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:

A. Interest of subject;
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.
The paper must be "typed" with a word processor; double space except for long quotes, in which case, indent and single space. Typographical errors, spelling mistakes, and poor grammar must be corrected by careful proofreading. The paper must cite the literature and must include a list of references cited.

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.

If writing about an area, one or more maps may be helpful to the reader. All maps, pictures, diagrams, figures, and tables must be mentioned in your paper. For example, if your paper is on Hood Canal and if you include a geologic map of western Washington, you might write, "Hood Canal is located at the eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula (Fig. 2)." Be sure to cite the sources of all maps, pictures, diagram, figures, tables, etc. In the example above, put "Huntting et al., 1961" at the bottom of the figure. If you modified the material, put "after Huntting et al., 1961". Include the sources in your list of references cited. Note the punctuation of "et al." There is not a comma before the term. "Et" means "and", and is not abbreviated; "al." is an abbreviation (hence, the period).

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 thesis.


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 lake.


One of the most common grammar errors is lack of agreement between subject and verb. Why is each of the following incorrect?

The conglomerate, full of pebbles and cobbles, were interpreted to be a tillite.

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.

Check each sentence and clause for a subject and a verb to avoid incorrect grammar. A related problem is lack of agreement between a noun and a following adjective, as in the following example: The braided stream, with dozens of anastomosing channels, jumped their gravelly natural levees.Another grammatical error is the use of indefinite references, particularly "they" ("them") and "it": The geologists separated the rock hammers from the seismographs and took them to the moraine. (To what does "them" refer?)Be sure to use the correct tense. A common error is to mention information from a field trip (which occurred in the past) as if the same conditions do not still exist. What is probably wrong with each of the following? The moraine was littered with giant granitic erratics. (Have the boulders been recently hauled away?)

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:

 A. Comma;
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.
B. Semicolon 1) to separate two independent clauses without a conjunction;
2) to separate items in a list if the items have internal punctuation, e.g., (Skotheim, 1975; Cronin, 1997).
C. Colon 1) to introduce a list (as in this paragraph);
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.
Note the use of punctuation marks in this document. Here's an example: valleys with rivers, flood plains, and terraces; slopes with landslides and gullies; and mountains with horns, aretes, and cirques.


As you will see in current geologic literature, there are standard ways to cite references. Here is my favorite:
2 authors   1. Hood Canal is a fiord (Bretz and Willis, 1913).
2. Bretz and Willis (1913) demonstrated that Hood Canal is a fiord.
more than 2 authors   3. According to Crandell and others (1958) Hood Canal is not a fiord.
4. Hood Canal is not a fiord (Crandell et al., 1958).
1 author, 2 or more publications in 1 year   5. Carson (1973a, p. 123) stated, "There is a fault along Hood Canal."
6. There is a fault along Hood Canal (Carson, 1973a).
multiple sources   7. The origin of Hood Canal has been studied more than once (Bretz and Willis, 1913; Carson, 1973a, 1973b).
8. Bretz and Willis (1913) and Carson (1973a, 1973b) have debated the origin of Hood Canal.
reference you did not see   9. Pulaski (1872, in Reeve, 1977) found pingoes in Poland.
10. There are pingoes in Poland (Pulaski, 1872, in Reeve, 1977).
article in a collection   11. Crandell and others (1958) think still water runs deep.
12. Still water runs deep (Crandell et al., 1958).

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!

References Cited

There are also standard ways to do "References Cited" at the end of your paper. This is my favorite:

References Cited

Bretz, J H., and Bailey Willis, 1913, The origin of Hood Canal: Wash. Div. of Mines and Geology Bull. 9, 345 p. (yes, his first name is J)

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.

Reeve, W. H., ed., 1977, Geology of the Green and Gold Mountains area, Washington: New York, John Wiley and Sons, 752 p.

Zorro, Zeke, 1900, Folding in sandstone: Geology, v. 1, p. 30-35.

It is incorrect to write "et al." in the references cited; name all authors. Note capitalization, punctuation, and order of the citation. Last name and initials are used unless author has no middle initial, in which case first and last names are used. Note that only the first word and proper names are capitalized in the titles of articles and books. In general, specific pages are used for articles, and total pages for books (the use of "pp." for pages is obsolete). Articles should have volume number of journal. Books should have publisher.


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:

A. When quoting an English measurement;
B. When using an elevation from a non-metric map.
Notice that although units of measurement are generally abbreviated, they are not followed by a period (except at the end of a sentence). Check each unit of measurement to be sure it is what you intended, e.g., mm for length, km2 for area, m3 for volume.

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:

A. Typographical errors,
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.
Your professor can't understand your ideas if he/she can't get through the grammar.

References Cited

Hansen, W.R., ed., 1991, Suggestions to authors of the United States Geological Survey: Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 289 p. Jackson, J.A., ed., 1997, Glossary of geology: Alexandria, VA, American Geological Institute, 769 p.To Bob Carson's Homepage