Essay style guidelines

Expectations governing written assignments

Every assignment given by an instructor in the department will have its own set of research requirements and analytical demands. Nonetheless, there are basic elements that are necessary to complete any university paper successfully be it a critical essay, a theoretical exploration, or a research report.

There are two basic models that give a paper a formal structure.

  • Thesis model: The author states a position on a given issue, and then proceeds to argue for the validity and   reliability of that position.
  • Process model: The author sets out a hypothesis that addresses a given issue and a research program designed to test that hypothesis. The author then proceeds to describe how that research unfolded and draws conclusions based upon the results.

In either model, the author must craft an argument that draws upon the available evidence for support. The model that you adopt should be consistent with the nature of the assignment you have been given.

Regardless of the essay model used, all papers should reflect the following:

  • All papers should have an introduction which establishes the basic issue to be addressed and – in very general terms – the approach which the author will take to this issue.
  • All papers should have a clear conclusion, one which summarizes the author’s findings and arguments and introduces no new evidence.
  • All papers should be organized in a logical fashion. Each paragraph of your paper should be understood as a step on a journey taking your reader through your argument and evidence. Make each step clear. Ensure that your reader can easily follow you from point to point, sentence to sentence, and paragraph to paragraph. The links between your ideas should be transparent.
  • Be fair to your data. You must not misrepresent it or use arguments or quotations out of context.
  • Be selective in your use of data. When discussing any text, do not provide a summary of its contents. Rather, explain only those elements which are relevant to your argument, in sufficient detail to carry your argument.
  • Stay focused. Consider all information for its ability to advance and/or challenge your argument. Do not use information that is tangential to your purposes.
  • When discussing any text, your task is analysis – not evaluation. Whether or not you enjoyed a particular text is not at issue in most assignments. More important is that text’s meaning, function or structure, and your interpretation of these things.

Our department brings together researchers from several disciplines, each with its own traditions in scholarly writing. For consistency’s sake, the department has adopted a set of guidelines that will apply across all streams. For more detail, please consult Jane Haig et al. (2005) Cites & Sources: A Documentation Guide (Toronto: Thomson/Nelson).

General Presentation

  • All papers should be printed on white, standard-sized letter paper (21.6 x 27.9 cm).
  • Use only one side of each sheet of paper.
  • Have margins of 2.5 cm on all sides.
  • Printer fonts should appear in 12-pt type, and all lines should be double spaced.
  • Number your pages, beginning with the first page of your text. The title page does not count and should not be numbered.
  • A good title page will have the following components: your name, an essay title, the course title, and your instructor’s name.

Reference conventions

  • The title of a periodical, book, sound recording, or broadcast series should appear in either italics or underlining – but not both (and, whichever you choose, be consistent).
  • The title of a poem, song, short story, article, book chapter, or broadcast episode should appear in “double quotation marks.”
  • Two types of titles should appear unchanged: the titles of sacred texts and the titles of websites, electronic databases, and electronic subscription services.

Notes on writing

A portion of every assignment grade is based upon your ability to convey ideas and construct arguments in a clear and precise fashion. This is demonstrated through your writing skills and style.

  • Professors often frown upon the use of the personal voice in scholarly writing. When in doubt, ask your professor for his or her specific preference.
  • Select words for their ability to convey your ideas with precision. Avoid the use of slang, unnecessary jargon, or contractions.
  • Ensure that pronouns are consistent with the nouns they replace.
  • Ensure that verb tense remains consistent from sentence to sentence.
  • Ensure that the meaning of each sentence is clear and precise.
  • Each paragraph should begin with an indentation from the left margin.
  • Paragraphs should not be separated by a blank line.

Notes on proofreading

  • Proofread.
  • Spell-checking programs are helpful but will not catch all mistakes. For example, they cannot tell if you have inserted a properly-spelled word in an incorrect spot, as happens when one uses “there” for “their” or “lead” for “led.” You must proofread your writing manually.
  • Put aside a finished paper before you proofread it. You can overlook problems when you are too familiar with the work.
  • Read your paper aloud. If a sentence sounds awkward to the ear, it may be grammatically incorrect.

Scholarly writing can be a form of personal expression that draws upon your imagination and experiences as much as it does upon careful analysis and research. That said, you must acknowledge the contributions made by previous scholars to show how your work builds upon and/or differs from them. In this respect, citations are crucial. We use citations to indicate the source of every fact, idea, or argument that we draw from other scholars. The citation style for our department uses a brief note inside parentheses – (like these) – at the end of each passage containing material drawn from another author. This brief note should include the author’s name, year of publication, and relevant page numbers. It refers the reader to a Works Cited page, which provides a full bibliographic reference for every source cited in the paper. The Works Cited page always appears at the end of a paper. Our department’s citation style follows that developed by the American Psychological Association (APA). The following sections offer a very general description of when and how to use it.

When to use citations

  • A note must be provided in each of the following situations:
  • A direct quotation.
  • When repeating another scholar’s idea or argument, even if that idea or argument is expressed or paraphrased in your own words.
  • When repeating any specialized or obscure facts taken from another scholar. Examples here include statistics or potentially controversial statements.

Failure to cite sources when using this kind of information constitutes plagiarism and will be dealt with under the university disciplinary guidelines.

Using quotations

Quotations are common in academic assignments. They are used best when you cannot express another scholar’s ideas any better than she has. This may occur where the original scholar has crafted a particularly apt turn of phrase, or where a certain precision is required (say, with technical definitions). If you can express the idea faithfully in your own words then you should do so, and not use the direct quotation.

Points to keep in mind when using quotations:

  1. Brief quotations should appear in double quotation marks (“).
  2. Long quotations (35 words or more) should be indented from the margins of your page, and appear without quotation marks.
  3. Quotations that appear within quotations should appear in single quotation marks (‘). This is done for both regular and indented long quotations. For example: Dicks’s dialogue in the novelization is limited by the quality of the original teleplay. Consider the following riveting exchange: The Black Dalek’s voice was triumphant. ‘The Daleks have discovered the secret of time travel. We have changed the pattern of Earth’s history.’ Defiantly, the Doctor said, ‘You won’t succeed, you know. In the end you will always be defeated’ (Dicks, 1979, 104).
  4. A note should appear after the closing quotation marks, and before the final punctuation mark. See above for an example.
  5. All quotations should make sense within the flow of your own writing. All pronouns and verb tenses in a quotation should be consistent with the sentences that surround it.
  6. Any changes you make to a quoted passage must be noted. If you drop any words, this must be indicated with an ellipse (that is, three periods), as such: … If you change any words, the alterations must appear in square brackets: [ ] For example, take the following passage:Again and again, we were collecting the same story about poor, usually rural backgrounds, about very hard exploitation and training during apprenticeship; about moving from village to town, from town to city, and city to Paris (of course this last feature was to be expected) (Bertaux and Bertaux-Wiame, 1981,187).It could be rendered as follows if quoted by another author:Bertaux and Bertaux-Wiame write that, “Again and again, [they] were collecting the same story about poor, usually rural backgrounds, about very hard exploitation … during apprenticeship; about moving from village to town, from town to city, and city to Paris …” (1981, 187).
  7. A quotation should be introduced into the flow of your own ideas with reference to its original author and/or context. It should never, ever, ever stand on its own. “Hanging quotations,” like the following, should be avoided:John Milton believed that an author’s work captured the essence of the author’s soul. “They preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them” (Milton, 1644, 5).The following construction is more informative:John Milton believed that an author’s work captured the essence of the author’s soul. Writing in defence of a free press, he argued that books “preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them” (Milton, 1644, 5).

APA Notation – The Works Cited Page

A good Works Cited page provides your reader with the information necessary to identify and retrieve the sources you have used. This means you must provide all of the basic bibliographic data relevant to each source. One should also note the following:

  • The Works Cited page should start at the top of a new sheet of paper.
  • Each item should appear in alphabetical order.
  • Each item should appear with hanging indentation—that is, the first line should begin at the left margin, while the second and subsequent lines should be indented.
  • The font, line spacing and page margins should be the same as those used in the body of your paper.
  • Do not list any works that are not referenced in your paper.

For published sources, bibliographic data should appear in the following format. Please note the punctuation used:

Name of author or editor, with family name first. (Year of publication). Title of poem, short story, article, book chapter, or unpublished manuscript. Title of periodical or book in italics, Number of volume or edition (number of issue)– if relevant. (Name of translator or editor – if relevant). City of publication: Name of Publisher. Page numbers if referencing a poem, short story, article, or book chapter.

If the name of the author is not known, then the title of the work should be used in its place.

Several entries by the same author must be listed in chronological order.

An unpublished text or personal communication (such as an interview or correspondence) should provide as much information as is available within the standard format:

Asper, David. (2006, 19 May). Personal communication. Winnipeg. Maguire,Heather. (2007). Towards a Geography of Mobile spaces. Paper presented to the Canadian Communication Association. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

For films and broadcast programs on radio or television, the citation format should be modified as follows:

Name of producer and/or director. (Year of release). Title of individual episode – if relevant, Title of program or series. Country of production. Production company or distributor.


Egoyan, Adam (Dir.) (1994). Exotica. Canada: Ego Films.

Starowicz, Mark (Prod.) (2001). Taking the West, Episode 10 of Canada: A People’s History. Canada: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

For sound recordings, the citation format should be modified as follows:

Performer. (Year of release). Title of song or segment – if relevant. Title of album – if relevant. Country: production company or distributor.

An album:

The Beatles. (1969). Abbey Road. United Kingdom: Apple.

Song released on album:

Feist. (2005). Inside and Out. On Let it Die. Canada: Universal.

Song released as a single:

Feist. (2005). Inside and Out. Canada: Universal.

Note: With digital storage formats, individual performances are often found outside of their original context – that is, the full recording as released by the original performer. When you reference a recording, it should always be traced back to its original context. This means that any song downloaded from the internet should be traced back to the album on which it first appeared. If the song only exists in a digital format, then you should cite it according to the format for computer-mediated communication (see below). This is necessary whenever artists use websites to release material that has never appeared in hard copy.

Computer-mediated communication creates a challenge for the disciplined researcher.

  1. Some documents exist in hard copy but are also distributed electronically. If that is the case, then follow the relevant format for the hard copy version of the document.
  2. Some documents only exist in electronic formats. If that is the case, follow this format:

Name of author or organization responsible for the document. (Date that the specific document first appeared). Title of document – if relevant. Title of website, database, or subscription service. Number of the edition or version used – if relevant. Date document was retrieved by you, URL: http:// ….

If the name of the author is not known, then the document title should appear first.


Collins, Ross F. (2000). Cowboys and Cow Town: Newspapers in the Dakota

Territory. Media History Monographs website, 3. Retrieved 3 July 2002,

from URL:

Brock University, University Senate. (2007). Academic Programs and Regulations. Brock University website. Retrieved 14 May 2007, from URL: webcal/2007/undergrad/areg.html.

APA Notation – Notes in the Text

A note in the text directs your reader to the full reference listed in your Works Cited page.This should happen as efficiently as possible, and consistency is the key.Always include the author’s name, year of publication, and relevant page numbers as follows:

(Hall, 1995, 135)

(Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, 2006, 15)

Remember to keep the note simple. Publication data and website URLs should not appear in any note. They should only appear with the full references you provide in your Works Cited page.

For a film or broadcast program, the note must include the country of production, year, and director or producer:

Exotica (Canada, 1994, Egoyan)

… witness Flutie’s brilliant catch during The 87th Grey Cup Game (Canada, 1999, CBC).

If an author, director or producer is mentioned by name in the text of your sentence, then the note may be shortened as follows:

Hall has argued that … (1995, 135).

In a recent decision, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (2006, 15) suggested ….

A good example of this trend is Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (Canada, 1994).

Where more than one author is responsible for a source, the citation may be shortened by substituting the words “et al.“ for the second and subsequent names:

(Romanow, de Repentigny, Cunningham, Soderlund, and Hildebrant, 1999, 76.) (Romanow et al., 1999, 76)

When two or more sources are cited to support the same point, they should appear in the same note separated by a semi-colon:

(Hall, 1995, 135; Romanow et al., 1999, 76)

When a passage taken from a source is itself a quotation taken from a previous document, then the original author should be given credit as follows:

James Carey has advanced Raymond Williams’ ideas with approval. Carey agrees with Williams that, “the study of communications was deeply and disastrously deformed by being confidently named the study of ‘mass-communication’” (Williams, quoted in Carey, 1988, 40).

If the name of the author, director or producer is not known, then the title of the source should be used instead. Remember that the title of a poem, short story, article, book chapter, song or broadcast episode should appear in quotation marks:

(“CRTC has new plan,” 1998)

Where two sources can be confused, additional information must be supplied to ensure clarity. For example, if the same author produced two works in the same year, letters may be used to flag the difference. These letters must also be used in the Works Cited page:

(Hall, 1995a, 135)

(Hall, 1995b, 261)

Sample Passages with Works Cited

Presented here are two passages which offer examples of several different citation situations. The authors have cited a variety of sources, including unpublished conference papers, journal articles, books, and television advertisements. They have taken direct quotations and paraphrased some ideas contained in these sources. The two passages are taken from:

Romanow, Walter I., et al. (1999). Television Advertising in Canadian Elections: The Attack Mode, 1993. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 33 and 118.


[His] performance was portrayed as less than brilliant. These ads included two featuring photos that focussed on Chrétien’s facial paralysis, along with a series of critical voice-overs, the most damaging being “Jean Chrétien – a prime minister?” (Progressive Conservative Party, 1991a) and “I personally would be very embarrassed if he were to become the prime minister of Canada” (Progressive Conservative Party, 1991b). … These two ads had clearly overstepped the line of perceived fair play in Canadian politics, which historically has been more civil than that in the United States (Romanow et al., 1991). Progressive Conservative candidates and campaign workers had not been briefed on these ads and were ill prepared to deal with the storm of criticism that followed their entry into the campaign fray (White, 1994). …

Taras, one of the few Canadian researchers to investigate the phenomenon, sees negative advertising as an attempt “to tarnish an opponent through ridicule or by a straight forward savaging of their character or record in office. The competence, motives, intelligence, and integrity of opponents … [are] brought into question. The object is to draw blood, to inflict irreparable damage (at least for the duration of the campaign)” (1990, 219). Although some researchers have restricted the negative genre to ads that attack the candidate personally (Pfau and Burgoon, 1989, 53; Basham, 1994), research has demonstrated that in negative advertising issues and candidates as targets tend to be mixed and that direct attacks on a candidate’s character alone are rare (Roddy and Garramone, 1988; Louden, 1990; Kaid and Johnston, 1991).

Works Cited

Basham, Patrick. (1994). Going Negative in the Nineties: Still a Good Idea? Paper presented at Canadian
Political Science Association, Annual Meeting. Calgary, Alberta.

Progressive Conservative Party. (1991a). Is this a prime minister? Canada: Progressive Conservative Party.

Progressive Conservative Party. (1991b). I would be embarrassed. Canada: Progressive Conservative Party. Kaid, Lynda Lee, and Johnston, Anne. (1991). Negative versus Positive Television

Advertising in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, 1960-1988. Journal of Communication, 41, 53-64.

Louden, Allan. (1990). Transformation of Issues to Image and Presence. Paper presented at the International
Communications Association Conference. Dublin, Ireland. Pfau, Michael, and Burgoon, Michael. (1989). The Efficacy of Issue and Character

Attack Message Strategies. Communication Reports, 2, 53-61.

Roddy, Brian, and Garramone, Gina. (1988). Appeals and Strategies of Negative Political Advertising. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 32, 415-427.

Romanow, Walter, Soderlund, Walter, and Price, Richard. (1991). Negative Political

Advertising. In Janet Hiebert (Ed.) Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing Research Studies: Vol.12 – Political Ethics: A Canadian Perspective.

Dundurn Press. 165-193. Taras, David. (1990). The Newsmakers: The Media’s Influence on Canadian Politics. Scarborough: Nelson. White, Jodi. (1994, 6 May). Personal communication.