Mechanics of Writing a Paper:
Being the Absolute Minimum that Every College Writer should Know

Having finished grammar school you should know the basics of grammar, usage, and such. If you feel that your education has cheated you in this area, it is up to you to do something about it. I would suggest you buy Strunk & White's Elements of Style and read it immediately. Other handbooks are good, too, being more exhaustive; but Strunk & White has the advantage of being a short little classic that you can zip through.

Some common mistakes are listed below. You are responsible for knowing all of this!


Type using standard font (e.g. 12-point Courier or Times New Roman); double-space; staple (if you were grading, you wouldn't want to lug around a hundred binders, and your instructors don't either); and don't forget to paginate!


Every paper should have structure. State your thesis in the first paragraph or so, and then devote every subsequent paragraph to furthering it (elaborating; justifying; supporting subsidiary points; considering possible difficulties and responding to them). A summary paragraph at the end helps too.


If you already avoid it, great. Otherwise go here.


Question: When do you use "its" and when do you use "it's"?
Answer: possessive pronouns generally don't take apostrophes; contractions do. Examples:

Possessive Pronoun

Contraction of Two Words

Their son is a painter. They're going to watch him work.
His painting is a masterpiece. He's painting her portrait.
Its hues are wonderful. It's going to become famous.
Pat, whose book I borrowed, is looking for me. Pat, who's in need of her book, is looking for me.


Commas frequently come in pairs. Think of the first one as like a left parenthesis and the second one as like a right parenthesis. Thus, example (a) is just as bad as (b), (c), and (d):

Bad Examples
(a)  My conclusion then, is that Socrates was sly.
(b)  My conclusion then) is that Socrates was sly.
(c)  My conclusion, then is that Socrates was sly.
(d)  My conclusion (then is that Socrates was sly.

Here you need to use your commas in a pair (e) or not at all (f):

Good Examples
(e)  My conclusion, then, is that Socrates was sly.
(f)  My conclusion then is that Socrates was sly.

The obvious exception is that you do not double up punctuation in a row (g) or put any at the beginning of a sentence (h):

Bad Examples
(g) My conclusion is this, then,: Socrates was sly.
(h) , Thus, my conclusion is that Socrates was sly.

In these cases, you delete the unsightly half of the comma pair.

The dash works the same way as the parenthetical comma.

Good Examples
(i) Socrates -- the teacher of Plato -- was sly.
(j) Socrates taught Plato -- the teacher of Aristotle.

Bad Examples
(k) Socrates -- the teacher of Plato, was sly.
(l) Socrates, the teacher of Plato -- was sly.
(m) Socrates taught Plato -- the teacher of Aristotle -- .

Typographically, a dash consists of three hyphens; or a space, two hyphens, and another space.


A conjunction combines two simple sentences into a complex sentence (example: "Burns was a poet and Aristophanes was a playwright"). An adverb is a modifier inside of a single sentence (example: "Luckily, Pat won the lottery"). Certain particles -- including "however", "therefore", and "thus" -- ARE ADVERBS, NOT CONJUNCTIONS. This means the following.

Bad Examples
Pat won the lottery, however, the news killed him.
Pat won the lottery, however the news killed him.
Pat won the lottery, thus, she is rich.
Pat won the lottery, thus she is rich.

Good Examples
Pat won the lottery. However, the news killed him.
Pat won the lottery; however, the news killed him.
Pat won the lottery. The news, however, killed him.
Pat won the lottery; the news, however, killed him.
Pat won the lottery. The news killed him, however.
Pat won the lottery; the news killed him, however.

Note: "but" can serve as either conjunction or adverb and thus may either combine two sentences or begin a single sentence.

"However" has two senses. (a) The sense of "but" requires a comma as in the examples above. (b) The sense "by whatever manner or degree" does not use a comma, e.g. "However much you beg, your parents won't allow you to go."


cite / site / sight

Seeing: "The end is within sight."
Location (where something is situated): "website," "construction site"
Citation: "Always cite your sources."

lead / led

Noun: "Many batteries contain lead."
Verb, simple: "Will the president lead the country to war?"
Verb, past tense: "The president led the country to war."

loose / lose

Adjective: "loose tooth"
Verb: "You snooze, you lose."

principal / principle

Maxim, especially an ethical maxim: "Archimedes discovered the principle of the lever"; "Have you no principles?"
Chief (noun): "school principal"
Chief (adj): "The principal ingredient in almost everything nowadays is corn syrup."

then / than

Sequence: "First I'll bake a cake, then I'll eat it."
Inference: "If utilitarians are right, then the greatest good consists in the greatest happiness for the greatest number."
Comparison: "They serve burritos bigger than your head."


Cite your sources, for instance "(Plato, p. 140)" or "(Saka's lecture, 1-23-07)". When you use sources assigned in class, publisher information is not necessary. Otherwise provide it in footnotes or a bibliography.


It has been said that to write is to re-write. In other words, to write a good final draft you should work your way past at least one working draft (and ideally more). At the end of each draft you should read it to yourself, checking for typos, for clarity (does it successfully get the idea across to someone who hasn't been already thinking along your lines?), and for cogency (is the idea worth getting across, is it persuasive or at least reasonable?). You should also, whenever time permits, get someone else to read your drafts. A fresh eye provides fresh perspective.


I expect you to read over your returned work with whatever corrections and comments you may get, and I expect you to learn from it.