M.A.R. Habib 


(1) Summary of Various Types of Assignments:

We might begin by considering the kinds of writing assignments you might be given for various writing courses.

The simplest type of assignment in such courses might call for exposition of a given writer’s views or of a particular trend or genre. For example, you may be asked: “What, according to Engels, were the conditions of working class life in England?” or “What are the principal features of Liberalism?” or “What are the primary characteristics of an epic?”

A second common assignment is to write a paper based on comparison and contrast. For example, you could be required to contrast the critiques of capitalism offered by Karl Marx  and a literary figure such as Shelley, Charles Dickens or Matthew Arnold; or you might be asked to compare and contrast two conflicting views of imperialism or of the appropriate status of women.

A third type of assignment might ask for a paper investigating  cause and effect. For example, you could be asked to write on the causes of the French Revolution; or the immediate/long term effects of the Civil Rights movement in America.

A more complex kind of assignment may ask you to evaluate the  argument(s) of one or more writers. You may be required, for example, to assess Edmund Burke’s arguments against the French Revolution or the arguments of Thomas Paine in support of that revolution; or you could be asked to assess the arguments of various writers for and against racism.

Finally, you may have assignments requiring you to analyze a  literary text. In this case, you must consider not only the text’s content (what it says) but its form (how it says). For example, you might be asked to consider how Frederick Douglass’ autobiography  uses literary devices to intensify its argument against slavery; or you may need to reflect on the structure of a text such as the Odyssey or Dante’s Inferno.

These, then, are the most common kinds of assignments you will be given. You need to recognize that there are no sharp bondaries between them; a paper contrasting the views of Burke and Paine will also consider the nature of their arguments; it will, of course, entail exposition of their views. However, you need to determine where the emphasis of each assignment lies and to structure your paper according to the appropriate format.

(2) Approaching the Assignment:

The most fundamental prerequisite of a good paper is that you read the text thoroughly, think about it carefully and have something worthwhile to say about it. Most poorly written papers are written by people who have little or nothing to say: this condition inevitably holds with those who don’t give themselves enough time to complete the assignment and who have an inadequate knowledge of the text. 

Assuming that you take time to read the text carefully, there are certain procedures which will help you in the various kinds of assignments noted above:

  • Understanding the nature of the assignment
  • Critical reading
  • Organizing one’s notes
  • Working out a thesis
  • Drafting an outline of the paper
  • Preparing a first draft
  • Revising extensively
  • Editing and proofreading

Let’s review each of these procedures in turn:

  • Understanding the nature of the assignment: are you required to compare and contrast, analyze an argument, write about causes and effects, or simply expound? Your answer to this will govern the way in which you read and re-read the text(s).
  • Critical reading: this involves:
    1. awareness of exactly what we are looking for
    2. effective note-taking
    3. summarizing

It’s a good idea to read the text through once fairly quickly; this will give you a broad overview of the main themes and issues raised, the writer’s style and approach. Before you read it again, you need to be aware of what specifically you are looking for. As you re-read the text, you might underline or highlight what appear to be the most significant passages and words, making notes in the margins. But, no matter what the assignment, you should have a firm grasp of  the writer’s main points and of the basic structure of the text. This will enable you to write a summary, which might be a point by point statement of the thesis and  main points.

  • Organizing one‘s notes: the kind of assignment required will determine how you order your notes into a series of specific points. For example, a comparison-contrast paper demands a different kind of organization than an argumentative paper (see the next section).
  • Working out a thesis: after reviewing your notes, you need to  decide what your general position is going to be. A good thesis will (a) give a clear statement of yourposition or viewpoint on the given subject, (b) indicate the overall purpose of your paper, and (c) cite two or three reasons in support of your perspective.

The precise format of the thesis will depend on what the overall assignment is. In general, a thesis statement need not be a single sentence; the more detailed and refined it is, the better the reader will be able to understand the author’s exact position and purpose. Without a clear and detailed thesis, a paper is liable to be badly organized.

  • Drafting an outline of the paper: it’s a good idea to make our outline about one page long so that you can see the structure of your proposed paper at a glance.

A standard format for an outline is as follows:

(1) Introduction: briefly introduce the topic of the paper. Don’t, however, indulge in statements of the obvious, such as “Dante was a writer of genius” or “Sophocles was a major Greek dramatist.” Why? Because people will think you’re an idiot. Use the introduction to sketch any relevant and necessary background to the topic under discussion. If you can’t think of an appropriate introduction, it will do you no harm to start off with the thesis.

(2) Thesis Statement: state your overall position, citing perhaps three reasons A,B,C, in the order of their importance.

(3) Part I of body of paper: One/Two paragraphs supporting reason A with evidence from the text or elsewhere: it is always confusing for the reader if you talk about two or more unrelated issues in a single paragraph. Hence, each paragraph (or each set of related paragraphs) should be unified. In other words, it should focus on oneaspect of your argument or discussion. You can make this focus clear by including a topic sentence which indicates the main theme or argument or  subject-matter of the paragraph.

(4) Part II of body of paper: One/Two paragraphs supporting reason B with evidence: as you move to elaborating your second reason, you need to use an effectivetransition sentence, which helps the reader to see the connection between your first reason and your second reason. The transition sentence might be incorporated into the topic sentence or it could be a separate sentence. It’s a good idea to avoid transition phrases and sentences which denote mere addition, e.g. “Also,” “Furthermore,”  “Another reason.”

(5) Part III of body of paper: One/Two paragraphs supporting reason C with evidence: again, you need an effective transition to introduce this section.You also need to end with a powerful or striking point.

(6) Conclusion: don’t simply restate your thesis; in a short paper, such repetition will be superfluous. There are a number of ways in which you might fruitfully conclude: you could highlight your most important point; you could point to additional implications of an issue; you could end with a provocative question; or you might offer a general reflection, generated by your specific analyses.

In brief, your outline may look something like this:

Thesis + reasons A, B,C

Part I: reason A: — topic sentence, evidence (points 1,2,3)

Part II: reason B:— topic sentence, evidence (points 1,2,3)

Part III: reason C: — topic sentence, evidence (points 1,23)


Given the widespread use of computers, it’s not always necessary to make an outline before you start writing. You may find it easier to begin by free-writing, by writing down in sentences and paragraphs whatever ideas come into your head. However, you still need to organize retrospectively what you have written, by making an outline based on what you have already produced. This will give you a clearer sense of whether your paper has  a clear thesis, a coherent structure, and whether the points you make  follow an ordered pattern. What is important is that you do make an outline at some stage during the production of your first draft.

  • Preparing a first draft: writing your first draft will be much easier if you have a detailed outline. Here are some steps you might follow:

(1) Type your thesis statement into the computer screen. Since it is the basis of your paper, everything you say in the paper should be related to your thesis. Ask yourself what kind of introduction would be appropriate. Do you need a substantial introduction or will a very brief one suffice?  Remember to cite the titles of the works you are dealing with.                                                                           

(2) Look at the first point in your outline which supports the thesis. This point will be the basis of the topic sentence of your first paragraph, which you should now type in. With your notes about the text in front of you, decide which points from/about the text you might use for this first paragraph. List those points in order of importance and write one or two sentences about each of them in turn, supporting your remarks with appropriate quotations or citations from the text.

(3) You can follow a similar procedure for the remaining points in your outline.

(4) Before you type in your conclusion, look over your paper carefully to decide where your arguments have led. Your actual conclusion may be different from the one you initially anticipated.

  • Revising extensively: in many ways this is the most important part of the writing process, so it deserves considerable time and attention. Often, the difference between a good paper and a poor paper lies in the revision process. You can revise a poor paper to improve it in many ways. Here are a few hints:

(1) Set aside your draft for at least a few hours or, if possible, for a few days. This will allow you to achieve some distance from your work, and you may discover errors, oversights and possible connections which escaped you earlier. You can then revise the paper according to the following basic schedule, which focuses first on the  overallorganization and structure of the paper, and then considers more local issues such as grammar, syntax (sentence construction), diction (word choice) and punctuation.

(2) Look closely at your thesis. Is it clear? Detailed? Sufficiently focused? Does it accurately reflect the essential content of your paper? If your answer is no to any or all of these questions, your paper is unlikely to succeed and you need to undertake major revisions.

(3) Read quickly through each of the paragraphs in your paper and ask yourself: does each paragraph deal with a  single theme or point? If, for example, you deal with a given issue in paragraph one and return to the same issue in paragraph five, you need to amalgamate these two paragraphs, or at least place them in consecutive order. In general, you might ask: are  all the paragraphs in the right order? Do they follow an ordered pattern (based on logic, evidence, or importance), or do they need to be shifted?

(4) Consider the transitions between paragraphs: do they exhibit clearly the connections between successive paragraphs? Have you used the same transitions too often?

(5) You can now review in detail the structure of each paragraph in turn. Is the point of the paragraph clear? Is there a topic sentence, and is this adequately developed and/or illustrated? Have you made adequate reference to the text on which you are writing? Are there any sentences which are superfluous, irrelevant or repetitive? Are there any sentences which might be shifted? Is any sentence in need of clarification or amplification?

(6) Look at your use of reasoning and evidence throughout the paper. Do you offer clear reasons for the points you make? Are these reasons appropriately ordered, according to importance or logical consequence? Above all, ask yourself: does the paper display a thorough knowledge of the text under consideration? Is the basic point of each paragraph supported by reference to specific parts of the text? It’s a good idea to use several brief quotations from the text; if you lack room for quotations, you can cite (refer to) specific parts of the text.

(7) Once you are satisfied that the thesis, overall structure and paragraph development of your paper are sound, you can focus on more local problems concerning sentence construction and mechanics. Ask yourself: is the meaning of every sentence clear? Is every sentence concise? Are there any superfluous or repetitive words or phrases? Is the diction (word choice) appropriate?

(8) Finally, you can address possible mechanical problems. Look for any common errors such as: sentence fragments, comma splices, run-on sentences, dangling modifiers, lack of subject-verb agreement and lack of noun-pronoun agreement.

(9) It’s always a good idea to show your paper to a peer or colleague who might give you feedback on the questions enumerated above. He or she might also comment on whether or not the tone and audience-awareness of your paper are appropriate. Here is a brief  Revision Checklist:

Thesis: clear and detailed?
Paragraphs: appropriately ordered?
Transitions: clear and accurate?
Each Paragraph: point clear? topic sentence? any repetition?
Reasons: clear? ordered?
Evidence: sufficient reference to the text?
Sentences: clear? concise?
Mechanics: any common errors?

  • Editing and proofreading:

Once you have made the necessary revisions to your paper, you are ready to edit it, to look for and remedy any minor errors in use of grammar, punctuation, spelling, italics and capitals. It’s worth taking some time to edit since you have the opportunity to correct unintentional oversights.

To proofread, you need to look carefully through your paper, line by line and to correct neatly any errors you find. If there are numerous errors, you should re-type the paper. It’s a good idea, when  proofreading, to read the last sentence first and to proceed backward; in this way, you might catch errors which have so far eluded you.



If you are asked to expound or summarize the main points of a given text, you need to:

(a) identify and paraphrase (write in your own words) the author’s thesis or central argument. If the text is not argumentative in nature, you can at least try to work out what the author’s central point or purpose is: what factors or circumstances motivated the author to write this piece? What was he/she attempting to achieve? To whom is the piece addressed?

(b) isolate the major points the author uses to support his/her thesis. Also make a note of any illustrations or examples which figure substantially in the text;

(c) arrange these major points and illustrations according to the order they assume in the textTry to point out why that particular order was chosen by the author;

(d) paraphrase the author’s conclusion;

(e) you now need to ensure that your own expository paper is organized, coherent and makes sense. You could show your paper to a peer/colleague to see whether or not you have represented the author’s views clearly. Your paper might have the following format:

Brief introduction, giving background to author/text
Statement of the author’s thesis
Brief statement of the author’s main points and how the author has organized these
A more detailed description of each of these major points
Commentary on the author’s use of examplesevidence and /or reasoning
Statement of the author’s conclusion


Comparison and contrast are not usually ends in themselves; the purpose of your paper will determine how comparison and contrast are to be deployed. Comparison and contrast can be used for a number of purposes:

(i) to present information;
(ii) to contextualize or define a person, place, event;
(iii) to persuade (that one viewpoint/entity is preferable to another);
(iv) to help the reader understand a difficult and unfamilar subject by reference to a familiar subject.

A comparison and contrast paper can be organized following a point by point model or a Ablock” model. For example, if you are comparing the views of two authors on the French Revolution, you could choose perhaps four different aspects of that Revolution and consider the views of both writers on each aspect in turn. Or you could examine one writer’s views on all four aspects and then the other writer’s views on those aspects. Whichever model is chosen, the basis and purpose of comparison need to be made clear; and it is a good idea to isolate specific themes along which the paper is initially organized. Here are the basic stages  for writing your paper:

(1) After your first reading of the two texts to be compared,  decide which themes you are going to isolate for comparison and contrast;

(2) make a list of these themes and arrange them in order of importance;

(3) read again carefully through the two texts, making notes  on the themes you have isolated; under the heading of each theme you can list specific points (with examples where possible);

(4) organize your notes into two columns, as shown below:


Theme 1                   
Theme 2

Theme 3

Theme 4

 TEXT 1:

Points 1,2,3
With examples
Points 1,2,3

Points 1,2,3

Points 1,2,3

 TEXT 2:

Points 1,2,3
With examples
Points 1,2,3

Points 1,2,3

Points 1,2,3

(5) you now need to work out a detailed thesis which will indicate: (a) the purpose of your comparison of the two texts; 

(b) the broad themes on which your comparison/contrast is to be focused; 
(c) the overall structure of your paper;

(6) you are now ready to draft an outline, which might take the following format:

Thesis: purpose, themes, structure
Themes 1-4: discussion of these themes in first text
Themes 1-4: discussion of these themes in second text
Conclusion: what did the comparison/contrast show?

Alternatively, your outline might look like this:

Theme 1: discussion of this theme in first and second texts
Theme 2: discussion of first and second texts
Theme 3: discussion of first and second texts
Theme 4: discussion of first and second texts

(7) once you have produced this outline, you can follow the guidelines given earlier in this booklet for revising, editing and proofreading.


cause might be defined as an event or series of events or a circumstance which necessarily gives rise to another event or circumstance (the effect). We use the model ofcause and effect primarily to understand and explain a given phenomenon, trend, or series of events. Identifying a cause helps us to situate a given event or trend (effect) within the context of history, biography, motive or patterns of physical phenomena. Here are some hints for writing a paper which speculates on the causes of an event or phenomenon:

(1) Read through the text(s) carefully, identifying as many causes as you can. Make a list of these causes;

(2) organize the causes, following these steps:

(a) place together causes which are related. This will give you three or four groups of causes;

(b) arrange these groups in order of importance. This procedure will indicate which are major causes and which are minor causes;

(3) look through the text(s) again, making notes on the possible evidence and arguments for each type of cause. You will need to organize, in order of importance, the evidence and arguments listed under each cause;

(4) work out an appropriate thesis, using the following basic format: AThe major causes of phenomenon X were A, B and C”;

(5) you can now draft a formal outline, arranged as follows:


Thesis: statement of causes A,B,C in order of importance

Group A:

Cause 1 + Evidence/Reasoning
Cause 2 + Evidence/Reasoning
Cause 3 + Evidence/Reasoning

Group B: 

Cause 1 + Evidence/Reasoning
Cause 2 + Evidence/Reasoning 

Group C:  

Cause 1 + Evidence/Reasoning
Cause 2 + Evidence/Reasoning


(6) you should now follow the guidelines given earlier for drafting, revising and editing.


Of the various types of papers you may be required to write,  argumentative papers are the most common and the most difficult to master. An effective argument typically contains the following elements:

A clear thesis – stating one’s position on an issue
– offering specific reasons

Acknowledgment of one’s premises (initial assumptions)

Definition of important or controversial terms/concepts:
– statement of essence
– example
– stipulation

– inductive: conclusion follows probably from premises
– deductive: conclusion follows necessarily from premises

– examples (real or hypothetical)
– analogy
– citing of an authority
– statistics

Refutation/Accommodation of counter-arguments:
– acknowledge opposing viewpoints
– exhibit flaws of opposing arguments

Audience awareness:
– who is the audience?
– assumptions shared between author and audience?
– author’s use of appropriate persona, method, tone

A brief review of these elements may be helpful:

Thesis: it’s always a good idea to make the thesis as specific as possible. You should indicate your position clearly (even if your position is ambivalent); you should also list in your thesis, in order of importance, the reasons for your position.

Premises: you need to be aware of what premises or initial assumptions you can reasonably share with your audience. For example, if you are arguing against capital punishment, one of your premises might be that the deliberate taking of a life is generally wrong. Your audience is likely to agree with this and you do not need to argue it. This position will serve as one of your (unargued) premises. However, if your position is that the taking of a life under any circumstances is wrong, some people are likely to disagree with this and you will need to argue your position.

Definition: again, your use of definition will depend on the degree of familiarity with your subject which you can expect from your audience. If your argument centers on any difficult or unfamiliar terms, you need to offer a clear definition of such terms. You can define terms in a number of ways: (i) you can state the essence or distinctive qualities of a term. For example, you might define a triangle as a plane figure composed of three straight lines. If you were defining a Atable,” you would refer to the essential qualities and uses that make it a table: that it has a flat surface, that this surface is supported by legs, and that it is used for certain purposes. The fact that the table is brown or green is irrelevant to its constitution as a table.

However, most terms are not susceptible to such a straightforward definition; if you were attempting to define “murder” or “rape” or broad terms such as “human,” you might need to offer a stipulative definition, whereby you made it clear to your audience how you intended to use the given term. You might say something like: “For the purposes of this argument, I will define ‘murder’ as…”

If you are dealing with a difficult concept, you might use examples to clarify your definition of it. For example, instead of simply defining Agoodness,” you might offer two or three examples of “good” actions;  both you and your audience might then attain a sharper perception of what you mean by “good.”

Reasoning: there are conventionally two categories:
(i) Inductive reasoning: in this kind of reasoning, if the premise is true, then the conclusion is probably true. The most common kind of inductive reasoning is calledinductive generalization, which entails observation of a number of particular cases, on the basis of which we form a general statement or conclusion. For example:

Flavius came to class on time every day last week.
He came to class on time every day this week.

Therefore (general statement or conclusion):
Flavius will come to class on time next week.
(Or)     Flavius is a punctual person.

In this example we can discern the distinctive feature of inductive reasoning:  it can never yield certainty, only varying degrees of probability. It is possible that after the first two weeks of class, Flavius might fall in love, causing him to become a slouch, or lover of the couch, for the rest of his life.  Or he might become addicted to The Spice Girls, suffering a consequent decline in academic motivation. So it is important, when using inductive reasoning, to draw general statements or conclusions which are not too broad and which can confidently be predicted to hold.                  

There are other types of inductive arguments: 
Prediction: predictions or conclusions about future events can only be probable. Here are some examples:

The sky is full of clouds. (premise)
The appearance of clouds is usually followed by rain.(premise)
Therefore, it will probably rain. (prediction/conclusion)

Causal inference:  we infer an effect from a cause or vice versa:

Tigellinus obtained an AA” on his exam. (effect)
He probably worked hard to prepare for it. (inferred cause)

Hishaam was an over-generous ruler. (cause)
Therefore, he lost control over his empire. (inferred effect)

Argument from analogy: we reason that, because two things are similar, what is true of one of them is probably true of the other:

Octavia and Xanthippe are both lawyers.
Octavia makes a lot of money.
Therefore, Xanthippe probably makes a lot of money.

In all of these cases, in order to produce a good inductive argument, we must be confident that (a) there is a high probability of our conclusion following from our premises, and (b) our premises are true.

(ii) Deductive reasoning: a deductive argument is one in which the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. Hence, if the premises are true, it is certain that the conclusion is true. The classic model of deductive reasoning is the syllogism, in which a general law or rule might be applied to a particular case:

All men are mortal.     (Major premise/general law)
Socrates is a man.       (Minor premise/particular case)
Therefore:      Socrates is mortal.       (Conclusion)   

Deductive arguments, however, may take a variety of forms.  We might argue, for example:

Antoninus is taller than Selene. (premise)
Selene is taller than Regulus. (premise)
Therefore, Antoninus is taller than Regulus. (conclusion)

If the premises here are true, then the conclusion must be true. Here is a more detailed example of deductive argument:

Killing is justified only as an act of self-defence.
Self-defence means acting to protect oneself from immediate danger.
Odysseus was not in immediate danger when he killed the suitors.             
Therefore, Odysseus was not acting in self-defence when he killed the suitors.
Therefore, Odysseus was not justified in killing the suitors.

If we grant the premises of this argument, we must accept the conclusions as true. However, we may not accept the premises as true; we might, for example, prefer a different definition of Aself-defence,” in which case we might arrive at a different (and opposing) conclusion.
Hence, for a deductive argument to be sound, two conditions must be fulfilled: (a) the inferences in it must be valid, and (b) all of its premises must be true.
Most of the arguments we actually use employ a mixture of inductive and deductive reasoning.

Use of Evidence: one way of providing evidence for an argument is to offer examples. If we were arguing that a President’s private life should not impinge on his public image, we could supply examples of how the media’s inordinate attention to his private life had distracted both the President and the nation as a whole from more pressing national and international issues.
Another form of evidence is the citing of an authority; we might refer to a scientific report, or a legal document, or a figure respected in the general field in which our argument lies.

Statistics can also be offered as evidence; we might remember that figures provided by statistics are open to various interpretations.
In general, we need to ensure that what we are counting as Aevidence” truly supports our case. If we were arguing against capital punishment, it would not be enough to cite simply the example of one person who had been wrongly executed; we would need to know precisely how many people had suffered such treatment and in what conditions.

Refutation/accommodation of counter-arguments: you cannot simply assume that your arguments will convince people who do not agree with your premises and assumptions. You need to look at the major arguments against your own case and show their weaknesses.  You might even make your case more credible by conceding the value of part of  an opposing argument.

Audience-awareness: in every paper that you write, and especially in an argumentative paper, you should be aware of precisely whom you are addressing. The nature of your audience will determine at what level you pitch your paper, your definitions of terms, the arguments you deploy, and the general tone of your paper.

In Intellectual Heritage and Literary Masterpieces courses you may well be asked to evaluate the argument of a given writer or text, or to compare and contrast two arguments. Here are a few steps you might take:

(1) Read through the text(s) once to get a general sense of the  writer’s overall thesis or argument;        

(2) re-read the text closely, looking for the author’s use of reasoning and evidence. Are there any self-contradictions or inconsistencies in the author’s position? Is the evidence appropriate and substantial enough? List, in order of importance, the reasons and the evidence offered by the writer;

(3) ask yourself whether the author overlooks any arguments or points which might not support or which oppose his/her case;

(4) ask yourself what the author’s assumptions or premises are. Are these assumptions stated? Are they justified in this context?

(5) Decide what your attitude is toward the author’s views. Use the information you have obtained in steps 1-4 to make a list of  the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s argument;

(6) organize these strengths and weaknesses according to whichever of the following categories seem appropriate: assumptions; reasoning; use of evidence; refutation of alternative arguments; consideration of audience;

(7) draft a thesis, the format of which will be something like:
AThe author’s arguments for X are generally sound in respect of A, B, C, but they are deficient in D,E and F”;

(8) you are now in a position to draft an outline of your paper, according to the following format:

Introduction: briefly identify the issues in question.
Thesis: a clear and detailed statement of your evaluation of the author’s arguments.
Part 1: evaluation of the author’s first argument in terms of the categories given above (reasoning, evidence, etc.).
Part 2: evaluation of author’s second argument.
Part 3: evaluation of author’s third argument.
Conclusion: draw out the general significance of the author’s argument and his/her success or failure in presenting it.

Alternatively, your outline could look like this:

Part 1: evaluation of author’s use of reasoning (in all of his/her arguments).
Part 2: evaluation of author’s use of evidence.
Part 3:evaluation of author’s treatment of counter-arguments.
Part 4: assessment of author’s assumptions.

(9) You can now follow the procedures given earlier for drafting, revising and editing.