No. 1 Academic Writing Guide

According to Valerie Strauss, college lecturers keep telling me that too many of their pupils don’t write well. So, here’s a primer on how to write an academic paper prepared for college students, while some of the advice is applicable to anyone writing anything. Steven Horwitz, an economics professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, is the author. Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective and Monetary Evolution, Free Banking, and Economic Order are his two publications.

Academic Writing Guide

Horwitz, Steven

Though nearly 4,000 words on how to write better papers may seem excessive, the reality is that writing papers in college (and the type of writing you will do for the rest of your life) is not the same as it was in high school. My goal in publishing this tutorial is to assist you in becoming better academic writers and better able to explain your viewpoint… The goal is not to overwhelm you with laws and regulations, but to provide you with the information you need to develop and express your ideas legitimately and persuasively.

Research Papers and Topics in Academic Writing

The majority of nonfiction class papers can be divided into two types: research papers and theme papers. You must choose a topic for your research paper and do independent research (typically at the library or online) to gather information and sources. For topic papers, you are usually assigned a topic (or several) based on the course readings and discussions, and you are expected to compose your paper using those resources (rather than outside ones). Almost all of the information in this handbook is applicable to both types of papers.

You must use the course readings regardless of the type of academic paper you are writing. Those readings are provided to assist you in comprehending both course and non-academic information. Why would we provide them to you if we didn’t expect you to use them? The goal of either type of paper is to see how well you can put what you’ve learned in class into practice. You must use the ideas and readings from it in order to do so.

Check to see if you have cited and included course texts in your bibliography once you’ve finished your work. If not, then chances are that what you’ve done isn’t really relevant to the course. Remember that, like everything else, course readings must be properly attributed.

How to Create a Good Thesis Statement in Academic Writing

A thesis statement is required whether or not your article includes outside research. You need to make your ideas more clear by coming up with a thesis phrase once you have a notion of what you want to say and some understanding of what others have stated (s). A thesis statement expresses your paper’s major point. Any class paper’s purpose is to persuade your reader that you have something to say that he or she should be interested in. An excellent thesis statement should be debatable, specific, and short. The following is an example of a bad thesis:

* The Soviet Union’s history is fascinating and complicated.

(Valerie Strauss, 2012)

There are many interesting and complex things in the world, and I challenge you to identify a country whose history isn’t. This theory, albeit brief and relatively specific, is not actually contested.

The following is an example of a good thesis:

* The Soviet Union’s history demonstrates many of the issues associated with centralized economic planning and the bureaucratized society that will ultimately emerge.

(Valerie Strauss, 2012)

This thesis is arguable, particular, and manageable in length. It presents one side of a potentially debatable debate. Someone could argue that the Soviet Union’s history reveals the issues of political authoritarianism but tells nothing about economic planning. The content taught in class and the readings, as well as other sources if necessary, should serve as the foundation for your supporting arguments.

The main point of taking a course is to develop a framework for studying new occurrences (whether natural, social, literary, or creative), and formal papers are a way to show that you’ve learned enough to do so. It’s important to remember that your goal is to persuade your “reader,” not the lecturer. When I read a paper, I’m not the audience; instead, I’m the judge, deciding whether or not your work might persuade someone else. Don’t bother about persuading me; worry about persuading “someone else.”

It’s also critical to remember to start with your thesis. Don’t wait until the last paragraph to express your thoughts to your reader. This is exactly what you should be doing throughout the paper. The goal of course papers is to provide the instructor with your well-informed perspective on the subject. Your thesis serves as a roadmap for the points you’ll make in the body of the paper. Make it a point to state it upfront and stick to it.

Consider yourself a lawyer, and consider defending a thesis as if you were trying to convict a defendant, with the professor serving as the judge rather than the jury. This entails seeing your sources as proof. This is effective in both directions. Sources that support your position are useful because you may quote or cite them to support your case, much like eyewitnesses to a crime.

Sources that oppose what you’re saying are also crucial because you’ll need to justify why you think contradictory arguments are wrong or inadequate. If you came across a source claiming that the Soviet Union’s history taught us nothing about the feasibility of economic planning, you’d have to contradict it or explain why it’s incomplete. If the defendant has an alibi, you must establish that he is lying or that the alibi is insufficient to exonerate him. If other writers have said something different, you must address it and at the very least illustrate how it does not contradict your thesis.

Conclusion and Introduction

Introductions are exactly what they sound like. They allow you to expose your reader to your argument and vice versa. They also strive to persuade the reader to be interested in what you have to say. Building up to the thesis with an introduction that piques the reader’s interest is an important part of creating an effective thesis. Don’t leave your reader in the middle of a debate. Begin with something intriguing and broad, then draw your reader in by connecting that broad concept to the topic at hand. Introductions should be broad but not overly so. The following is an example of a poor first sentence:

* Karl Marx was a pivotal figure in history.

This is problematic because “Karl Marx” may be replaced with hundreds of other names and still make sense. You want your introduction to express something specific about your topic, such as:

* Karl Marx was the first major thinker to claim that capitalism is the root of exploitation.

See how that really gets to the heart of the matter? From there, you may discuss the nature of exploitation, how he defines capitalism, and finally, a thesis that explains why he believes capitalism produces exploitation.

Conclusions are simply that: a chance for you to bring things to a close. Don’t finish with something like:

* Karl Marx was a fascinating and influential thinker who expressed his views on capitalism in a contentious manner.

It says nothing, just like the terrible intro. The following would be a better way to start a conclusion paragraph:

* Karl Marx’s argument on capitalism’s exploitation is incorrect in the end because…

Then, in broad strokes, summarize your case. Would a prosecutor end a closing statement with something like this: “In conclusion, the defendant did some good things and some horrible things, and I really can’t say much about her other than that?” Obviously not. Finally, let your reader know what conclusions they can make from your paper. Explain why she should be interested in what you’ve just said. Give her a takeaway from the story.

Academic Integrity and Citation

This is everyone’s favorite topic. Citation is a basic concept: when you use other people’s unique ideas, you must give them credit for those ideas. As a writer, you have the freedom to express your own thoughts and opinions, as well as the ability to draw on the work of others. With such rights comes the obligation to tell your reader which ideas are yours and which are not, as well as to acknowledge others when you use their work. This is your opportunity to demonstrate to others that you have done your homework and appreciate the significance of your sources in building your own arguments.

In-text citations with a bibliography at the conclusion, i.e. some variant of APA style, is my preferred style. Consider the following scenario:

* It has been suggested that Marx’s concept of alienation is linked to the concept of commodity production (Roberts and Stephenson 1973, p. 35).

NOTE: There should be a space between the end of the word and the open parenthesis, no gap between the open parenthesis and the authors’ names, and a period after the close parenthesis.

Use the author’s name(s), the date of the specified text, and the page number to create a citation (s). You must provide the pages where the exact thing you mention is covered unless you are referring to the entire argument of a book or article. It also demonstrates to your reader (and to me) that you read the text in question. If you’re employing an idea that runs throughout the entire source, you can skip the page number. Just make sure there aren’t any precise quotes or paraphrases from certain pages.

When you paraphrase or quote an author word for word, you must include an in-text reference with a page number (not just a listing in the bibliography). When you use statistics that you acquired from a source, you must offer an in-text citation. These are the rules that cannot be broken. If you violate them, you are committing plagiarism. The discussion of academic honesty in the student handbook is assumed to be familiar to you.

Academic dishonesty is something I take very seriously. My ability to detect and then locate the stuff you’ve cut-and-pasted from the Web far outweighs your capacity to deceive me with such cut-and-paste jobs, so don’t even attempt because I’ll find the original material and start the academic dishonesty process.

This sentence contains a quote that requires an in-text citation:

“Such knowledge is spread among market participants,” writes Lavoie (1985, p. 6).

NOTE: A quote should always be introduced rather than slapped in the middle of a paragraph with only the citation to identify it. Also, quotes should never be stacked on top of each other without any text between them.

If you were to paraphrase this quote, you’d have to provide the following information:

* According to Lavoie (1985, p. 6), human knowledge is diffused among market traders.

It is not permissible to write either of the preceding phrases without including a citation. You have the freedom to utilize whatever sources you want, but that freedom comes with the need to tell your reader where and how you got your information. A citation serves this purpose. Consider the lawyer who stated, “Some witnesses saw the accused conduct the crime.”

Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn who those people were and what they saw? Giving an in-text reference when you cite ideas, information, or data is the same as calling specific witnesses. To make your argument, you must do so. This is also true if you try to apply the concepts more broadly:

* One way of looking at capitalism is to see it as a tool for overcoming the reality that human knowledge is spread over the marketplace (Lavoie 1985, p. 6).

It’s also not acceptable to leave that sentence un-cited. The reason for this is that it identifies a particular “perspective” and implies that it is not your initial thought. As a result, you must state where it comes from. You don’t have to mention your sources every time you return to that core point, but you must do so the first time.

Knowing when to cite is, in reality, as much an acquired ability as anything else. A few unbreakable rules exist, such as providing a verbatim quote, a paraphrase, or statistics. Use your best judgment after that. It is usually preferable to cite excessively rather than insufficiently. To continue the metaphor, whenever you rely on evidence acquired or debated by someone else, you should cite. Your sources act like witnesses, and a skilled prosecutor would build her case by telling the jury that “witness so-and-so saw the defendant do it.” Witnesses representing the opposing party must also be cross-examined!


(Strauss, 2012)

If you choose to use this citation style, you must include a bibliography at the end of your paper that lists all of the sources you used in the text. Include no items in your bibliography that you haven’t cited in your paper’s text, and don’t cite anything that isn’t in your bibliography.

Some people claim that they get ideas from books but don’t always use them. That’s nonsense. You should cite it if you got ideas from it. It doesn’t belong in the bibliography if you didn’t get any ideas or information from it. Please use the official APA citation style if you are familiar with it. Make use of any reference books you may have received in FYP or FYS. Bibliographic style should at the very least resemble the following examples:

A book

Don Lavoie, National Economic Planning: What Is Left?, Ballinger Publishing, Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Article Title:

Peter Murrell is a writer. “Did Ludwig von Mises’ Challenge to Market Socialism Answer the Theory of Market Socialism?” History of Political Economy 15, Spring, pp. 120-135.

Article in an Edited Volume:

Ricoeur, Paul. 1971. “The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text,” in Understanding and Social Inquiry, Fred Dallmyr and Thomas McCarthy, eds., Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977.

I’m not too fussy about the details here, as long as you get all of the relevant information in your entry. However, do be careful how you cite articles in edited volumes. The editor(s) of the book (i.e., the name(s) on the cover) is usually not the author(s) of all the articles in the book. Usually, the editor(s) have only one or two of them at most. You must cite each article separately by the name of the author(s) of each article.

Check to make sure you are clear on whose article or chapter is whose. Also, make sure you underline or italicize (pick one and stick with it) the book title and put the article or chapter title in quotes. For more examples of bibliography formatting, and the relevant information on the course readings, consult the syllabus. All of that information is there for you.

A word of advice about Internet sources: before using Google, do your homework. Be familiar with the journal literature and the popular sources that are also available on paper. Learn how to use EconLit and other scholarly and popular indexes. Then, and only then, should you Google. Why? The beauty of the Internet is that it is pretty much unregulated; that is also its greatest weakness.

Net sources are on average much less reliable than printed ones because even though scholarly material is available via Google, a much larger percentage of what you find is, in one way or another, self-published and therefore less reliable.

The best way to determine whether a Net source is a legitimate one is having read lots of printed material and having a sense of what kinds of arguments are considered reasonable. If you go to the Net first, I guarantee you’ll get tons of sources, most of which will be worthless.

However, if you do find a usable Net source, you should cite it like any other work. Note that there must be an author and a title of the page or paper in question. Then you can provide the complete URL and either date listed on the page, or the date that you accessed the information.

Internet sources:

Horwitz, Steven. 2008 “An Open Letter to My Friends on the Left,” letter.html. Accessed 18 May 2021.

The hardest part about making use of sources is not finding them or learning how to manipulate the mechanics of citation. The hard part is evaluating whether a source is reliable or not. This is especially true on the Net but is also true for printed material. The best way to become a good judge of sources is to read them.

For example, papers that keep being cited by other authors are probably important. But the only way to know that is to have done a fair amount of reading and research (including the reference lists of the sources you find) and enter the ongoing conversation. And that requires taking the time and doing the work.

Presentation and Format

Nothing is more disappointing and annoying than a sloppy-looking paper. If you think it doesn’t matter, you’re wrong. What it tells your reader (and me) is that you don’t give a damn about what you’ve said. Show some pride in what you do and take the time to make it at least look like you care.

You should feel flattered that someone has asked you to tell them what you have to say about a subject. When you turn in wrinkled pages with no page numbers or title, it says that you don’t take yourself or your ideas seriously. And this holds whether you’re turning the paper in electronically or hard copy.

The following is a list of things that your papers, first drafts included, must contain. This includes any drafts you send as a file attached to an email or place in a Dropbox on Angel. If I print that file, it should look just like the academic paper you would hand in as a hard copy. That means:

  • A separate title page that includes your name, the date, the class, and a real title.
  • Double spaced (not 2.5). (not 2.5).
  • Margins of 1 to 1.25” (no more) (no more).
  • Quotes over three lines long should be single-spaced and indented 1/2” on the left margin.
  • Automatically numbered pages. Figure out how to do it in Word.
  • A bibliography starting on a new page.
  • Use Times New Roman 12 point font or something else easily readable like Garamond and does not use the templates in Word 2016 or 2019 for writing academic papers. Just plain black text on a white page, please.
  • 8. If a hard copy, your entire paper must be stapled or paper-clipped – Do not use geeky plastic binders.
  • 9. No more than a very small number of handwritten changes; preferably zero.
  • 10. The pages should be clean, dry, and wrinkle-free.

A few comments on this list. First, pick a title that says something about your paper. A paper on Albania should not be titled “Albania” or “The Economic History of Albania.” Instead, try “Albania: An Example of the Failures of Stalinism.” The last one says something, the first two don’t. Try not to make your title a question; make it a statement that summarizes the main argument in the paper. Your title should also not be a complete sentence. It should be a short, declarative summary of the paper.

Second, if you have a long paper that seems to divide up into distinct sections, break it up by using section headings. For example, if the first half of your paper on Albania was about socialist theory, you could use a section heading to indicate it. Before you start the next section, say on the history of Albania, you could use another section heading, and then use one to indicate your conclusion. This will help keep your organization straight and make it clearer for your reader.

Third, number your pages. This enables me to give you help or criticism on specific pages. No little thing annoys me more than a lack of page numbers. Ask my wife.

Fourth, give yourself enough time to do the assignment well. If you start two days before it’s due, I guarantee you the paper will not be as good as it could be. The biggest cause of sloppy work and bad analysis is not taking your time. If you start enough in advance, you can run a draft or two and take the time to read them for analytical and grammatical errors.

You should be the most merciless critic of your own work. Write a draft and go over and over it; that’s what I do with my work. However, doing so requires time, so create the time to do the job right. If I have the time, and I usually do, I will be glad to read early drafts and outlines, just ask me ahead of time.

Remember that grammar, spelling, and correct use of the language all matter. I know that you all know how to do all of this correctly. You make mistakes because you are rushing to finish and/or you just don’t care very much. Making simple mistakes makes you look uneducated and sends the message that you don’t care about your ideas. And if you don’t care, why should I?

Concluding Remarks

The point of this academic writing guide is not to scare the hell out of you, it is to help you. Really it all boils down to this issue of pride. Have some pride in what you do, have some pride when people ask you for your thoughts, and have some pride when you present those thoughts to others. If you have some pride and care, you’ll take the time to construct good arguments and use (and cite) your sources properly, and the way you present your academic papers will reflect that pride.

There’s nothing mysterious about academic writing good papers. It is a skill that anyone can learn and master. Yes, it takes work but what doesn’t? You’ll find that if you start caring about what you’re doing that the work will seem less of a struggle, the concentration will come easier and the rules will no longer be constraints, but rather the means through which you can communicate what you have to say.

Remember the feeling when you were a little kid and you brought home your first finger painting and you were so proud of it that you insisted that it get hung on the fridge? It’s that pride in your work (and the feeling it generates) that ought to motivate everything you do, not just in college but in your whole life. If you care about what you do, the rest will take care of itself.

Incase you experience any difficulties understanding this, kindly reach out to Academized for help in academic writing.