Essay Guidelines

Students are encouraged to display literacy, clarity, logic, judgement, and coherence in their writing. A good student will announce an argument clearly and firmly, provide reasons for advancing that argument, anticipate objections, defend and illustrate the argument, and put forth a proper conclusion. If you have difficulty with writing, make good use of your dictionary. If you are at all unsure whether you have selected the word you really want, or are insecure about spelling, look it up. If you have difficulties with grammar and style, obtain a good guide such as Robertson or Strunk and White and use it. Refrain from too much dependence on secondary sources. You will be penalised for needlessly copying out passages from secondary sources. A Queen's graduate is an independent, articulate, and persuasive person.


It is very important to choose a topic that will interest you and that allows you to make an argument and offer some actual analysis of a subject. Essays that are merely descriptive or narrative are not good essays. An essay must have a thesis statement (a statement of your argument). Your instructor will provide some guidelines for choosing a topic, or will give a list of topics from which to choose. The following web pages offer much good advice on choosing a topic and developing your arguments.

If you prefer something already printed, Colin Norman's Writing essays: A short guide, produced by the Department of English here at Queen's and available in the bookstore, is strongly recommended.

Your instructor will set a minimum and maximum length for essays. Instructors will often set specific guidelines for margins and font size in order to save themselves having to count words: keep your instructor happy by following these. Such limits are always carefully chosen and should be followed. They are usually intended to offer enough room to cover your topic, but not enough to accommodate padding, digressions, and rambling. Footnotes or endnotes should be used for citations and references, not discussion. If your paper is substantially shorter than the guidelines, you are probably not covering the topic in sufficient detail. Your instructor is concerned with the quality of your work, rather than its quantity. Length will not, of itself, lead to a better mark. If you find your essay is too long, careful editing (elimination of redundancies, superfluous words, and digression) can usually trim an essay that you think has no fat by up to twenty percent. Queen's Student Academic Success Services offers a useful handout: Eliminating Wordiness.

Important reminder: When you use ancient sources, you will probably be using a translation. When choosing a topic and writing an essay you should be careful not to forget that. The English words before you reflect the translators' interpretations of the original texts and not the originals. Be careful in how much weight you give specific vocabulary in your translations.

There are many different ways to cite sources and format bibliographies in essays in the humanities and classics. Your instructor might give specific instructions, but the most common system in use in classics today is what is often called an author-date reference system. This means that, if you refer to works of modern scholarship in the body of your essay, you will identify the work by the author's name, the date of publication if there is more than one work by that author, and a page number. Different versions of the author-date system use different punctuation: e.g., Smith 1990, 111; Smith (1990) 111; Smith 1990: 111; Smith 1990.111. If you have fairly few references, it is usually easier to insert them within parentheses (rounded brackets) in the text (this saves your reader from looking at a footnote to see what it contains). More than three should probably be put in a footnote. References to ancient texts should not be footnoted but inserted in the text, unless the number of references makes that unwieldy: if there are enough references so that you cannot easily see where the sentence resumes, you have too many for inclusion in the body.

This is only an introduction. Guidelines for such systems can be found in major style books, such as that produced by the Modern Languages Association (MLA), the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), and Turabian. For more information on these systems and formatting in general, you can consult (in addition to the web pages mentioned below):

The free, downloadable program, Aristarchos, will help you identify journals and their correct abbreviations.

Primary sources in classics offer their own problems for the scholar citing them. For citation of ancient texts, consult the classics-oriented web pages given below and pay attention to your texts and course readings. Three points in particular are worth keeping in mind:

  1. Almost no one today uses Roman numerals in citations of ancient texts, and some academics find them positively annoying. Use a period without a space to separate numbers within the same reference (Thucydides 1.2.3); use a comma plus a space to separate different references within the same book or poem (Thucydides 1.2.3, 6, 8-9), and a semi-colon to separate different books, works or authors (Thucydides 1.2.3, 4.6 [i.e., 4.6 of book one]; 2.3.4).
  2. Keep in mind that you will usually be working with translations. Unless you know Latin and Greek, you will have to cite and quote translations. This means that you will need to put the translation(s) you use in your bibliography. It is common practice to add, at the first citation of an ancient source, a reference indicating what translation is being used. E.g., " blah blah blah yadda yadda (Aen. 8.273; all references to the Aeneid follow Lattimore's translation)" (or do that with a footnote), and then you will put Lattimore's translation in your bibliography.
  3. As does any discipline, Classics has its own ways of doing things. If in any doubt at all, consult! For example, students often have trouble with even the names of classical works, which often have real titles quite different from those they are often called in English. For example, Livy's history of Rome is definitely not called in Latin The History of Rome, and the titles of translations of parts of Livy's history have been made up. There is no work by Livy called The War with Hannibal: that is the title of a translation of part of Livy's history published by Penguin. In fact, it is presumed that a reference to Livy is to his main surviving work (whose Latin title is ab urbe condita) and so the title of that work is usually omitted. Therefore, before you cite any ancient work, consult your texts, readings, and the sources below, which in turn usually refer to the guidelines to abbreviations and citations contained in standard classics reference works such as The Oxford Classical Dictionary.  Of course, keep in mind that even within the discipline of classics there are many different established ways of doing things.

Note well: Never put your essay in a binder or folder or have it bound unless an instructor specifically asks you to. A staple in the top left corner is almost always enough.

The contributors' guidelines for The American Journal of Archaeology and Transactions of the American Philological Association, two major North American classical journals, are also helpful:

Here are some other very highly recommended guides to researching, writing, and formatting essays, mostly in classics:

Instructors expect essays to be written in good, grammatical English. Students can get help with writing essays and understanding grammar from Student Academic Success Services (on the main floor in Stauffer Library), phone: 533-6315; e-mail: As well, their web pages have some helpful handouts (see "Punctuation, Grammar, Style").

Many of the web pages cited above have sections on grammar. The following are also recommended:

Even though the web contains many excellent resources, students are still advised to own a good comprehensive English dictionary, and a detailed guide (or guides) to English grammar, usage, punctuation, and style.

These pages offer good overall advice about what instructors are thinking when they grade essays: