Eftir fyrsta árið af kennslu við Edinborgarháskóla var ég upp til hópa miður mín yfir ritgerðunum sem ég fékk á borðið til mín. Í kjölfarið setti ég saman skjalið Bjorn's Essay-Writing Guidelines fyrir nemendur mína.
Ég hef undanfarið fengið hrós fyrir þetta skjal úr mörgum áttum, og ákvað fyrir vikið að birta innihald þess hér. Öllum er frjálst að afrita, þýða yfir á íslensku og/eða nota þennan texta eins og þeim sýnist.
December 11th 2011
Three years ago, during my first semester as a history teacher at the University Edinburgh, I was appalled by the quality of the texts I received from my students. I subsequently put together the following set of essay-writing guidelines to help them deliver high-quality work. I have since received positive feedback on this text, so I decided to make it freely available to everyone by relinquishing copyright.
The following text was composed by Sveinbjorn Thordarson in December, 2010. It is hereby released into the public domain and may be freely redistributed, modified, translated and/or copied by anyone, without any restrictions whatsoever.
- Use the Times New Roman font, size 12.
- Number the pages of your written work.
- Use wide margins to make space for grader’s comments.
- Use a cover page with the essay title, your name and your student ID number.
- Staple your essay together in the top-left corner.
- Print on one side of the paper, not duplex.
- Use double-spacing between lines.
- Use correct styling. For example, when mentioning a book, italicise and capitalise its name (e.g. Malleus maleficarum). Likewise, foreign phrases and words (e.g. ancien régime) should be italicised. It is good practice to provide a footnote translation of any long non-English sentences you cite.
- Use spelling and grammar checking in your word-processing software to eliminate any superficial errors. There is NO good excuse for spelling errors these days. You have sophisticated software at your disposal which can eliminate such errors altogether. Use it. Grammatical errors can be eliminated by carefully editing your final draft.
- Write formal prose. Do not use informal or colloquial abbreviations such as "didn't" or "they're".
- Cite your sources scrupulously, cite them in full, and cite them in footnotes, not endnotes.
- Provide a bibliography at the end of your essay, ideally on a separate page. Only list what you actually consulted. Do not list sources you did not consult in order to seem better-read than you are. That is academically dishonest and easily spotted.
- Do not plagiarise. Do not appropriate the ideas or texts of other people and present them as your own. Do not include text verbatim from other works in your essay unless you place it within quotation marks and cite the source in full. Plagiarism is the ultimate, unforgivable academic crime.
- Do not overquote your sources. You should be handing in your work, not an amalgamation of quotes from other works.
- Do not use translation software. If you translate quotations from other languages, do it properly, e.g. by finding a published translation of the work in question. Even if English is not your first language, do not use unreliable online translation tools when writing your essay. It is easy to detect and completely unacceptable.
- Use paragraphs intelligently. Do not make them too large, which makes you seem rambling. Do not make them too short either, or your essay will seem unfocused and unstructured. Tread the fine medium path. Make sure you break paragraphs at key points in the essay. Ideally, each paragraph should establish some structural point.
- Give yourself time. Writing a good essay takes time. Start work on the essay in a timely manner. Rushed work is generally poor work. Sloppiness is easily discernible in a text. If you take the time to meticulously craft, revise and edit your text, it will show through in superior quality.
- Consult a wide range of sources. Using only a single source may result in a biased or incomplete understanding of the subject matter. Essays relying too much on a single source will be penalised.
- Do not directly cite works you encountered second-hand. Do not directly cite works if you have only encountered them via citation in another work you have consulted. For second-hand quotations, use a footnote of the form “Quoted in X” where X is the work you consulted. Citing second-hand sources as if they were first-hand sources is academically dishonest, and constitutes a subtle and particularly vile form of plagiarism. Just do not do it.
- Cite reliable sources, not partisan propaganda or works of questionable research quality. Shrewd judgment in the choice of material to consult is one of the most important attributes a historian can possess. There is a large body of unreliable material available, especially online. Use established, respected, widely cited sources.
- Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Wikipedia pages can help you find links to primary sources online, but should never be used as as a serious source, and should never be cited or referenced in your essay.
- Get a second pair of eyes. Get someone to read over your essay before you hand in your final copy. After working on a piece of text for a while, you can become blind to its shortcomings. A second pair of eyes almost invariably helps. Even if the person in question knows nothing of your subject, he or she may still be able to help you detect which parts are unclear, vague, superfluous or badly written.
- Write sensibly and coherently. Every time you write a sentence, be sure that it makes sense to you, that it is clear, unambiguous and coherent, and that it actually means something concrete. Meaningless sentences indicate shoddiness and a lack of serious, in-depth engagement with the subject matter.
- Be logically rigorous. Since you are constructing an argument, make sure that your conclusions follow from the premises, and make sure that the points you raise are relevant to the conclusion you wish to establish.
- Cite examples. Whenever you establish a point of importance, cite examples to support it. Do not cite too few examples or you might end up over-generalising or over-extrapolating from rare instances, but on the other hand, you should not cite too many either. After all, you are handing in a relatively short piece of work and you should not waste valuable words establishing non-crucial points.
- Use your analytical skills: Do not just cite facts upon facts. Graders look for intelligence, understanding and analysis, not regurgitation. Your essay should be an argument for a particular answer to a particular question. Even if your final answer is inconclusive, be sure to stringently and rigorously establish why it is inconclusive.
- Only use words, concepts and categories you understand. You may be tempted to use long words and sophisticated theoretical jargon in order to seem smart and well-read. Be careful. Any faults in usage or inappropriate terminology will be apparent in your text and will result in a worse grade. Only use words you fully understand. Write plain, honest, formal English.
- Read sources contrary to your own argument and mention them in your essay. Even if you find a particular point of view more persuasive than others, make sure to acquaint yourself with other points of view and different angles of approach to the subject matter. That way, you will understand the issues you are researching more fully. This superior understanding will show through favourably in your text.
- Avoid hedgy prose. Do not qualify all your statements ad nauseam, e.g. "some have possibly said that X is perhaps the case, which makes me conclude that maybe Y".
- Avoid platitudes, and vague or banal generalisations. This will add nothing to your essay. It wastes precious words and will annoy the person grading your paper. It will negatively affect his or her evaluation of your intelligence and analytical skills. Part of treating a subject analytically is to accurately evaluate whether something is pertinent, crucial, obvious or irrelevant. If something is obvious or irrelevant, leave it out.
- Avoid moral evaluation, moral comparison and moral judgment. We are studying the past professionally, not condemning or praising it. Comparing the past to modern times and judging it by modern standards tells the grader more about yourself than it does about the historical subject matter you are supposed to be writing about. It is dangerous at best, naively anachronistic at worst, and perhaps best left to professional historians with a thorough understanding of the subject at hand.
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