Certain literary works, because they offer intriguing difficulties, have attracted professional
critics hy the score. On library shelves, great phalanxes of critical books now
stand at the side of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s allusive poem The Waste
Land. The student who undertakes to study such works seriously is well advised to
profit from the critics’ labors. Chances are, too, that even in discussing a relatively
uncomplicated work, you will want to seek the aid of some critics.
If you do so, you may find yourself wanting to borrow quotations for your own papers.
This is a fine thing to do—provided you give credit for those words to their
rightful author. To do otherwise is plagiarism—a serious offense—and most English
instructors are likely to recognize it when they see it. In any but the most superlative
student paper, a brilliant (or even not so brilliant) phrase from a renowned critic is
likely to stand out like a golf ball in a garter snake’s midriff.
To avoid plagiarism, you must reproduce the text you are using with quotation
marks around it, and give credit where it is due. Even if you summarize a critic’s idea in
your own words, rather than quoting his or her exact words, you have to give credit to
your source. A later chapter, “Writing a Research Paper,” will discuss in greater depth
the topic of properly citing your sources. For now, students should simply remember
that claiming another’s work as one’s own is the worst offense of the learning community.
It negates the very purpose of education, which is to learn to think for oneself.
The Form of Your Finished Paper
If your instructor has not specified the form of your finished paper, follow the guidelines
in the current edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, which
you will find more fully described in the chapter “Writing a Research Paper.” In brief:
* Choose standard letter-size (8 1/2 X 11) white paper.
m Use standard, easy-to-read type fonts, such as Times New Roman or Courier.
* Give your name, your instructor’s name, the course number, and the date at the
top left-hand corner of your first page.
r On subsequent pages, give your last name and the page number in the upper
right-hand corner, one-half inch from the top.
m Remember to give your paper a title that reflects your thesis.
m Leave an inch or two of margin on all four sides of each page and a few inches of
blank paper or an additional sheet after your conclusion, so that your instructor
can offer comments.
® If you include a works cited section, it begins on a separate page.
m Double-space your text, including quotations and notes. Don’t forget to doublespace
the works cited page also.
m Put the titles of longer works—books, full-length plays, periodicals, and booklength
poems such as The Odyssey—in italics or underline them. The titles of
shorter works—poems, articles, or short stories—should appear in quotation marks.
Spell-Check and Grammar-Check Programs
Most computer software includes a program to automatically check spelling. While
such programs make proofreading easier, there are certain kinds of errors they won’t
catch. Words that are perfectly acceptable in other contexts but not the ones you intended
(“is” where you meant “in,” or “he” where you meant “the”) will slip by undetected,
making it clear to your instructor that your computer—and not you—did the
proofreading. This is why it’s still crucial that you proofread and correct your papers
the old-fashioned way—read them yourself.
Another common problem is that the names of most authors, places, and special
literary terms won’t be in many standard spell-check memories. Unfamiliar words
will be identified during the spell-check process, but you still must check all proper
nouns carefully, so that Robert Forst, Gwendolyn Broks, or Emily Dickenson doesn’t
make an unauthorized appearance midway in your otherwise exemplary paper. As the
well-known authors Dina Gioia, Dan Goia, Dana Glola, Dona Diora, and Dana
Gioia advise, always check the spelling of all names.
As an example of the kinds of mistakes your spell-checker won’t catch, here are
some cautionary verses that have circulated on the Internet. (Based on a charming
piece of light verse by Jerrold H. Zar, “Candidate for a Pullet Surprise,” this version
reflects additions and revisions by numerous anonymous Internet collaborators.)
A Little Poem Regarding Computer Spell Checkers 2000?
Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a key and type a word 5
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.
As soon as a mist ache is made
It nose bee fore two long 10
And eye can put the error rite
Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poena threw it
I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect awl the weigh
My checker tolled me sew.
Another mixed blessing offered by most personal computers is the grammar
checker. These programs highlight sentences containing obvious grammatical
mistakes. Unfortunately, if you don’t know what is wrong with your sentence in the
first place, the grammar program won’t always tell you. You can try reworking the
sentence until the highlighting disappears (indicating that it’s now grammatically
correct). Better still, you can take steps to ensure that you have a good grasp of
grammar already. Most colleges offer brief refresher courses in grammar, and, of
course, writers’ handbooks with grammar rules are readily available. Still, the best
way to improve your grammar, your spelling, and your general command of language
is to read widely and well. To that end, we urge you to read the works of literature
collected in this book beyond those texts assigned to you by your teacher. A wellfurnished
mind is a great place to live, an address you’ll want to have forever.
What’s left to do but hand in your paper? By now, you may be glad to see it go.
But a good paper is not only worth submitting; it is also worth keeping. If you return
to it after a while, you may find to your surprise that it will preserve and even renew
what you have learned.