Category Archives: Essay Advice

Changes to MLA Handbook – 7th Edition


The 7th edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, recently released, has been updated to reflect more of the electronic world in which we live. Most of the changes included in the handbook are related in one way or another to the recognition that today’s writers rely on electronic sources and use electronic means to create their documents.

In keeping with the spirit of the electronic age, included with the purchase of the handbook is free access to the official MLA Handbook Web site. Inside the back cover (underneath a silver scratch-off label) is a code that grants the purchaser free and “continuous access throughout the life of the seventh edition of the MLA Handbook” (MLA xxi). This site includes “enhanced ways of consulting, learning, and searching the contents of the MLA Handbook” as well as more than 200 examples of entries not in the print volume (MLA xxi). In addition, the FAQs include a list of changes and corrections for the 7th edition.

This list offers an overview of the major changes. Please be aware that other changes may be included that I may have missed.

  1. Works versus Books. (see MLA 5.3.4-5)

    Throughout the handbook, readers will note that when discussing preparation of the list of Works Cited, the headings now refer to “two or more works [emphasis added] by the same author” instead of books by the same author (MLA 133). This is in recognition of the fact that print is no longer the default medium.

  2. No longer a default medium in Works Cited list. (see Preface xvii)

    In the past, print media were considered to be the default medium. In today’s electronic world, this is no longer true. Therefore, in the list of Works Cited, the medium always is included. Insert this information after the publication information. Refer to MLA Chapter 5 for specific examples.

    Example for a book:

    Smith, John. Title of My Book. Anycity, ST: Publisher, 2009. Print.

    The word Print is now added at the end of an entry for any printed medium, including books and journals. Every entry will have a similar designation, based on its medium.

  3. Italics instead of underlining. (MLA 3.3)

    Yes, those are italics in the example above. The MLA editors now recognize that since most people no longer use typewriters but use computer programs to create their papers, italics are now an acceptable format for anything that used to be underlined. (The underlining of the past was used to represent which words should be italicized if the article were going to be published.)

  4. Including URLs in works-cited-list entries. (MLA 5.6)

    The new guideline is that including exact URLs is no longer required if the reader will be able to find the information easily on a Web site. These entries are now also referred to as Web publications, not electronic publications. Refer to section 5.6.2 for specific examples of what should be included for each entry type, but generally, the entry now includes the word Web prior to the access date. Here is what the editors have stated in the manual regarding URLs:

    In the past, this handbook recommended including URLs of Web sources in works-cited-list entries. Inclusion of URLs has proven to have limited value, however, for they often change, can be specific to a subscriber or a session of use, and can be so long and complex that typing them into a browser is cumbersome and prone to transcription errors. Readers are now more likely to find resources on the Web by searching for titles and authors’ names than by typing URLs. (MLA 182)

    They go on to state that including URLs is acceptable if the reader may not be able to easily find the document or if this information is required by an instructor. If including this information, the format has not changed: insert the URL at the end of the entry (after the date of access) inside angle brackets (<>), followed by a period.


    Smith, John, ed. Name of the Web Page. Publisher, date of publication. Web. Date of access. .

  5. Include both volume and issue number for articles from scholarly journals. (MLA 5.4.1)

    The new instructions now include both volume and issue number for journal publications, inserting them after the journal title and using a period between the volume and issue number. This does not apply to newspapers or magazines.


    Smith, John. “Article Title.” Name of Journal 12.2 (2009): 123-45. Print.

In this example, this is volume 12, issue 2 of the journal, published in 2009, and the article appears on pages 123 through 145. This change is recommended because research is often carried out using electronic databases, and having both volume and issue number can make the searching easier.


The above are the major changes that most affect editors and are discussed in the preface of the new handbook. Several other changes are noted, but generally appear to be geared more to the writers of papers, such as Chapter 4 that addresses the format of the paper (i.e., no longer includes a discussion of handwritten papers). Also, the editor mentions in the preface new instructions for tables and illustrations, but in comparing the 6th edition to the 7th, I saw only one minor difference: if the source of the table or figure is provided in the notes to the table or figure that source does not need to be included in the Works Cited. A list of suggested writing manuals and guides is now included in Appendix A instead of section 1.11. Also, Appendix B now includes only a list of specialized style manuals instead of examples of other systems.

The new edition is approximately 70 pages shorter than the 6th edition. Some of this is because of the changes mentioned above (i.e., a discussion about handwritten papers is no longer included); however, this is mostly due to the removal of Appendix A: Selected Reference Works by Field and Appendix B: Other Systems of Documentation, which included samples using notes instead of in-text citations, as well as the list of specialized style manuals.

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 7th ed. New York: MLA, 2009. Print.

How to Write Clearly and Concisely: Part 1

How to Write Clearly and Concisely: Part 1

Concise prose is clear and compelling. It is easy to read, understand, and remember. Wordy and rambling text, on the other hand, can be frustrating and difficult to decipher. A reader should not have to wade through many words, carefully considering their interactions, in order to grasp a sentence’s meaning. Succinct and precise text flows well; it can be comprehended with a minimum of time, effort, and hassle.

If your prose is clear and concise, then readers are more likely to read it thoroughly, to understand it accurately, and to appreciate its message. Since the goal of writing is to communicate, you must obtain your audience’s attention and comprehension. Make the reader’s job easier and your job more successful by writing simply and smoothly.

Here are two specific, straightforward ways to clarify and condense your writing.

Use specific verbs. One simple way to make your writing clearer and more concise is to use more verbs. Prose that primarily relies on adjectives, nouns, or phrases instead of strong, precise verbs tends to be weak and cluttered. Verbs are active and efficient; if you use them whenever possible, then your writing will be vigorous and compelling.

Instead of writing what something is, write what it does. Instead of using two verbs that form a phrase, use one verb that is sufficiently specific. This shortens a sentence and emphasizes its meaning. If a noun or adjective has a verbal form, then use it (“had an influence on” –> “influenced”). This not only clarifies your writing but also strengthens it so that it communicates more powerfully.


  • “This will make our hypothesis clearer.” –> “This will clarify our hypothesis.”
  • “He became an outspoken critic of her work.” –> “He openly criticized her work.”
  • “This is a positive for them.” –> “This benefits them.”
  • “I have reached the conclusion that he has a tendency to lie.” –> “I have concluded that he tends to lie.”
  • “She conducted research on beta particles.” –> “She researched beta particles.”

Use fewer prepositions. Often, a verb that requires a preposition (“go back,” “figure out”) can be replaced by a single, more specific verb (“return,” “determine”); this makes your text more concise and less awkward. Additionally, verbs that require prepositions are usually informal and, hence, less appropriate in academic documents.

Many prepositional phrases (“problems with his finances,” “a person in her employ”) can be transformed into adjectives, verbs, or more specific nouns (“his financial problems,” “her employee”). This simplifies the sentence structure so that it flows smoothly and is easier to read.


  • “Talk about it in explicit terms.” –> “Explicitly address it.”
  • “This was called into question by John.” –> “John questioned it.”
  • “She worked hard in school.” –> “She studied diligently.”

Ensuring Consistency in Your Writing


Before submitting or distributing your essay, research report, email, or any other document, besides performing the usual spell checking and proofreading, you should make certain that your writing is consistent in terms of spellings, usages, and formatting. This is important for two reasons: it helps to guarantee the clarity of your message and it lends an appearance of professionalism to your document.

If, for example, you refer to “theatres” in one part of your paper, you should not use “theaters” in another section. Neither should you vary from “U.S.A.” to “USA” or from “Prof.” to “Professor.” This also applies to names. For example, be careful to spell “Thompson” the same way throughout your paper, and not as “Thomson” and “Tompson.”

You should also make sure you are consistent in reference to your use of numerals and letters in lists. If you use a numbered or lettered list in one section of your paper, maintain that usage later on. You must also be consistent in reference to your use of capital and lower case letters in titles and lists and headings. For example, you may decide to use all capitals in headings and titles, except for articles and prepositions (assuming this is in accordance with the formatting style you are using), as in the following: Some of the Causes of the Civil War. Therefore, similar subsequent headings should be written according to that style. And so, the following would be incorrect: Early battles during the first months of the war.

Consistency applies to spacing and paragraphing too. You should use the same number of spaces between sentences. The common practice is to insert one space between sentences, but two is also acceptable. Of course, if you use block formatting (where all lines of text end at the right margin), then the spaces between sentences (and between words) will vary.

In addition, you should make sure that all of your paragraphs begin in the same formatting manner: that is indented or left justified, and not a mixture of both styles.

Consistency applies to citations and references lists. Do not vary between MLA, APA, Chicago, and other formatting styles. Choose one, and use only that one.

In short, to ensure that your written work represents your best efforts, you must maintain consistency at all times.

APA Refresher


Reference List:

  1. Double space the reference list, but do not add any additional space between entries
  2. Be sure to place a comma between the journal title and volume number, e.g., Psychology Today, 17
  3. Be sure to place a comma between the date of retrieval and “from” when listing a source Web site or an electronic database, e.g., “Retrieved October 4, 2008, from…”
  4. Do not capitalize all major words in book titles or article titles, only in journal titles, e.g., Social adaptive theory. Psychology Today, 17
  5. Do not add a space between the volume number and the parentheses containing the issue number, e.g., Psychology Today, 17(1)
  6. Put spaces between initials, e.g., Georgia, J. M.
  7. When using a month in the date, do not abbreviate, e.g., (2005, November)
  8. Always italicize the names of documents retrieved from the Internet unless they are newspaper/journal articles, e.g., Barclay, L. (2002). The paradox of “justice”
  9. formalization: When procedures erode perceptions of fairness. Retrieved December 9, 2005, from
  10. Always place commas between the author’s name and the ampersand, e.g., Michael, J. K., & Lorne, P. J. and Georgia, B. K., Mason, H. G., & Teakes, M. N.

In-Text Citations:

  1. (when using “et al.”) do not place a comma after the author’s name and be sure to place a period after “al,” e.g., Georgia et al.
  2. Place a comma between the author’s name and the year, e.g., (Terwilliger & Simpson, 2008)
  3. Use ampersands, e.g., (Terwilliger & Simpson, 2008, p. 3)
  4. Be sure to place a space between “p.” and the page number, e.g., (Georgia, 2003, p. 22)
  5. Use serial commas, e.g., (Mason, Georgia, & Lenny, 2008)


  1. When using a running head, be sure it is formatted as follows: Running head: INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES IN BIMODAL PROCESSES
  2. Do not label the introduction
  3. Repeat the title on the first page of the document text
  4. Do not use underlining or bold for headings

Capitalization, Abbreviations, and Percentages:

  1. Spell out United States when used as a noun
  2. Do not capitalize the names of theories, excepting, of course, proper names within them, e.g., social adaptive theory and Darwin’s theory of evolution
  3. In general, capitalize sparingly
  4. Percents are always given as numbers plus the percent sign, e.g., 25%

Proofreading Your Document


Before you submit your academic or other paper for review, you should take a few minutes to carefully proofread and, if necessary, edit your work so that it reflects your best effort. You should always spell check your written work and read it thoroughly….at least twice. While you are reading, you should be looking for and correcting errors in terms of punctuation, spelling, English usage, vocabulary, logic, etc.

Of course, there are thousands of words in the English language and just as many ways in which you may make errors. However, for the purposes of this paper, let us concentrate on only a few problem areas.

What is the difference between your and you’re? Your is a pronoun; it is used to indicate possession. Here are three examples of the proper use of your:

  • This is your room.
  • The team approved of your idea for the fundraiser.
  • Yes, your turn will come.

You’re is a contraction of you and are. It is used as follows:

  • You’re my all-time favorite friend.
  • He thinks that you’re not going to graduate on time.
  • Mr. Johnson believes that you’re the right person for the job.

How about fewer and less? Both words are adjectives, but they are not used interchangeably. Fewer is used to describe objects or persons—in other words, things which can be counted. The following are examples of when to use fewer:

  • She has fewer hats than Mary.
  • How many fewer cookies did he eat than Elsa?
  • Mr. Jones has had fewer opportunities to speak to clients than I have.

Less is used in reference to things which cannot easily be counted. The following are examples of when to use less:

  • There is less money is circulation now than in the 1990s.
  • He is exercising less often than he did when he was younger.
  • This school appears to have less structure than the one that we visited earlier today.

Two other words which are often confused are number and amount. As with fewer, number is used to describe objects or people—things which can be easily counted. The following are examples of the proper use of number:

  • The number of people voting for Jones is higher than those who voted for Smith.
  • What is the correct number of vehicles crossing the bridge each weekend?
  • I read a large number of books every month.

Amount is used to describe those things which are not easily counted. The following are examples of the correct use of amount:

  • There is a larger amount of water in the Pacific Ocean than that which is in the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Which team seems to be displaying a greater amount of confidence?
  • The United States has a larger amount of money in circulation than that in any other nation.

Another common error involves the use of who, that, and which. Use who when referring to people; use that or which when referring to other things. Here are some examples:

  • He is the one who caused the problem.
  • I like plants which do not require much upkeep.
  • He made the one comment that was sure to cause an argument.

The following are words (with examples) which are easily and often confused:

  • There……He is traveling there.
  • There are many ways in which to skin a cat.
  • There he is.
  • Their…….That is their house.
  • We accepted their apology.
  • Did you speak to their mother?
  • They’reThey’re not my friends.
  • They’re always making us late.
  • Do you think they’re coming?

Whose….Whose hat is this?

Harriet Beecher Stowe is the writer whose novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is said to have contributed to the fiery debate that led to the Civil War.

  • Who’s….Ruth is the one who’s always complaining.
  • Who’s coming to the party with me?

People sometimes confuse where and were. Generally, that kind of error is simply a typo. However, in case you are not sure of the difference, where refers to a location, as in Where did you put my coat?

Were is the past plural of is, as in the following: They were in my house just a few minutes ago.

When it comes to writing effectively and correctly, there are thousands of other potential pitfalls that a good writer must avoid. If you are unsure of your writing skills, you might want to send your documents to a professional proofreading and editing service before you submit them.

Writing from an Objective Point of View


Research papers, as opposed to essays, letters, editorials, and other opinion pieces, should be based completely on academic investigation performed by the writer. All such documents should be written from the perspective of an uninvolved third party. The writer should not insert his or her opinion or tailor the document so that it is guided by a point of view.

For example, a research paper on Abraham Lincoln’s presidency should contain verified information, and not the writer’s opinions. That does not mean that the writer is not allowed to draw conclusions or make statements which evaluate Lincoln’s presidential years. But those conclusions and statements must be objectively drawn from the research and they should be stated unemotionally. It would be appropriate to write “Lincoln missed several opportunities to come to terms with the secessionist states, and thus, prevent the Civil War” (followed by a source citation). It would even be correct to write “Many historians have indicated that Lincoln should have pursued opportunities to avoid the Civil War” or “There is evidence that Lincoln could have done more to avoid the Civil War.” However, it would be unacceptable to write “Lincoln should have prevented the Civil War” (whether or not the writer cites a source).

It is also inappropriate, in most instances, to insert first person pronouns in rigorously researched academic papers. Of course, if the writer feels compelled to state that he or she was involved in the experiment or survey or other method that was involved in the research, then it would be reasonable to write “I did….” or “We conducted.” Other than that, the text should be directed at the reader from a distance, as in the following: “The basic research involved distributing questionnaires to 250 first year medical students…..”
Similarly, the writer should not refer to readers as “you.” Rather than writing “This is important information that may benefit you,” it would be more correct to write “This is important information that may benefit all people (or all Americans or all women, etc.).”

Research papers should be devoid of emotion. That does not mean that the writer is forbidden to use strong language. However, while it is not permissible to write “Terrorists are disgusting people who should be wiped out,” it would be suitable to write “It is the responsibility of governments to apprehend, try, and punish terrorists who resort to merciless violence.”

All academic papers that are based on research, as opposed to those which are intended to be point of view pieces, must be written so that readers are presented with facts and with conclusions that have been drawn from those facts. The value of research papers depends on the depth and quality of the research and the conclusions that are drawn from it. The opinions of the writer should be held in abeyance.

Cleanliness Is Next to a Good Grade


The stereotypical bachelor student’s room looks something like this:

  • Smudge-ridden computer screen
  • Crumb-filled, crusty keyboard
  • A desk buried under papers, food, clothes, and heaven knows what else
  • A floor that’s…well, it’s under there somewhere, just can’t see it right now

Does this describe you? Of course not. But believe it or not, such people do exist in the world—and there’s a little of that slovenliness in many of us.

Unless you’re a so-called neat-freak, there are probably some areas of your work area that could be in better shape. But it’s not just the obvious, physical area I’m bringing up, although that’s important. It’s also other areas, including the following:

Your mind:
If your room is cluttered, you’ll have a hard time finding stuff. Same with your mind. When it’s time to work, you need to shut out distractions as much as possible. So, resolve that you’re going to forget about all the other pressures (and pleasures) of life, just long enough to do a great job on the essay you’re doing.

Your computer:
Do teachers even accept handwritten papers anymore? Beats me. In any case, since you’re almost certainly going to be working at your computer to write your essay, you need to make sure it’s not a mess.

First, tidy up the desk (or floor, bed, or lap) that your computer happens to be on. Banana peels and old soda cans in your line of vision are not conducive to concentration.

Second, take a few minutes to un-clutter your computer’s desktop and My Documents, if these areas are not already reasonably organized. It is very nice to be able to find things when you need them.

Once you do these things, make it a habit to keep things in good shape. It will put you in a better state of mind while you work, and this by itself may result in a higher grade.

There are very few reasons to begin a sentence with “there are”


The next time you think your essay, article, or letter is finished, use the Search function to look for “there.” I’ve come to suspect that, for some writers, typing There is or There are to start a sentence or clause must be an unconscious habit. I think people do not realize how often they do it–or how cluttered, unfocused, overly wordy, and weak it makes their sentences. Break the habit of beginning sentences with there is or there are. Notice how, in the examples that follow, “there is” or “there are” makes the sentences less smooth and causes the reader to stumble a little.

Rewriting is often a straightforward matter, as in these examples:

  • weak, overly wordy: There is research that shows that obesity has a genetic component.
  • concise: Research shows that obesity has a genetic component.
  • weak: There are many things that can go wrong when instructions are not followed.
  • concise: Many things can go wrong when instructions are not followed.
  • weak: There was an incident last year of a student caught cheating.
  • direct: Last year, a student was caught cheating.
  • overly wordy: There is a lot that needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • better: A lot needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • better: Much needs to be done to renovate the house.
  • best: The house needs many repairs.

In other cases, the fix is not quite so straightforward and might require completely rethinking and rewriting, finding specific verbs to replace the deadly “is,” “are,” “have,” or “has”:

  • weak: We interviewed the employees, and there were few complaints.
  • direct: We interviewed the employees and heard few complaints.
  • especially overly wordy: There have been several issues concerning the problem of how to get more business.
  • direct: Getting more business is a problem. We have identified the following issues: (list would follow).
  • overly wordy: If there is one thing the principal can’t stand, it is students who are late for school. (this sentence has an additional problem: it could be interpreted to mean the principal has a personal dislike of students who are late.)
  • concise: The principal really does not tolerate tardiness.
  • weak: There are few reasons to begin a sentence with “there are.”
  • concise: Beginning a sentence with “there are” clutters and weakens it.

Engaging the Reader


If you’re a copywriter, you understand the importance of engaging the reader. If you’re a student—maybe not so much. Nevertheless, the key to successful writing lies in seeing things from your audience’s perspective and then writing accordingly. Let’s see how that applies to essay writing and, subsequently, good grades.

One thing you can do is to use stories. For example, if you’re writing about tigers, you can actually tell about what you know has happened to some of them (make sure it’s true, of course). You might say something like:

It’s another day for the new cubs. Mom’s not back yet, and they’re starting to feel the pain of hunger. If she doesn’t make it back, they’re not yet old enough to hunt; instead of becoming the future predators, these little ones could instead become today’s prey…

Engaging? Yes. True? Yes. Likely to get you a good grade? Well, probably (unless, of course, your report is supposed to be about something other than tigers). Now, let’s take a look at a not-so-effective essay about the same subject:

The tiger is in the grass. It is about 6 feet long. It has stripes and a tail. The tail is long. It eats other animals because it is a predator. The little tigers cannot hunt until they reach a certain age. Before they can hunt, they may become the prey of other predators…

  • Paper 1: A.
  • Paper 2: Probably not an A.

Why is Paper 1 more engaging? Because it goes beyond just fact citing. It brings the subject to life in such a way that the reader will be interested. And you must do that if you’re going to get good grades on essays. It’s not just about putting facts on paper. That’s obviously important, but you’ve also got to have these facts well organized, properly formatted, and interesting to the reader.

That’s not to say that all this is easy; it takes time and practice to develop one’s writing skills. But the extra time and effort invested in making a paper interesting—as well as factual—will definitely pay off.

That Paper You Don’t Feel Like Writing…


Let’s face it—sometimes writing can be hard work. For example, you may not really care about Russia’s GDP in 1933 (or, then, perhaps you might). Likewise, the migration habits of squid are not at the top of most students’ lists of captivating studies. Nevertheless, to get a good grade (and to learn something, of course), it is necessary at times to do a good job and write a solid paper.

Here are some helpful tips to writing those “ugh” papers (and any other papers, for that matter).

Choose to have a good attitude:
If you look at it as a learning experience (which it is, not only in your subject matter, but also as an exercise in self-discipline, writing, and probably research), you can really motivate yourself to get something out of this.

Fact is, some of the most personally rewarding papers you write may not be the ones you’re naturally motivated to write. On the contrary, the ones that you have to stir yourself up to do will be the ones that make you feel really good when you end up with a good grade.

Basically, before you even start doing the actual work, you need to tell yourself that you can do this paper; you can do a good job on this paper; and you will both learn from it and feel great when you accomplish this task that is not naturally appealing. And during the times you feel like, “Why do I have to do this stupid assignment?” just remember the preceding points.

Make a plan:
When you’re intrinsically motivated to do a paper, it comes easy. Even then, however, you should be as organized as possible. But when the subject matter is something you don’t really care about, you have to protect yourself from the natural tendencies to escape from applying yourself to the task at hand.

With this in mind, insulate yourself from TV, friends, other work, or anything else that would give you an excuse to stop doing what you need to do to succeed at this writing. Keep in mind, however, that it is especially important to reward yourself with breaks periodically, or you can get burned out and really frustrated.

Make the most of unappealing writing assignments. The ones you enjoy will come along soon enough.