Essay Hints and Tips

Always refer to the text in the present tense (the fictional world), but refer to history (the real world) in the past tense.


Set your spellcheck to “English (Canadian).” American spelling is not the global default

  • e.g., honour, colour, sabre, theatre, oxidize, penalize


Use the author’s full name the first time you name him/her (e.g., “Right Honourable Pierre Elliot Trudeau”), but only their family name after that (e.g., “Trudeau”).


Use serial commas. “And” does not replace a comma between the second-to-last and last item in a list:

  • e.g., “I have three kids: Dale, Lane, and Pat.”


Do not use contractions.

  • “don’t” (bad)
  • “do not” (good!)

Also, remember “I cannot fly” means almost the opposite of “I can not fly.”


Quotation marks are for quotations only. Never use them as “scare quotes.” Use double-quotes only. Don’t mix double-quotes and single-quotes.


Use a colon at the end of a complete sentence to introduce a quotation. Only put commas before quotations if they would go there anyway.


Quotations are more convincing that citations and paraphrases. Instead of a page number, supply some of the source’s actual words.


Whenever possible, integrate quotations into the flow of your words. It makes your point easier to understand, and it indicates mastery of the source text.


Do not end paragraphs with quotations. It doesn’t give you a chance to interpret the quotation (which is your job, as the writer).


Quotations that are four lines or more should be formatted as block quotes: indent the left margin 1 inch, the right margin 1/2″, and don’t use quotation marks.


Titles should be centred and in the same font/size as the rest of the text. No underlining or bold-facing. Don’t get fancy.


Use the active voice. It is easier to follow and usually uses fewer words.

  • “It will be argued that…” (passive voice: bad)
  • “This paper argues…” (active voice: good!)


Use the simple present tense. It makes your sentences direct and to the point.

  • “This paper is arguing…” (present continuing: bad)
  • “This paper argues…” (simple present: good!)


Do not use the present progressive, (i.e., don’t turn verbs into adjectives). For example:

  • “Higher prices are indicative of rising costs of materials.” (present progressive: bad)
  • “Higher prices indicate rising costs of materials.” (simple verb: good!)


Don’t use weak words for claims, words like “seems” and “could” and “might.” Be assertive: “is.”


Cut unnecessary phrases:

  • We can see in the novel that Calvinism has affected…
  • It is revealed in glimpses throughout the novel that i Industrialism has affected the landscape in a negative way.
  • Readers are shown that Archie MacNeill has an excessive temper.


Do not use “you” to refer to your reader or to refer to people in general. Instead, use “one,” “people,” “readers,” “they,” or even “we.”


“Since” ≠ “because”:

  • “since” = refers to time
  • “because” = refers to causality
  • “given that” = refers to evidence


The phrase “give evidence” applies only to legal trials. For an essay use a simple verb: implies, demonstrates, shows, suggests, etc.


Always follow “this” with a noun, the thing that “this” refers to. If you can’t think of a specific thing, then your reader won’t know what it is, either. (NB: This rule applies to “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those.”)


Don’t use brackets. They are for unimportant information, and all information in an essay should be important. You may use them for “i.e.” and “e.g.” expressions (e.g., the letters “i.e.” stand for “that is” in Latin).


Never call something “obvious” or “clear.” If it is obvious, then you should be able to explain it.


Do not uses phrases such as “I think…” or “I believe…” or “It seems to me…” They can fool you into thinking you’re making an argument when you’re not. If you find yourself writing one of these phrases, simply delete it.


Only make claims about the text, not about universal/timeless rules of human behaviour. For example:

  • “Families that experience immigration are traumatized.” (stated as a rule: bad)
  • “The Chans in The End of East are traumatized by immigration.” (directly refers to the text: good!)


You cannot have conversations with dead people. You do not know what the author “meant” to say or was “trying” to say or “intended” to say. You also do not know what the reader thinks or feels. Do not presume to know these things, even as a figure of speech.

Use the text as evidence, with phrases such as “The poem describes a mountain…” or “The speaker’s tone is sad…” Do not argue what you think “Hughes is trying to say…” or what “Herrick wants us to think…”, and don’t claim that “The reader starts to wonder…” You simply do not know what the poet meant or what the reader thinks. Instead, refer to the text and its implications or the context in which that text exists. Cite evidence, not speculation.


Remember that you are not your essay. All I have to mark is the pieces of paper that you give me. I can’t know what you were trying to say; I know only what you said. Make your reasoning clear to someone who isn’t inside your head. I can’t know how hard you worked, so you have to put all your efforts on the page.