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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Random, But Useful Advice For Writing Essays

Cite your sources correctly from the start. Having recently gone through the experience of digging up the correct sources and fixing all my slightly-off citations, I can tell you that doing it right the first time is a time saver, especially if you don’t return to the essay in question until some many months later, long after you’ve forgotten where the original source was located.

It would seem like obvious advice, but if you’re a college student, this issue may come up later when you try to publish one of your essays. You see, college students often end up with these things called “readers,” which are essentially enormous printed tomes of information usually created by the college for a specific course. They are not books you buy on Amazon, or even books you can return. You’re stuck with them. And sometimes the readers don’t contain the proper citation information for the articles they contain. That means you have to go hunt that information down yourself. Doing so can take a bit of time, but at least during school you can ask your professor where he or she got a particularly article, in person, and get a response ASAP. Doing it later means having to spend hours surfing Google to find obscure information about equally obscure articles. It’s not fun, especially when you wanted to get that essay out the door the day before.

Then you have the issue of proper citation practices. How do you format footnote citations? Well, you have to read, because if you follow the citation formats you see in articles, they are often incorrect or outdated. Maybe that’s not a problem for some publications, but the more academic ones, or even the exceptionally professional ones, want proper citations, not just for them, but for the peer review panels that govern what gets published.

I spent close to ten hours fixing all my citations and reformatting two essays to submit to an online magazine. Only a few hours of that should have been spent formatting (since they had specific guidelines), and none to the citations. But, I didn’t foresee publishing things, or I didn’t think about the citations at the time, and subsequently had to go through every inch of my essays to get them in working order. Fun? No. Not at all.

So, cite your sources correctly from the start. It’ll make your life easier.

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  1. Nice website, and good reviews -- I'll check some of them out.

  2. Alternately, you could always cite incorrectly. :) I remember my dad telling me about an early grad school excercise they had - go through a chapter of a published scholarly work and track down all the cites. A *large* percentage were incorrect.
    It seems like things haven't changed much: one of my professors at University of Chicago had a reputation for actually checking the cites of her grad students. She complained about how many were wrong, and if she had the reputation for checking, it's probably because many other professors (and journals) don't really.
    Note that I'm not suggesting that you should, in fact, do sloppy scholarship, because you will get called on it eventually. But it's scary how many people do.

  3. Jonah: This is true, but I'm anal about citations and really don't want to get called out for it.