Guide to Writing Essays in the Liberal Arts

Turabian_Manual8th_9780226816371_jkt_MBGuide to Writing Hillsdale College Essays

Brad Birzer


Essential Resources

  • William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd is best.
  • Dictionary (almost any; I find the American Heritage the best)
  • Thesaurus (again, almost any; I use Roget’s II)
  • Formatting: Chicago Manual of Style (18th ed); or Turabian, Manual for Writers (8th ed)


Tips for Better Writing

  1. An essay is a tightly focused argument. The quality of your essay will always reflect the tightness of your argument.  When writing a paper, one should spend a significant amount of time outlining and thinking about the paper.  Every word, sentence, and paragraph should relate back to the thesis.  If not, excise it.


  1. Avoid wordiness. Wordiness almost always attenuates and even destroys the point one hopes to make in his paper.  As Strunk and White rightly contend, “Vigorous writing is concise.”  Wordiness takes up valuable space and frustrates the reader.
  • Remove phrases such as “in order.” In every instance, upon closer examination, this reveals itself worthless!
  • Avoid a conversational tone, as this always leads to wordiness. Written and oral language remain two different things.


  1. A good verb usually (almost always) leads to a good sentence. Use your thesaurus and dictionary to find the exact verb you need.  Remember: each word has a specific and nuanced definition.  Use the precise and necessary verb.  Do not pick the first synonym you find in the thesaurus.
  • Avoid passive verb construction. Passives: 1) obfuscate the actor and the action; 2) increase the wordiness of one’s paper.  Notice that with an active verb, one immediately discovers the actor, the action, and the result of the action.

Example 1

Passive: Custer was killed.

Active: Crazy Horse slaughtered Custer.


Example 2

Passive: The Lyceum was established.                                                                                                   Active: Aristotle founded the Lyceum.


  • Avoid the “to be” verb: is, was, were, to be, am, etc.
  • Be precise with word usage. g.: we have no idea what Cicero “felt.”  We do know what Cicero believed, argued, wrote, etc.


  1. Verb tenses.
  • Be carefully consistent with these. You should refer to an author’s work in the present if he/she is still alive.  g.: “Birzer argues. . . .”,  “Kirk argued . . . .”
  • But, use simple past for historical events. g.: “Bryan, a Nebraskan, lost the 1896 presidential election.”


  1. Use modifiers wisely. Bad example: “Having little regard for authority and respect, we see a cast of ruthless people come to forge a cohesive community.” “We” as readers may or may not have a regard for authority.
  2. Use citations as formatted by Chicago Manual of Style or Turabian, A Manual. An example: “Trust is basic to justice.”[1]


  1. Proofread and spell check. Do it again!  Have someone else look over your paper before turning it in to me.


Misc. Ideas

  1. “Good writers are born, not made.” While certain writers bring to their craft a strong sense of artistry, most writers rely on practice and skill.  Once a writer has his craft down, then and only then should he pursue the artistic elements of it.


  1. “I am a good writer because I earned ‘A’s in high school English.” Great–hopefully you stand upon a firm foundation.  Writing for a college professor, however, will prove far more rigorous.  Too many high schools (public and private) focus on the subjective, stream of consciousness “forms” of writing.  Yet, we have inherited a language of beauty–containing its own rules and internal coherency and consistency.  Our ancestors have given us a gift far greater than we can endow upon ourselves through our own subjective realities.  Objective standards allow us to step outside of our provincial selves, and, equally important, they offer us a touchstone upon which we can all agree.  Without this common source, we would never communicate effectively with one another.  We would simply drown in ourselves.  Writing “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” novelist and political theorist George Orwell wrote in 1946.


  1. “I only need to write well for my English professor.” Hillsdale College has earned its ranking as one of the best liberal arts schools in the country.  As subjects, both English and history reside within the humanities.  You will need to apply the skills learned in English to history, and vice versa.


  1. “I can write an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ paper the night before the paper is due.” Highly unlikely.  Quality papers demand much thought and scrupulous planning, and any good professor can immediately spot a quickly written paper.  Take your time with a paper, and your grade will most likely reflect it.


  1. “Language skills are unimportant.” Nothing could far further from the truth.  Any knowledge of twentieth-century history reveals that every tyranny established during the last century attacked languages and dictionaries first.  When one controls communication, one controls ideas and intellectual inheritance.  Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all recognized and embraced this essential fact.  Additionally, even a superficial glance at the founding stories and myths of the western tradition uncover the vital importance of language.  Language pervades the two greatest events of our world.  First, the Creation.  God spoke the universe into existence, as Moses records in Genesis.  Second, the Incarnation.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Gospel of St. John 1:1 (NIV)).  Further, as Dante described, those in heaven sing, rather than speak, as song represents the highest form of any language.  “No civilization rests forever content with literary boredom,” Russell Kirk argued.  “The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.”  J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, quoting another scholar: languages “are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples.  No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own; let the languages perish and the peoples perish too.”

[1] Marcus T. Cicero, “On Duties,” in Western Heritage: A Reader, ed. by Hillsdale College History Department (Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press, 2011), 219.

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