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WWU Writing Guide

This handout, prepared by the Winter 2002 Writing for Professions class, is designed to refresh your memory about basic writing standards required in an academic setting. Remember: your professor is equally concerned with content.

Thesis and Paper Organization

(very, very important!)

Listen up: A teacher’s #1 pet peeve is a poorly organized paper. Easiest solution: write an outline and follow it.

A thesis statement delivers a concise summary of a paper’s central purpose. It often appears at the beginning of a composition and provides a roadmap to guide the reader through your major points. Since the body of the paper should support the thesis, remember to organize contributing arguments in logically sequenced sections, using topic sentences to clarify each section’s purpose. Consider this generic outline:

Introduction: Include definitions and background information in the introduction; generally, place the thesis statement at the end of this section.

Body: Each sub-section (or paragraph) in the body should have its own internal structure, including an introduction and conclusion; sub-sections should be organized in the most effective sequence for presenting your argument.

Conclusion: Present a brief recap of your central purpose and your paper’s primary arguments, clearly emphasizing the relationship among them.

Remember that a thesis-based argument is the appropriate format for most academic writing. Use this structure for research papers, essays, lab reports, and long-answer test questions!

Format: Unless otherwise specified by your teacher, double-space your papers and use a 12-point font (and don’t mess with the default margins! That is so obvious!). Believe us, teachers notice when you’re using Courier to make your paper longer, so we recommend just sticking to plain old Times or Times New Roman.

Who Speaks?

(besides you, of course)

Writing in the third person is nearly always preferable, although the rule is flexible depending on the style and academic discipline in which you are working. Creative and scientific writing may require the use of second person. Check with your instructor to determine what is appropriate for each writing project.


Definitely a no-no!

Plagiarism, using someone else’s ideas as your own (this happens both consciously and unconsciously), is a serious academic offense in any college or workplace environment.

WWU’s Academic Integrity Policy, which includes discussion on plagiarism, can be viewed online at Diana Hacker states that plagiarism consists of three elements: “(1) failing to cite quotations and borrowed ideas, (2) failing to enclose borrowed language in quotation marks, and (3) failing to put summaries and paraphrases in your own words” (A Writer’s Reference 4th edition 83). To avoid any of these actions you must cite all sources that are quoted exactly, as well as those from which you borrowed information such as statistics, graphics, paraphrases, tables, etc. However, if information is common knowledge, that is, it consists of information that one could find just about anywhere (for example, the population of the United States), one does not have to cite it (Hacker). The bottom line: If in doubt, cite it.

How to Tell if You're Plagiarizing

Deciding if one should cite a source if sometimes tricky. Although it is often hard to tell what is common knowledge and what should be cited, it is necessary to learn to tell the difference. The following is one example of how to avoid plagiarism.


In 1998 an earthquake hit the tiny town of San German, in Puerto Rico. Its inhabitants believed that it was a sign that they were to evacuate the city and live on the opposite end of the tiny 55-mile island. To this day the once crowded town remains desolate and forsaken.


In 1998 the tiny town of San German, in Puerto Rico was hit by an earthquake. The people who lived there believed it was a sign to leave the city. Even now, the town remains desolate and forsaken.

What’s Wrong:

Italicized words are taken directly and not quoted, words are simply placed in a new order, and sentence structure and length are about the same.


San German, Puerto Rico suffered a massive earthquake in 1998. As a result, people fled the city, believing they were destined to live on the other side of the island, and have never returned.

Careful: If material is not common knowledge, you must cite the source even if you paraphrase.

Write in the Appropriate Voice

(We’re not talking passive-aggressive)

Avoid passive verbs and forms of the verb “be” (be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been). Active verbs convey action; passive verbs allow the subject to receive the action. Hacker presents examples of active voice, passive voice, and the “be” verbs:

“Be” Verb: Lightning is the cause of many deaths each year.

Passive: The coolant pumps were destroyed by a surge of power.

Active: A surge of power destroyed the coolant pumps.

Note: Passive voice can be appropriate if you are trying to emphasize the person receiving the action and not the action itself, but only use it if you know why you’re using it.

Historical Present: When an action takes place in a book, the action is always “present.” So if you’re referring to Hester’s actions in The Scarlet Letter, remember that the events in the book are “always” happening to her, even though we are reading the text years later.

Proofreading an absolute must!

Error-free and understandable language heightens the credibility of your writing, so be sure to proofread for both grammar and clarity. Carefully review each sentence for grammatical and spelling errors. Try reading your writing aloud to evaluate style and flow. Enlist a friend to do an additional proofreading. And don’t rely on spell-check!

Questions to Ask Your Professor

Do you have a format preference for the paper?

Should I write in first, second, or third person style?

Is passive voice appropriate?

What tense should I write in (present, past, or future)?

What documentation style should I use?




Other: ____________________

Style Guides

If you don’t have a style guide, or if you sold yours after research writing, buy one and keep it! Even if you ignore it all through college, it’s very possible that you’ll use it in the future, like for an application essay or something—you know, out in the real world. Here are some that teachers we surveyed recommended:

Hacker, Diana. A Writer’s Reference

Lester, James. Writing Research Papers: A Complete Guide

Strunk, William, and White, E.B. Elements of Style

Williams, Joseph. 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace

A Somewhat Brief Review of Word Classes

(or grammar for those of us who can never remember)

Noun: Refers to a person, place, or thing.

Adverb: Modifies verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs; usually answers the questions When? Where? How much? How?

Example: He’ll eventually have to do it. (When?)

Verb: Expresses an action, state of being, or condition.

Examples: They walked to school. (Action)

He seems to be calm. (State of Being)

Adjective: Modifies nouns or pronouns; usually answers the questions What kind? Which one? How many?

Example: He has a white car. (What kind?)

Pronoun: Takes the place of a noun.

Careful: Possessives never take an apostrophe; contractions do.

Example: Its (possessive) should not be confused with It’s (It is).

Careful: Nouns and pronouns must agree in person, case, and number.

Bad example: The student refused to study because they figured the class would be easy. (“Student” is singular and “they” is plural.)

Better example: The students refused to study because they figured the class would be easy.

Careful: Vague pronoun references often creep into writing.

Bad example: The rules aren’t fair. They make the rules.

Better example: The rules that the government makes are not fair.

(Note: Beware of sexist language such as using “he” as a generic pronoun—that’s bad. Also, do not lapse into using the second person pronoun “you” as a way out of the he/she dilemma. The informal “you” is out of place in a formal paper. If necessary, rewrite the sentence.)

Comma: Used to separate words or groups of words.

Example: He was told to bring his own paper, pencil, and eraser for class.

Careful: Watch out for comma splices, two independent clauses joined only by a comma. The two parts of the sentence could stand alone; therefore, they need to be separated by a semicolon or period.

Bad example: She checked for the book at the library, she found it on the shelf.

Better example: She checked for the book at the library; she found it on the shelf.

Last update on November 1, 2016