relies on unu-
spacing to make
an impression. (1-5)

As with any block quotation, we have a signal phrase (usually a formal introduction), the lines are indented a tab space, and the final punctuation is deleted unless it is an exclamation mark or question mark.

Note that all the original spacing is retained in a block quotation. This also applies if the quotation starts in the middle of a line.

Finally, it may happen that a line of verse is so long that it cannot fit on one line of text. In that case, indent the second line a bit more (hanging indentation).

Quoting Drama

With the exception of brief snippets, quotations of dialogue from plays or screenplays are treated as block quotations. Names of the speakers are in capitals:

In David Baird’s play Broken Glass, the leaders of the main political parties are divided about how to stem the tide of illegal immigrants from the Vatican:

PRIME MINISTER GATTUSO: We cannot allow any more of these robed people into our country.
ANDREA PEERLESS: I can’t accept such a heartless …
PRIME MINISTER GATTUSO: heartless? It’s simply a matter of restoring order. We cannot have these people parading through the streets in their strange costumes. (3.4.15-19)

In print format, apply hanging indentation to each speaker’s lines.

Citations of plays are usually by act, scene, and line number. In the case of plays in prose, you may cite by page number instead.

Quotes within Quotes

A quote within a quote is placed between single quotation marks:

My friend Natasha told me about a conversation she had with Nibaa after their American lit class: “The other day, Nibaa said, ‘I don’t understand why Moby-Dick is a classic. Much of it reads like a manual on how to run a ship.'”

In the unusual event that you are dealing with a quote within a quote within a quote, you would revert back to double quotation marks.

If you are not quoting anything more than the entire quote within a quote, then just use double quotation marks:

Natasha told me what her friend Nibaa had to say about Moby-Dick: “I don’t understand why Moby-Dick is a classic. Much of it reads like a manual on how to run a ship.”


If you are quoting a language other than English, you may want to provide a translation.

There are a number of ways to format the translation. We would recommend placing it in parentheses:

In one draft, Tolkien had Gandalf tell the Balrog, “Achtung, Baby” (“Pay attention, baby!”; 223; Johnson 34).

However, you can also place it prior to the parentheses, in single quotation marks:

In one draft, Tolkien had Gandalf tell the Balrog, “Achtung, Baby” ‘Pay attention, baby!’ (223; Johnson 34).

Cite the source and the translation in the same order as you quoted them.

If the translation is your own, use the abbreviation “my trans.” instead:

In the original Pig Latin manuscript, Sarah’s question about hopscotch alludes to the “ants” that are frequently in the “way”: “howay antsway otay laypay opscotchay?” (“who wants to play hopscotch?” (2.3.1; my trans.).

If you are consistently using translations, you can save time by noting your source in a footnote or endnote.

You can also provide a translation as part of a block quotation:

We thought it would be great to translate a stanza from the Haka into Klingon. Here is how one online translator renders the following passage:

This is the hairy man,
Who fetched the sun and caused it to shine again.
One step upward, another step upward!
A step upward, another… the Sun shines!

hairy loD ghotvam’e’.
pemHov fetched je ‘oH jatlhqa’ boch luH.
latlh mIw upward mIw upward, wa’!
latlh mIw upward, a … jul boch! (“Ka Mate”; Tradukka)

I am no Klingon, but this does not seem quite accurate to me.

Notice that when you cite internet sources you may not be able to give page numbers and may need to give a short title of the title instead.

In our examples, we have given the original text first, but you can change the order. If you think the reader would have a hard time understanding the original language, you might place the translation first. Make sure you also change the order in the citation! For example, (49; my trans.) would become (my trans.; 49).

On the other hand, if you can expect the reader to have some expertise in the language (as is the case in many academic disciplines), or if you want to point out something about the original, then first provide the original.

Adding Emphasis

It may happen that you want to emphasize something in a quotation. To indicate that you have made the change, use a tag such as “emphasis added”:

Churchill apparently joked, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put” (emphasis added).

If you are citing a source as well, place the tag after a semi-colon:

Everyone was surprised when Mary told Tony, “Bob’s your aunt!” (Leicester 28; my emphasis).

Most of the time, though, you don’t need to add any emphasis. Assume that your reader is smart enough to figure out why the quotation is significant.


Sometimes you may want to skip part of the quotation.

To indicate the omission of words, phrases, or entire lines, you must use an ellipsis (plural ellipses), which is just a fancy word for three spaced periods. Here is an example:

As Edward Diptych points out, “Art forgers sometimes include blemishes and imperfections . . . in an effort to outwit the connoisseur” (88).

And here is an example for poetry:

William Blake argues in “Holy Thursday” (1794) that “where-e’er the sun does shine . . . Babe can never hunger there” (13, 15).

Notice that in this case the ellipsis takes the place of a line break (/); in other words, you don’t necessarily need to use both.

If you indent a longer quotation of poetry and you skip one or more lines, use a line of dots roughly the same length as the average line:

In the “The Lady of Shalott,” Tennyson appears to allude to the shadows in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:

And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott. (46-48, 71-72)

Be careful that when you use an ellipsis the grammar and meaning of the quoted passage still make sense.

Also, you do not have to add ellipsis marks at the beginning or end of a quotation. We know that the quoted text has been cut out of a larger passage. The exception is if you have left out some words at the end of a sentence or line quoted. In such cases you can add an ellipsis at the end.

If you end one sentence before the ellipsis, and start a new one afterwards, then you will end up with four spaced periods (one regular period and three for the ellipsis). Here is an example:

Viktor Bardstrom speculates that Viking explorers got as far as Minnesota: “Anyone who has watched football knows about the Minnesota Vikings. . . . In fact, historical records show that the braid in the Vikings logo goes back all the way to the thirteenth century” (20).

Finally, if the passage you are quoting already had an ellipsis, you have two options. You can either put square brackets around the ellipses you have added, or you can add a note in your citation—something like this:

(54; 1st ellipsis in original)

Square Brackets

You can edit quotations by inserting your own words in square brackets. Here are some areas in which this is useful:

1. When you want to clarify something in the quotation:

William Blake argues in the poem “Holy Thursday” (1794) that “where-e’er [wherever] the sun does shine . . . Babe can never hunger there [in England]” (13, 15).

2. When you want to capitalize a word or vice versa:

William Blake writes in “Holy Thursday” (1794), “[W]here-e’er the sun does shine . . . Babe can never hunger there” (13, 15).

3. When you need to add some words to make the grammar work. You can substitute these words for existing words in the quotation.

William Blake writes about children in “Holy Thursday” (1794) that “where-e’er the sun does shine . . . [they] can never hunger there” (13, 15).

This is useful for changing the pronouns to match your signal phrase. However, avoid excessive reliance on brackets.

4. Lastly, if there is a mistake in the quotation (let’s say a spelling error), you can insert “sic” behind it to indicate that the mistake is not yours.

Lee Slovenly writes that “Harry Plotter [sic] has a predictable narrative structure” (899).

You can often avoid coming across as pedantic by rewriting slightly:

Lee Slovenly writes that Harry Potter “has a predictable narrative structure” (899).

In other words, try to minimize the use of square brackets.

Page and Line Numbers

For your first citation in an essay, it is generally a good idea to indicate whether it is a page number of line number (e.g., page 315). After that, you can just supply the number and leave out the word “page” or “line(s).”

However, if you are switching back and forth between different formats (pages, paragraphs, lines, etc.), you may want to provide further clarification in the course of your writing.


A paraphrase is when you sum up a passage in your own words and provide an appropriate citation. Quotations take up a lot of space, so paraphrases can be a useful way of incorporating the ideas of others.

Here is an example:

Original text: In Edmonton’s early days there were coal mines all along the river, even in the downtown core. Eventually mining operations moved out of the centre of town (especially east to Beverly), until the switch to natural gas in the late 1920s brought an end to coal mining in the area. These days, developers are advised to consult old mining maps, though many tunnels were not properly reported and may since have collapsed. (Highland 77).

Paraphrase 1: Edmonton’s early history was fueled by coal, and even today developers may come across collapsed mining shafts (Highland 77).

Paraphrase 2: After Edmonton started to use natural gas for fuel, the local coal industry collapsed, and so did many of the tunnels over time (Highland 77).

Be careful that you don’t use entire phrases from the original text. This is how not to do it:

Incorrect paraphrase: Edmonton’s urban landscape hides the fact that there were coal mines all along the river (Highland 77).

The second half of this paraphrase is lifted word for word from the original text. Despite the citation, this is a form of plagiarism.

Final Advice

It is important to remember why you are using quotations in the first place. An essay is not just a patchwork of quotations. Think of yourself more as a curator at a museum. You get to put on a show. You organize the spaces and write the captions. In the same way, you need to help the reader make sense of the ideas of others.

So don’t let the quotations swamp your own analysis. Introduce every quotation carefully and be sure to explain, interpret, and apply quotations before you move on with your argument.

For more information about quoting, see also our section on in-text citation (part of the MLA guidelines for writers).

Essay Conclusions


Conclusions are hard to write, because you need to do more than just repeat yourself. Unfortunately, many essays end somewhat like this:

In conclusion, we can now see that the thesis is correct. The essay made three points, and let me repeat them again. Point one showed us this. Point two showed us that. Point three was unrelated, but was quite interesting too. And that’s why the thesis, as mentioned, has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. The end.

Let’s see how we can improve on this kind of formulaic conclusion.

What to avoid

Here are some things to avoid in a conclusion.

1. Don’t employ generalizations, for instance about gender, historical time periods, cultural movements, etc.

2. Don’t provide a repetitive summary of everything you’ve said. This is especially true for short essays, where the reader will remember your argument.

3. Don’t resort to phrases like “In conclusion,” “In summary,” etc. We can see that the end is in sight.

4. Don’t introduce your ideas with wordy phrases like “In short, what we have seen is that . . .”

5. Don’t use some inspirational quotation from a Gandhi or a Gibran when you’ve found it online only a minute ago.

6. Don’t apologize for any shortcomings the essay may have.

7. Don’t suddenly become sentimental, personal, or moralizing.

8. Don’t use a lot of the same phrases you have used previously in the essay.

What works

There is no one way to write a conclusion, but here are some tips and suggestions:

1. Zoom out and return to the research question you started with. Make a case why your essay has demonstrated your thesis. Don’t just assume that people will by now simply accept your argument. Use fresh language to point out how smart your thesis really is.

2. If you discover that over the course of your essay your argument has changed, go back to the introduction and rewrite it.

3. Use one more quotation from the text (or a related text) that nicely captures the thesis you’ve argued. Just be careful your own voice is not drowned out by others.

4. Come back to one key term that you’ve been trying to define (e.g., paradox, euthanasia) and suggest how the essay has changed our perspective.

5. Work out some of the implications of the argument. Where could this discussion go from here?  A conclusion does not have to be the final word; any closure it provides is temporary.

6. Place your discussion in a larger context (social, historical, scientific) without using generalizations.

7. Think about the length and complexity of your sentences. A short sentence at the end of your essay suggests that you are succinct and are able to sum up complicated ideas with ease.  A longer sentence with a more complex syntax suggests mastery of a concept or argument, and implies that your argument is balanced and nuanced.

Keyboard Shortcuts


If you want to write efficiently, it helps to know some keyboard shortcuts. You might not use all of the ones on this page (not many people do), but even if you adopt just a few you will be able to zip around in your document and impress people with your editing skills.

Please note that our focus is on the PC version of Microsoft Word. However, we have added a few notes about Google Docs as well.

Windows Shortcuts

Let’s start with some general commands to open, save, and print documents, as well as get around in Windows.

New Document

Here’s a quick way to open a new document:


If you don’t want to lose your work, it’s good to save regularly:

Just watch out you don’t use this shortcut obsessively!


Get to the Print menu quickly:


Need to get to your desktop quickly? Try this shortcut:

Another thing that many people don’t know is that if you click in the bottom right of your screen (beside the date and time), you can also get to your desktop.

Adjusting Windows

Let’s say you want to have two windows open, or you want to change the size of your window. Try press the Windows key and then use the arrow keys to resize the window.

Have some fun trying out all the different configurations.

Toggle Windows

Another cool feature is the ability to move quickly between open windows. Hold down the Alt key and press once on Tab to see all the open windows. You can select one with your mouse if you like.

Once you let go of the Tab key you will go to the previous window. Press repeatedly to move back and forth between open windows.



Let’s talk about how you can get around in your document. Obviously you can use the arrow keys for that purpose:

If you hold down “Control” while you use the arrow keys, you will be able to move either a word at a time (if you’re moving horizontally) or you can move to the beginning of each paragraph (if you’re moving vertically):

End and Home

Want to move to the beginning or end of a line? Press the Home or End key:

If you add “control” you can even jump to the beginning or end of your document:


If you need to find something in your document, use this shortcut to open the Search box:

Selecting Text

Let’s review the various ways in which you can select text (and images) in your document.

It’s surprising how few people know that they can select all the text in their document all at once:

This command is especially useful for making sure you have consistent formatting throughout your work.

If you want to select smaller amounts of text, and don’t want to drag with your mouse, you can hold down Shift while you add lines or letters with the arrow keys:

If you want to select all the text from your cursor to the beginning or end of the line, try one of these two commands:

Next, if you want to be even more effective, try holding down the Control button and using the left mouse button to select multiple bits of texts from anywhere on your screen:

Note that just clicking the mouse button once will highlight an entire sentence, but nothing more. So be sure to click and drag at the same time.

Want to select entire words at a time (or lines if moving vertically)? Try this shortcut:

Note that if you use control, shift, and the up and down arrows in Google Docs, you will be able to highlight entire paragraphs.

And finally, here’s a really neat shortcut. If you want to select all the text in your document either before or after your cursor, try these shortcuts:

This is especially useful for longer documents!

Editing Text

Want to manipulate the text you’ve selected? Here are some great shortcuts.


Change your font to bold font:


Italicize the selected text:


Add some underlining:

Align Text

Here are the commands you can use to Left Align, Center, Right Align, or Justify text:

Incidentally, while you have your text highlighted, you can also change the spacing by holding down Control and pressing 1 (for single spacing), 2 (for double spacing), or 5 (for 1.5 spacing).

Note that in Google Docs the shortcuts for aligning text are slightly different. They are Ctrl + Shift + L, E, R, J.

Add a Hyperlink

To insert a hyperlink quickly, use this command:

Of course you may first want to select the text to which you intend to apply the hyperlink.

Capitalizing Text

If you press Shift and F3, you can change the selected text to one of three options: all caps, lowercase, or title case. Press this shortcut repeatedly to toggle between your options.

Experiment with this one to see just how versatile this option is. Note that you may have to also press the Function key (Fn) on your keyboard to enable the use of F3.

Note that this shortcut will not work in Google Docs.

Superscript and Subscript

Want to change a letter to superscript or subscript? Just select it and then use one of these commands.

If you wish to use these shortcuts in Google Docs, you’ll have to use Control + period (.) and Control + comma (,).

Deleting Text

Editing often involves deleting or moving chunks of text (or images). Here are some ways to do so effectively.

Delete and Backspace

You can use the Delete and Backspace buttons to remove material before or after the cursor.

If you want to delete entire words at a time, just hold down the Control button:

Undo and Redo

One of most essential commands for a writer is the Undo shortcut. This is especially useful if you’ve deleted just a bit too much material and you want to bring it back:

Of course you can also go in the opposite direction and redo a change to your document:

Cutting and Pasting

Here are some great shortcuts for copying and pasting information.


If you use the “cut” shortcut, then you not only add the information to your clipboard, but you also remove it from the original (where possible):


If you want to copy information, but not remove it from its original location, then use the “copy” command:


After you have cut or copied information, you can use the “paste” command to insert it wherever your cursor is located:

Note that as soon as you paste text a little box appears that allows you to adjust the formatting. The default option is to retain the original formatting, but if you want to remove it or merge it, you can select one of those options.


So far we have mostly talked about commands in isolation of each other. However, once you master a few shortcuts, you will often find yourself using a number of them in quick succession.

Here’s just one example. Let’s say that you’ve copied and pasted a narrow column of text and the lines don’t extend all the way to the right margin. In this case you will want to move your cursor to the end of the line, press “delete,” add a space if necessary, move down to the next line, and repeat the process:

This is just one example of the ways in which keyboard shortcuts can make editing your work much easier.

BONUS: Ten Ways To Annoy Your English Prof


As an English prof, I have marked thousands of essays. Here are ten words or phrases that students tend to misuse.


Even academics abuse this one. You can simply say “use” and be done with it.


Ditto for this one. Most of the time “social” will do the trick.


This one occurs frequently in thesis statements. Saying that something is “interesting” often implies that you haven’t made up an actual argument, but are hoping that your attitude to the subject matter counts for something. It doesn’t.


This is not even a word, but a surprising number of students seem to feel that “exaggerate” doesn’t quite do the job. We need something stronger, which is rather ironic given the circumstances.


You wouldn’t believe how often students write that the characters in a book are interesting because they are relatable. As long as we can spot that fictional people are in some sense human, our work is done. (Unless of course the characters are overexaggerated).


Some people like to go trainspotting; others go hunting for themes. These days anything in a text is a theme. Look, I’ve found a theme: it’s man vs. nature, or friendship, or love! There’s no need to make an argument about the theme. Spotting it is enough.


Some students are eager to show that they’ve actually read the book. That’s why they provide constant references to the reading process (“in my reading,” “to the reader,” “for the audience”). Don’t worry, if you’re writing about the text, we will assume that you have done some reading, even if it’s only SparkNotes.


If you think you’ve really made your point, you add the word “essentially” for emphasis. Hamlet is essentially suicidal. Oscar Wilde is essentially gay. Plato’s shadows are essentially unreal.


As soon as I see the phrase “the dictionary definition,” I know I’m about to read a definition of a perfectly ordinary word. This invariably happens in the first sentence of the essay.

In conclusion

If you place this at the start of your last paragraph you’re not doing anyone a service. We can see that this is your last paragraph—there is no need to point out the obvious.

Bonus word: capture.

Some people seem to think that “captivate” and “captive” mean the same thing. By this logic even the best book will put you in chains, forced to read a story that you literally can’t put down.

Dishonorable mentions

It’s hard to stop, so here are some (dis)honorable mentions:


off of


In conclusion, that is essentially my list of ten interesting words that you should not utilize without thinking about whether they will capture the reader. So next time you analyze some themes, make sure you pick words from the dictionary (unlike overexaggerated) that are relatable and of societal use.