History 440 Tips for Better Writing: Technical Aspects

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History 440 

Tips for Better Writing: Technical Aspects 

In this class, all written work will be expected to have been fully proofread before 

submission and to be as technically flawless as possible (grammar, spelling, etc.). Here are some 

basic tips on how to improve some of the technical aspects of your writing. 



Always read the assignment carefully. Most points are lost by not carefully following 




In most academic writing, you should avoid the first person (“I”), expressing personal 

sentiments, or setting out a position as in a position paper. Avoid a conversational tone. Your papers 

should be historical in orientation, using analysis based on evidence. Quotes are the most frequently 

used forms of historical evidence. Interpret your quotes—don’t assume that they speak for 

themselves, or that a sequence of them inherently reveals an argument. Introduce your quotes—

don’t just drop them in a paragraph. 



Historical writing eschews the passive voice. Write your sentences in the active voice.  



Avoid overstatement: “Since the dawn of time, humans have…” or “Americans love to…” 

Be specific to the case in hand. 



Papers should have arguments (a thesis). They are not “about” something or “exploring” 

something, nor do they simply reproduce facts—they argue something. If you don’t know what 

your paper is arguing, you’re not done writing. The best thesis statement is direct, clear, and 

indicates the path the paper will take in succeeding paragraphs. 


Distinguish frequently confused terms: 



affect/effect (affect is most often used as a verb, effect as a noun) 

amount/number (amount = unquantifiable; number = quantifiable) 

than/then (than = used for comparison, degree; then = time, space, order; in that case). 

less/fewer (less with collective nouns; fewer with nouns that can be enumerated, or with 

time, money, or distance). In short, the grocery store signs are wrong: it should be ten items 

or fewer. 



At UNM, it is not who you know—it’s whom. Who and whom are like he and him. One is a 

subject, one is an object. Use accordingly. (Also, be sure to use who for people, not that.) 


Match your verb tenses. Sentences with parallel components should have parallel structure. 

Historical papers are generally written entirely in the past tense. 



The English language has a mood called the subjunctive, used for conditional, doubtful, or 

possible statements. As the old commercial jingle went: “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener…” 

The verb here is “were,” not “was.” (This is one of the most common errors in spoken American 

English today.) 


Plurals do not use apostrophes—“the Romans lived in ancient times”—unless they are 

possessive: “the Romans’ republican system of government.” 


Contractions are not to be used in formal writing. (Use “are not” instead of “aren’t.”) 




A hyphen joins two words together—two dashes or a long dash (called an “em-dash” 

because it is as wide as the letter m) separate them. Do not use a hyphen where you need to use a 

dash or dashes. 


An ellipsis (…) at the beginning of a quote is generally unnecessary; the lower-case letter 

beginning the quote tells us that the quoted passage is beginning in the middle of something. A 

quote that continues on past the part you are quoting is sometimes but not always ended with an 

ellipsis. If you need to change the capitalization of a letter in a quote (because of where the quote 

falls in your sentence, for example), make the change but indicate this by putting the letter in 



If there is a typo in the original source, do not correct it; reproduce the error and write 

“[sic]” after the word or at the end of the passage. “Sic” is Latin for “thus” or “so,” informing your 

reader that this is how you found the quote. 



When the original quotation does not fit the grammar of your sentence, an accommodation 

must be made. First, try to alter the grammar of your sentence to match the grammar of the quote. If 

this is not possible, make as few alterations as possible to the quote (changing tense, adding a word 

here or there) but always indicate these alterations by using [brackets] around inserted words or 

when removing intervening words […]. 


Use a comma between the ultimate and penultimate items in a list (this is called the 

“Oxford” or “Harvard” or “serial” comma). Always. 


Short pieces or articles are referred to with their titles in quotes (“Oration on the Dignity of 

Man”); books, journals, and magazines have their titles italicized (Cervantes’ Don Quixote). 



The first time you use a source, introduce it. Often, the author’s full name is used the first 

time, and only their surname in later instances. If you have already introduced your source in the 

sentence or paragraph before the parenthetical citation, you do not need to repeat the name of the 

source in the citation. 



Block quotes should be used sparingly; when used, they should be indented and without 

quotation marks. A block quote is any quote that is longer than four lines. 



In general, unless referring to a webpage with a resource that does not exist in some other 

form, you would cite the traditional source rather than include the URL. (For instance, if citing a 

New York Times article, you would cite this as coming from the newspaper, New York Times, and 

give the author, title, and date, and not cite it as coming from http://www.nytimes.com). On the few 

occasions when you do cite a source that requires including a URL, remove the hyperlink so it is not 

blue and underlined in your text (it should look like normal text). 


When using electronic scholarly sources available through the UNM library, cite them by 

journal or database name and traditional methods. Do not copy and paste the proxy URL address 

from your web browser. This temporary URL is not a stable referent and exists only for your 

research session. (The point of bibliographic information is to aid other researchers in locating the 

information, so we cite by other established methods.) 



Punctuation in and after quotes 

All periods and commas are included before the quotation marks even if they are not a part of the 

direct quote. 


George said, “uncle,” and Heather stopped pinching him. 


According to a student in the class, “The history of science is fascinating.” 


The only exception to this is when you cite after the quote.  In this case, the period is placed after 

the page number and parenthesis. 

Results consistently show that “students enjoy studying the history of science” (Rogers 62). 


Semi-colons and colons are placed outside of the quote. 


She said, “social and natural orders are co-produced”; this saying made her famous. 


Question marks and exclamation marks are placed either inside or outside of the quotation marks 

depending on whether or not they are part of quote. 


She asked, “Are you going to eat that?” 


What do you think of the poem, “Blue”? 


Punctuation with parentheticals follows a similar pattern; if the entire sentence begins and end in a 

parenthetical, the punctuation stays inside the final parenthesis. If the parenthetical aside began in 

the middle of a sentence, then the punctuation for the sentence remains outside the final 



A comma is not needed after “that” in introducing or transitioning to a quote. 



Editing Marks 


A circle means that there is something wrong here—check your spelling, word choice, tense, 

remove an unnecessary space, etc. [A printed version of this document demonstrates some of these 

marks on the errors in the following sentences.] 


He said, “We shall over come.”  The brackets here mean to remove the space 



A transposition makr means to switch the places of the items on either side. 



three lines under a letter mean to capitalize it. 


“Awk” = means awkward phrasing; rephrase. 



A diagonal Strike through a capitalized letter means to make it lower-case. 


Arrows are suggestions for how to move things around for an improved sense. 


An ongoing squiggle under some words means that something is not clear here or that there 

is an error to be addressed. 



Always, always, proofread your papers. Read them outloud to catch grammatical errors, 

missing verbs, and run-on or incomplete sentences. 



On the Importance of Punctuation 

[from Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation


Pay attention to punctuation. There is a world of difference between the panda whose diet is 

described (“eats shoots and leaves”) and the one who has gone on a killing rampage after a meal 

(“eats, shoots, and leaves”). 


Read the following three passages. The first passage is offered without punctuation; the 

second and third passages differ only in the placement of punctuation, and yet the meaning that is 

conveyed is entirely different! Proper punctuation matters. 


Dear Jack I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind thoughtful people 

who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn 

for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart I can be forever happy will you let me be 

yours Jill 


Dear Jack, 

I want a man who knows what love is all about. 

You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. 

You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. 

I can be forever happy--will you let me be yours? 



Dear Jack, 

I want a man who knows what love is. 

All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless 

and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn! For you I have no feelings whatsoever. 

When we're apart I can be forever happy. 

Will you let me be? 



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