Four Keys to Writing in the Humanities

Mark T. Unno

One of the challenges of writing papers in the humanities is that courses and instructors have different requirements and expectations. Nevertheless, there are certain things that tend to be consistent across the curriculum, such as focus and simplicity, basic forms of argument, documentation, and writing as a craft. When you begin to understand these basic elements, then the variety of requirements and expectations will actually become a source of inspiration and wisdom rather than confusion and frustration. That is because you will begin to understand that they are like variations on a theme. As you master these variations, your repertoire will increase, and you will become like a master musician on paper, freely able to move between genres and styles.

Focus and Simplicity

Starting with a good focus will help you to keep your paper manageable. If you start with a narrow focus, you can always expand the range of your topic later in the paper. If, however, you begin with a large topic, you may find that you have taken on too much to cover within the suggested page length. For example, it is easier to write a focused paper on "Chuang Tzu's View of Illusion in the Butterfly Dream" than "Chuang Tzu's View of Reality." These topics are related in such a way that the former has implications for the latter but need not cover every aspect of Chuang Tzu's view of reality. Taking one idea, one passage, or one image from the text as your main focus can provide a very good focus for your paper.

Keeping your prose simple will help you to communicate your ideas directly and effectively. As a rule, write natural English, don't make your sentences too long, limit the number of ideas per sentence, and don't use too many difficult words. Some people have the impression that academic prose is supposed to be difficult and convoluted - not true! Use natural English in which your ideas flow in an unforced manner. There are times to use complex sentence constructions and technical terminology, but your use of them will be much more effective if you keep your writing simple and straightforward.

Forms of Argument: Thesis, Evidence/Counter-evidence, Conclusion

The most basic form of argument in the humanities paper is to present a thesis, to back up your thesis with evidence (usually textual) while taking counter-evidence into account, and to bring the paper to a conclusion.

Thesis. You present the thesis in the introductory or thesis paragraph. Sometimes the thesis is presented in logical form. Other times, it is more indirectly stated, but the direction of the paper should be clear in either case. The first example below is a thesis paragraph presented very logically. The second example is an introductory paragraph that states its case more indirectly. (The two paragraphs make very different arguments.)

In Dakota-A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris argues that the significance of the Western plains has been largely overlooked. She bases her views on two fundamental ideas: The plains have a unique place in the United States both geographically and culturally, and they are an indispensable part of the larger interrelated whole called "America." In this paper, I argue that she is right in some respects but wrong in others. She is right to identify the characteristics of plains culture and life and to try to relate it to the larger life of the nation. However, she tends to overemphasize the impact that a greater awareness of the plains can have for all Americans.

In Dakota-A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris writes about her life on the Western plains of the United States. She describes it as a kind of monastic world in which she has come in contact with her spiritual roots through the lives of the people there, the land, and the solitude of her own inner life. She does not falsely idealize life on the plains as some kind of paradise away from the urban jungle. In fact, she is critical of the insularity and pettiness of the small towns in which she lives and works. Rather than detracting from the positive sense of her life there, however, her critical perspectives make her work more real and lead the reader to want to get to know her and the plains better.

Evidence, counter-evidence. In order to present the actual argument or ideas of the thesis/introductory paragraph, one needs evidence, and in most courses, this takes the form of textual evidence. In some ways, one is like a lawyer who presents a case in a criminal proceeding. The lawyer makes arguments for his case; that is, he crafts a story, a narrative. His argument will be more convincing the more evidence he is able to collect, but his narrative will be even more compelling if he is also able to take into account counter-evidence. This doesn't necessarily imply a rigid argument, counter-argument structure. Sometimes, counter-evidence is presented subtly in the form of alternative interpretations and multiple perspectives: "Another possibility is . . . ," or "She may have been thinking that . . . ; however, . . ."

Sometimes, the evidence is cited in detail - one might quote a journal entry, for example; other times, only a page reference is provided. Similarly in an academic paper, one might quote a paragraph or simply provide a page reference depending on what is needed. One place where a legal case differs from the academic paper is that, in the former, the introduction of massive amounts of evidence is often used to confuse or attack a position. In the academic paper, you want to do the opposite: Use an appropriate amount of evidence to tell your story in a compact, concise manner. As stated earlier, simple, focused prose is the most effective. One of the worst things you can do in writing a paper is to reach the suggested page length by putting in "filler."

Conclusion. The conclusion brings your story/argument to a close. It may contain some summary of your findings, but it should not merely reiterate your introductory or thesis paragraph. There are two ways to avoid redundancy. First, since the reader will have gained knowledge from reading the body of your paper, you can state your findings in a more finely nuanced manner than you did at the beginning. Second, there may still be some questions that remain, or your paper may have uncovered additional questions that show the significance of having proposed the thesis in the way you did. In this sense, it can be effective to end your paper with some insightful questions.

Thesis or introductory paragraph; evidence/counter-evidence; conclusion -- these are the most essential elements of a paper. There are twists and subtleties you can introduce to make it like a four- or even five-part paper, but most successful papers contain these elements. Visualizing your paper in various ways can help you construct this sequence of thesis, evidence/counter-evidence, and conclusion: a legal case, a three-act play, or even a three-part symphony can help you to gain a sense of the logical flow and rhythm of the story that is your paper.

Documentation: Intellectual Property and the Boundary of Ideas

Documentation, that is, providing quotations, page references, and footnotes, is essential to the academic paper. The importance of documentation as a source of evidence is discussed above. There are two other reasons for proper footnoting: 1) proper attribution of intellectual property, and 2) defining the boundary between your ideas and someone else's.
    1) One needs to use textual evidence in crafting the argument or narrative of a paper. This textual evidence comes from other people's books, articles, and the like, so it is very important that you document the source of your ideas if they are not your own. Ideas belong to people just like material objects; it took effort to create and render these ideas on paper, and one must give due recognition to one's sources.
    2) Proper documentation also facilitates something else. When you provide footnotes, you clearly delineate the boundary between someone else's ideas and your own. You can agree or disagree with someone else's ideas or interpret them in your own way, but if you don't provide references, then not only are you dishonest, but your paper is likely to be confusing, and the reader may not be able to tell where the original source's ideas end and yours begin. When you are exploring an idea, you want to represent it accurately first, and then interpret or criticize it next.

It's like serving cake. If someone else made the cake but you present it as your own, then of course this is dishonest. But there is a subtler point. Suppose you buy a birthday cake and decorate it with your friend's name before the party. If someone asks if you made the cake, then it would be dishonest to say that you made the whole thing, but you can take credit for the decoration. Footnotes in a paper help to identify which part of the cake you made. If the reader cannot tell which is which, then the paper is unacceptable.

There are a couple of ways to do footnotes. I usually provide sample footnote formats for the readings in a course. Otherwise, use published, established formats such as are found in Kate Turabian's Manual for Writers or the MLA Handbook.1 They provide fairly straightforward rules to cover a wide range of complex cases; don't reinvent the wheel.

Writing as a Craft

Some people assume that writing a college-level academic paper is a natural act like walking or eating, but it is actually one of the most difficult, learned skills that you will acquire during your four years in college. For the majority of students, the process of mastering the academic paper represents one of the most challenging tasks no matter how thorough the high school preparation. In a musical performance or an athletic competition, you can use your whole being - body, mind, and heart - to show others the results of your efforts. In an academic paper, however, you are trying to convey something that comes from deep within your understanding through the indirect, intellectual medium of writing. As Stephen Pinker states,

Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also, unlike a conversational partner, a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensive. Overcoming one's natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and--probably most important--intensive exposure to good examples. . . . [A] banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively. Good writers go through anywhere from two to twenty drafts before releasing a paper. Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer.2

In order to master the craft of writing, there are, in addition to the things discussed above, two other factors that must be taken into account: grammar and style.

Grammar is like the rules of a game. If you want to play basketball, you have to know the rules. There are obvious rules: You cannot double-dribble or go out-of-bounds. There are also some unwritten rules that involve strategy and tactics: Pass the ball to the open player; play within your ability. Rules sometimes may seem restrictive, but actually, they free you to play the game or write the paper. Unless you follow the rules, you aren't even in the game -- writing the paper. At the same time, there are ways to break the rules appropriately. If a player expects you to pass, you can fake and go in for the score. Likewise in writing, there are times when you can skillfully break grammatical rules, involving, for example, commas. However, it takes a very high skill level to break the rules on commas so that it enhances your paper. That is because the reader must see that that is what you are doing. If the opposing player doesn't think you can go in for the score, the faked pass isn't going to work at all.

Style develops out of the way that you use grammar, vocabulary, and the like. Style sometimes receives short shrift as if it's lipstick on the face of a magazine model, but it's much more than that. It lends nuance, flow, and depth to your paper. A musical performance can be technically accurate but horrible to listen to if it doesn't have style. Likewise, a paper can be technically competent but still read as a stilted, unimaginative work. The deeper you go into writing, the more your own style emerges as the means of self-expression. As Jake Gaskins states,

[Early on] I approached writing as primarily a matter of wording. Like the beginning pianist who focuses on the notes rather than the music, I thought of writing as a matter of choosing and arranging words in such a way as to sound impressive, or intelligent, or amusing, or touching. I had not reached a point at which writing becomes an end in itself, a means of discovering meaning. Nor had I developed an appreciation for the mystery of life. It was not that I lacked [life-]experience -- I lacked reverence for experience.3
Papers in the humanities involve imagination, capturing the nuances of emotion as well as of logic which often come through between the lines more than through explicit arguments. The way that you use words and the rules of grammar define the style in which you craft your paper. There are no set rules for style, just as you can't tell someone in merely logical terms how to interpret a Mozart piano concerto. You have to read a great deal of good writing, think about the writing as you read, and practice, practice, practice.

A Final Note

1. Focus and simplicity

2. Forms of argument: thesis, evidence/counter-evidence, and conclusion

3. Documentation: intellectual property and the boundary between your and someone else's ideas

4. Writing as a craft: grammar, style, and practice (drafts)

This doesn't cover everything, but if you are mindful of these four things, you will be on your way to becoming a very successful writer, someone who can conceive and express complex and subtle nuances of thought and human experience in ways that will immeasurably enrich your life in college and beyond.


1. MLA Handbook, 5th ed. (New York: Modern Language Association, 1999).

Kate Turabian, Student's Guide for Writing College Papers, 3rd ed., rev. and expanded (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

2. Stephen Pinker, The Lanugage Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York: HarperCollins 1995), 401.

3. Jake Gaskins, "On the Sorrow of Receiving a Teaching Award," The Sun vol. 267 (March 1998), 6.

© Mark T. Unno 2000