R.J. Carson, 1998
An educated person should be able to write well. For more than two decades I have been teaching at Whitman College, where most students are bright, but many are not good writers. Many of the same errors occur over and over, year after year: misspelled words (despite "spell-check"), incomplete sentences, improper citations and referencing, and unintentional plagiarism. The following applies mostly to papers in the sciences and in environmental studies; geology examples are used. Some of these guidelines may not apply to the social sciences, or to honors theses.
There are accepted standards for scientific papers. For examples of geology papers, see any recent bulletin or professional paper of the United States Geological Survey, or any recent article in Geology or Geological Society of America Bulletin. Another possible source is Suggestions to Authors of the Reports of the United States Geological Survey. If you have questions during any stage of the writing of your paper, consult your professor and/or the English Writing Center.
Evaluation of your paper will be based on:
B. Clarity of thinking and writing, organization;
C. Completeness, in all respects (including figures);
D. Breadth of sources, correct citations;
E. Grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization.
Minimize the use of paper products. Do not use a folder or a title page (except for theses). The title and author go at the top of the first page. Start the references cited right after the summary/conclusions. Unless the instructor states otherwise, please save paper by printing on both sides (or printing on paper with one side previously used).
Your paper may or may not need a table of contents, an abstract, a bibliography (other than references cited), and/or appendices. If an abstract is requested, use the guidelines here:
Writing an Abstract
Pat Spencer and Bob Carson, 2003
Make sure your abstract summarizes your paper! According to the American Heritage Dictionary, an abstract is a summary. An abstract should be short. The Geological Society of America limits abstracts submitted for their meetings to about 250-300 words.
An abstract should be concise and complete. It should convey the gist of an article: what, where, why, when, and what was determined. In other words, the reader should be able to read the abstract and get a good idea of what he/she will be reading about, including the results and the significance of the results. To be perfectly honest, most of us read abstracts as a guide to determine if the rest of the article is going to be worth our time reading.
An abstract should not include phrases like "determine the significance of the association" (state the significance!), "conclusions will be presented" (present them!), "relevant factors will be discussed" (discuss them briefly!), "is shown", "are demonstrated", or "are described". Avoid first-person in an abstract. Generally abstracts should not include references.
Most scientific papers do not have footnotes. Do not use terms like "op. cit.", "ibid", etc.
Do not get behind in the writing of your paper. At least two months before the due date have a subject and a list of references. Make sure the subject is suitable, neither too narrow nor too broad. If in doubt as to the suitability of your subject, ask your professor. Order those articles and books not in the library through interlibrary loan. At least one month before the paper is due, finish the important reading and research, and have a complete outline. Papers submitted after the due date will be penalized. Do not be robbed of a field trip or other worthwhile experience because you are behind on your paper.
The minimum margins are 1 inch. Number your pages, starting with the
title on page 1.
Plagiarism is the ultimate sin in the academic world and is grounds for failure. Except in cases where original investigations are done, your library research paper is a report on investigations done by others. In your paper be sure to give credit where it is due. When you use an investigator's data, state his ideas, paraphrase her conclusions, or quote him directly, cite a reference! (modified from "Senior Project" by Whitman College biology faculty). Figures also must be cited (see below). Distinguish between general knowledge (which does not need a reference) and the other material in your paper. Be sure the reader can distinguish between your ideas and the ideas of others. As a general guideline, there should be at least one citation per paragraph if the ideas are not your own.
It is dishonest to turn in the same or nearly the same paper for two
or more courses during the same semester or in different semesters (see
"Academic Dishonesty" in Student Handbook). Reworking an old paper is
not permitted either. There are two exceptions, each of which requires
faculty permission. One is using an old paper for a seminar presentation;
in this case the old paper should be updated and expanded before presentation.
The second exception is using an old paper as part of a substantial senior
Choose the right word! Do you mean process, landform, or earth material?
Do you need a noun or a verb? A moraine (landform) is composed of till
(sediment) deposited (process) by a glacier (agent). Dune sand (material).
Sand dune (land form). The outwash (material) crops out (verb) along the
north (lower case) bank of the Hamma Hamma River (upper case); the outcrop
(noun) of till (material) is on the other side. Pyroclastics (material).
Pyroclastic flow (process). Mudflow (technically, a process). Mudflow
deposit (material). The ridge was composed of strong (do you mean resistant?)
rocks, whereas the valley was underlain by soft (do you mean erodible?)
strata. Use a dictionary and a geologic glossary for meaning and spelling.
(Glossary of Geology, published by American Geological Institute)
Almost all spelling errors can be eliminated by using spell check. In
the past students regularly misspelled "occurring", "referred", "moraine",
"Pleistocene", "Quaternary". Perhaps most commonly misspelled is "its"
(possessive pronoun) or "it's" (contraction of "it is", pronoun plus verb).
Watch out for: Columbia vs. Colombia, columnar, consistent, dependent,
dike, dissect, erodible, existence, intermittent, precipitation, resistant,
separate, vegetation, vertical, volcano (volcanoes).
Most capitalization errors occur with geographic and stratigraphic names.
Here are correct examples: West Virginia, but western Washington; Columbia
River (not river); eastern United States, but the Midwest; Navajo Sandstone,
but cross-bedded sandstone; glacial Lake Missoula; pluvial Lake Bonneville.
While we're on directions, note that "northwest" and "southeastern" are
each one word, not two (note that directions are generally not capitalized).
Directions like Asouth-southwest@ are hyphenated.
Avoid extra words, especially with geologic terms. Why is each of the
underlined words in the following list redundant? Glacial till.
Glacial drift. Outwash deposit. Till and drift. Tarn
One of the most common grammar errors is lack of agreement between subject and verb. Why is each of the following incorrect?
The eskers, which had been deposited under stagnant ice during the last glaciation, was utilized as a railroad grade.
The mountain, with the ridge-top depression on its false summit, and the adjacent valley, was the focus of intense mineral exploration.
The foreset beds dipped east. (Has the delta been tilted or turned
since your visit?)
Many writers have problems with the use of commas (,), semicolons (;), and colons (:). Here are their main uses:
1) to separate items in a series;
2) after a dependent clause (required);
3) before a dependent clause (optional);
4) before a conjunction (and, but, or) connecting two independent clauses (required);
5) for clarity.
2) to separate items in a list if the items have internal punctuation, e.g., (Skotheim, 1975; Cronin, 1997).
2) before an explanation, example, restatement, or quotation;
3) to buy goods or services in certain Central American nations;
4) to function as part of the large intestine.
As you will see in current geologic literature, there are standard ways
to cite references. Here is my favorite:
For examples 11 and 12, cite author of article, not editor of collection.
See fourth reference cited below. Note use of punctuation. The page of
the information is optional except when quoting directly. For examples
9 and 10, Pulaski, 1872 would not be listed in your references cited,
but Reeve, 1977 would be included. DO NOT CITE BOOKS AND ARTICLES YOU
HAVE NOT SEEN!
There are also standard ways to do "References Cited" at the end of your paper. This is my favorite:
Carson, R. J., 1973a, Quaternary faults in the southeastern Olympic Mountains, Washington: Geol. Soc. America Abstracts w. Program, v. 13, p. 65.
Carson, R. J., 1973b, Reinterpretation of the Skokomish Gravel, Mason County, Washington: U.S.G.S. Professional Paper 695, 77 p.
Crandell, D. R., C. B. Armstrong, and C. D. Easterbrook, 1958, Pleistocene history of the Puget Lowland, in H. E. Wright and D. L. Frey, eds., Quaternary of the United States: Princeton, Princeton University Press, p. 560-590.
Huntting, M. T., W. A. G. Bennett, V. E. Livingston, and Wayne Moen, 1961, Geologic map of Washington: Wash. Div. of Mines and Geology.
Zorro, Zeke, 1900, Folding in sandstone: Geology, v. 1, p. 30-35.
You may write 1-10 (one - ten) as numbers, or spell them out. However,
for 11 and higher, use numbers (except spell it out if at the beginning
of a sentence).
Units of measurement
Use METRIC measurements throughout the paper. The only exceptions are:
B. When using an elevation from a non-metric map.
REMEMBER, keep on schedule, do thorough research, make sure you have enough source material, and write clearly.
DON'T FORGET. Although another student should not write your paper, there is one important exception. Have a student proofread your paper (ideally days, not minutes, before it is due) for the following:
B. Misspelled words,
C. Incorrect capitalization,
D. Incorrect punctuation,
E. Poor grammar. You know what you want to say, and you know what you mean, but does the reader? Does the student proofreading your paper understand each sentence and each paragraph? Are there long, awkward sentences? Consider dividing long unclear sentences into shorter sentences that are easier to understand. Perhaps a list or a labelled diagram would explain your ideas more clearly.
BE PROUD OF YOUR WORK!