Academic Writing and Referencing
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions about academic writing and referencing. Click on the question headings below to view the answers, which provide some introductory guidelines. Within the answers, you'll find some links to other sources with more detailed information.
Is it acceptable to use the first person pronoun ‘I’ in academic writing?
To what kind of reader should I pitch my work, a specialist in the subject or a general reader?
Why can’t I use ‘he’ as a general pronoun?
What does scholarly presentation mean and what does it include?
How can I improve my academic writing?
Can I use MLA style or do I need to follow the guidelines in the MA Booklet?
When should I use a footnote?
If we quote from the same author and the same book, do we need to write all the details again?
How much should I quote from my sources?
What does plagiarism mean and how can I avoid it?
How do I cite an online book?
How do you correctly reference journal articles, with the volume and issue number?
What format should we use if we're quoting from a review?
Do we use quotation marks or italics for the title of a book or an article?
Should we state the name of the editor(s) in each source. If so, how?
How do I cite archival materials?
Q: Is it acceptable to use the first person pronoun ‘I’ in academic writing?
A: Yes, the first person can be effective in academic writing, as long as it is used to convey a reasoned argument, not mere assertion of personal opinion. However, you should avoid use of the second person (‘you’, ‘your’), as this is too informal for academic writing.
Q: To what kind of reader should I pitch my work, a specialist in the subject or a general reader?
A: You should aim to transmit your ideas with a clarity that can be understood by an intelligent general reader who may not necessarily be an expert in your subject. You should use critical theories and terminologies but explain any specialist terms, and say why they help us to interpret the issue or text at hand.
Q: Why can’t I use ‘he’ as a general pronoun?
A: You should aim to avoid sexist language in your writing. If you don’t know the gender of a person, don’t automatically assume it’s a ‘he’! Therefore, you should try not to use ‘he’ as a general pronoun or ‘man’ when you mean people or humanity in general. Use non-gender-specific terms, e.g. ‘they’ or ‘he or she’ instead of ‘he’. (However, avoid use of the general, all-purpose ‘they’.)
Q: What does scholarly presentation mean and what does it include?
A: Scholarly presentation is one of the criteria by which your essays and written dissertations are assessed, and includes the use of recognized academic conventions for citations, a full, accurate and properly laid out bibliography and set of footnotes, as well as accurate spelling, use of grammar and syntax. Using established guidelines for scholarly presentation helps to ensure clarity and enables your reader to follow your meaning with greater ease. It also makes your writing appear more professional, and will convey your meaning more effectively. Therefore, you need to ensure that you leave time to check and proofread your work carefully. In addition to using the spell check facility on your word-processor it is worth going through your work manually to check for any common spelling errors that won’t necessarily be highlighted by your computer, since the correct form will depend on its context. Try to avoid common punctuation errors and learn the correct usage of commas, semi-colons, colons, and apostrophes. Through careful proofreading and avoidance of spelling and punctuation errors, you can improve your mark by ten per cent or more.
It’s is an abbreviation of it is (It’s a comedy)
Its indicates the possessive case (The bird ruffled its feathers)
The plural form of DVDs (not DVD’s or DVD,S)
Ordinary plural forms do not have an apostrophe, e.g.
Two Libyans. NOT Two Libyan’s.
Remember that different uses of punctuation can completely change the meaning of a sentence, for instance:
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
See Lynne Truss, Eats Shoots and Leaves (New York: Gotham Books, 2004) for other examples.
If you need guidance on punctuation use, here are some useful links:
A popular guide based on Eats Shoots and Leaves
The Economist Style Guide
Q: How can I improve my academic writing?
A: You can start by looking at the shape and structure of your writing.Structure is crucial to the effectiveness of any piece of writing. An academic essay should have a beginning, middle and end. Each of these serves a particular function. The Introduction provides a context for your discussion; it should state your argument, the research questions you wish to ask and why. You then go on to corroborate your claims in the body of the essay, building your case in a logical manner and analyzing your ‘evidence’. Finally, your conclusion will summarize your argument and its implications for our understanding of the field/topic.
You should start a new paragraph for each new idea or topic, ensuring that the transition between each idea/paragraph is logical and clear to your reader. It is a good idea to declare the new idea/topic in the opening sentence of the paragraph: this then becomes your topic sentence. Unlike newspaper articles, academic essays tend to have fairly substantial paragraphs, consisting of at least three sentences. Ensure that your paragraphs fit their purpose – that they are neither too long nor too short. You should either indent the first line of each new paragraph or use paragraph ‘blocks’, leaving one line between each paragraph.
Sentence structure (syntax) can make or break an essay. In the hands of a good writer, it can convey meaning with concision and flair. However, the reader will struggle to follow your meaning if your sentences are unfinished, if they are too long or if they simply do not make sense. Make sure that your nouns and pronouns correspond with each other (when using ‘it’ or ‘they’, make sure it’s clear to whom or to what they refer). Break up long, unwieldy sentences into smaller sentences. Vary the length of sentences throughout your work, for writing has a rhythm and this, perhaps more than anything, is what grips the reader and makes them read on.
For some more detailed guidelines on improving your writing, you may find useful this online Guide for Writing Research Papers.
If you think you need help with writing, the department’s Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellows will be able to give you further guidance. To book an appointment with them, sign up on the form in the LiFTS General Office, 5A.117.
Q: Can I use MLA style or do I need to follow the guidelines in the MA Booklet?
A: In most cases, we would expect you to follow the Departmental Style Sheet, which follows the Chicago style and can be found in the MA Booklet and online.
However, there are a number of different styles of academic referencing in the Humanities, including the MLA style. If you are accustomed to using another style of academic referencing, it is fine to continue with that style. What is most important is for you tochoose ONE scholarly referencing style and stick to it consistently within any given piece of work, making sure you use the correct form for both footnotes and bibliography.
Details of the MLA style can be found in Joseph Gibaldi, The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008).
The Library of the University of California, Berkeley, also provides useful guidelines for citations in MLA Style.
Note that within every style of referencing, there is a different form for footnotes and bibliography:
LiFTS Department Style Sheet (based on Chicago Style)
IN A FOOTNOTE:
1Henry Miller, A Devil in Paradise (Berkeley: University of California, 1957), 61.
IN THE BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Miller, Henry. A Devil in Paradise. Berkeley: University of California, 1957.
IN A FOOTNOTE:
1Henry Miller, A Devil in Paradise (Berkeley: University of California, 1957) 61.
IN THE BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Miller, Henry. A Devil in Paradise. Berkeley: University of California, 1957.
(Miller 1957: 61)
IN THE BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Miller, Henry (1957) A Devil in Paradise, Berkeley: University of California.
Q: When should I use a footnote?
A: Accurate footnote referencing gives credibility to your work: it acknowledges the sources of your information, enables others to see how you reached your conclusions and follow up your research. Wherever you have drawn upon the ideas and arguments of others, either in the form of a direct quotation or as a paraphrased summary, you should provide such an acknowledgement in a footnote reference to the source. However, you do not need to footnote well-known facts.
In the footnote, you should give the complete details of the source from which you obtained the idea or quotation, including the exact page number:
W.B. Worthen, 'Authority and Performance', in W.B. Worthen, Shakespeare and The Authority of Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1.
Q: If we quote from the same author and the same book, do we need to write all the details again?
A: You should only give the full set of details in your first footnote reference to a given source.
In subsequent references to the same source, you should use a shorthand form in the footnote, e.g:
If referring to several works by the same author, you may need to give more information in your shorthand form for subsequent footnotes in order to distinguish each source, e.g.:
Worthen, 'Authority and Performance', 2.
Q: How much should I quote from my sources?
A: You should aim to quote only as much as is needed to illustrate the point you want to make. Choose carefully the phrases or sentences which most vividly convey the source’s argument. Select – don’t leave it to the reader to do the selection. Avoid over-quoting. Your longest quotations should not be more than a short paragraph.
Short Quotations should be integrated into the body of your writing and enclosed within inverted commas. Here’s an example:
In his essay on Brick Lane, Sanjay Sharma has argued that events of 9/11 have brought about ‘a crisis multiculturalism - an intensification of its antagonized historical formation.’3
Long Quotations (over 50 words) should be displayed separately, without inverted commas, indented a few spaces from the left margin and single-spaced. For example:
In his essay on Brick Lane, Sanjay Sharma has argued that
The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks instigated a crisis multiculturalism - an intensification of its antagonized historical formation. The geo-politics of 9/11 unleashed a 'War or Terror' that has led to rendition, torture and invasion, perversely in the name of securing global justice and democracy. In Britain, the precarious post-imperial recognition of cultural diversity … is now betrayed by a demand for racialized minorities to integrate into the nation .… The failure of the Muslim subject to integrate themselves legitimises racial profiling, over-policing, and extrajudicial forms of internment.3
Remember to introduce and situate your quotations (‘Sharma has argued that …’). Don’t just ‘stick’ them into your essay. Only use a colon to introduce a quotation if the quotation begins a new sentence.
You may need to ‘trim’ a quotation so that it fits, grammatically and syntactically, with the words you use to introduce it. Use ellipses […] to indicate any words that you have purposefully omitted and square brackets [ ] to indicate any alterations you have made to the quotation. However, leave the spelling as it appears in the original; if there is a mistake or other error in the original, add [sic] to show that you have recognized it.
Try to be consistent in using either single (‘ ’) or double (" ") quotation marks around the quoted matter. Only use them together if you are indicating a quotation within a quotation. If using double quotation marks, use single quotation marks for quotations-within-quotations, and vice versa. Insert the footnote after punctuation marks (i.e. after the closing quotation mark and full-stop).
Don’t exclusively rely on critical sources to make your major points; instead, use them as a springboard for your own reflections. Argue with/against an existing critical viewpoint. When quoting from primary texts, choose your own quotations; don’t just reproduce the quotations used by other critics.
Q: What does plagiarism mean and how can I avoid it?
A: Plagiarism is a serious academic offence and involves passing off the ideas and words of others as your own. Therefore, you should aim to use your own words and sentence structure wherever possible, and clearly attribute quotations, by means of quotation marks and a reference to the source, whenever you directly reproduce the words of another. When making notes, keep an accurate record of your source – all the details you need to reference it, including page numbers and publication details. It’s good practice to adopt a note-taking system by which you can distinguish between the jotting down of your own ideas and ideas you have borrowed from others, either in the form of a direct quotation or paraphrase.
Consider the following:
Cinema's 100 years seem to have the shape of a life cycle: an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline.
An example of plagiarism:
In a hundred years, the history of cinema seems to have the shape of a life cycle, including a birth, a zenith and an ignominious, irreversible decline in the last decade.
An example of acceptable practice:
The writer portrays the history of cinema as ‘a life cycle’, including a birth, a zenith and, finally,an ‘irreversible decline’.
Q: How do I cite an online book?
A: If the book exists in exactly the same form in print, there is no need to specify that you consulted the online version. Just give the full publication details as you would for any printed book.
If, on the other hand, the item is published only as an e-book, you should reference it as follows:
In a footnote:
Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen, The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2004), <http://0www.netlibrary.com.serlib0.essex.ac.uk/Details.aspx>(accessed 1 December 2008)
In a bibliography:
Marzolph, Ulrich, and Richard van Leeuwen. The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2004. <http://0www.netlibrary.com.serlib0.essex.ac.uk/Details.aspx>(accessed 1 December 2008)
Q: How do you correctly reference journal articles, with the volume and issue number?
A: There are a number of accepted formats for referencing journal articles in a bibliography, but this one is the simplest:
Jones, Timothy G. 'The Canniness of the Gothic: Genre as Practice'. Gothic Studies, v. 11, no. 1 (May 2009): 124-33.
The title of the journal (Gothic Studies) should be italicized.
The title of the article is placed in quotation marks: 'The Canniness of the Gothic: Genre as Practice'.
The page numbers at the end of the reference should indicate the full page range of the article.
Q: What format should we use if we quote from a review?
A: Use the same format as you would for a journal article:
In the bibliography:
Ardolino, Frank. 'Shakespeare's Marlowe'. The Sixteenth Century Journal, v. 39, no. 2 (2008): 466-7.
In a footnote:
Frank Ardolino, 'Shakespeare's Marlowe', The Sixteenth Century Journal, v. 39, no. 2 (2008): 466 [give the exact page number from which you are quoting]
Q: Do we use quotation marks or italics for the title of a book or an article?
A: Use italics for the titles of any full published work: books, plays, journals, films.
Use quotation marks for any work that appears as part of another work: articles within journals, essays within books, or poems.
Q: Should we state the name of the editor of each source. If so, how?
A: You should always give the name of the editor of a book (if the book is a collection of essays) but you don't need to give the name of the editor of a journal, e.g.:
Forrest, Jennifer and Leonard Koos. Eds. Dead Ringers: the Remake in theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York, 2002.