Word-processors for writing essays

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1. The advantages of using word-processors for writing essays are overwhelming. They offer editing and re-writing tools, spelling-checkers and grammar-checkers, plus many features for improved layout and presentation.

2. If you are only just starting to use a word-processor and still producing handwritten essays, don’t feel disadvantaged. Keep in mind however (as an encouragement) that as presentation standards are forced up by word-processors, tutors are likely to become less and less tolerant of untidy work.

3. The main advantage of a computer when writing essays is that it allows you unlimited scope for re-writing and editing what you produce. You may start out with only a sketchy outline, but to this you can add extra examples, delete mistakes, and move paragraphs around to improve your argument. You are able to build up to the finished product in as many stages as you wish.

4. At first you might continue to produce your first draft in handwritten form, then transfer it into your computer at the keyboard. You can then edit what you have written, either on screen or by printing out what you have produced. This is quite common for beginners.

5. You will probably feel a strong desire to see everything printed out as soon as possible. Later however, with experience, you might edit on screen, only printing out the finished version. Most recent word-processors allow you to see on screen what the finished document will look like.

6. Before you print out your final document, make sure to leave plenty of blank space around the text so that your tutor can write detailed comments on what you have produced. Take the trouble to set wide margins, and follow the guidelines for good page layout and presentation.

7. The word-processor will produce your documents very neatly, but will probably do so by using single line spacing. Even though you are likely to be pleased by the neatness, learn how to set for one-and-a-half or double spacing so that your tutor is still able to make helpful additions and corrections between the lines of text.

8. If your word-processor has a spell-checking facility, then use it before you print out your document. But remember that it is unlikely to recognise specialist terms and unusual names such as ‘Schumacher’, ‘Derrida’, or ‘Nabokov’. These will not be in the processor’s memory. You will have to check the correct spelling of these yourself, as you will any other unusual words.

9. Remember too that a spell-checker will not make any distinction between ‘They washed their own clothes’ and ‘They washed there own clothes’, because the word ‘there’ is spelled correctly even though it is being used ungrammatically in this sentence. Use your grammar-checker [if you have one] to locate such problems.

10. Use italics to indicate the titles of books. (Reserve bold for special emphasis.) It is important that you are consistent throughout your document.

A.J.P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War, London: Penguin, 1987.

11. Take full advantage of indenting to regularise your presentation of quotations. Use double indentation for those longer quotations which would otherwise occupy more than two or three lines of the text in your essay. Try to be consistent throughout.

12. Advanced users may well be tempted to take advantage of automatic footnoting. Word-processors can remove all the headaches from this procedure. However, do not clutter your text with them just for the sake of showing off your command of the technology.

13. In most cases, the size of font chosen should be eleven or twelve points. This will be easy to read, and will appear proportionate to its use, when printed out on A4 paper.

14. Choose a font with serifs (such as ‘Times New Roman’ or ‘Garamond’) for the body of an essay text. Avoid the use of sans-serif fonts (such as ‘Arial’ or ‘Helvetica’): these make reading difficult. Avoid using display fonts (such as ‘Poster’ or ‘Showtime’) altogether. These are designed for advertising.

15. Long quotations (where necessary) should normally be set in the same font as the body of the text, but the size may be reduced by one or two points. This draws attention to the fact that it is a quotation from a secondary source. Alternatively (or in addition) it may be set in a slightly different font.

16. If your word-processor automatically hyphenates words at the end of a line, take care to read through the work and eliminate any howlers such as ‘the-rapist’ and ‘thin-king’.

17. In laying out your pages, you should avoid creating paragraphs which start on the last line of a page or which finish on the first of the next. (These are called, in the jargon of the printing trade, ‘Widows and Orphans’). The solution to this problem is to control the number of lines on a page so as to push the text forward. An extra space at the bottom of a page is more acceptable than just one or two lines of text at the top of the next.

18. Titles, main headings, or essay questions may be presented in either a slightly larger font size than the body of the text, or they may be given emphasis by the use of bold.

19. Don’t use continuous capital letters in a title, heading, or question. In addition [even though many people think it is good practice] there should be no need at all to underline. If something is a title, a heading or a question at the top of an essay, then the larger font, and the use of bold should be enough to give it emphasis and importance.

20. Don’t forget to put your name and student ID number on any work you submit.

© Roy Johnson 2003

Writing skills links

word-processors Tutorials, guides, and books, on writing skills

Red button Writing skills – a bibliography

Red button Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

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