Basic Guide to Writing Research Papers

For years, the USD Department of History maintained a Department Guide to Writing Research Papers on its web site. This is a simplified and modernized version of that same guide.

Grammar and Style

  1. Do not use contractions in formal writing.
  2. Indent all quotations of fifty words or more (four lines or more) one-half inch on the left, single spaced, and omitting quotation marks. Do not indent the right margin. Use double quotation marks to indicate quotations within these quotations.
  3. Keep your writing impersonal; do not use first person pronouns except in the forward or preface. Do not write, "I agree with" or "We have seen that . . . ."
  4. Except when used in clusters or series, numbers should be written in words if they can be expressed in one or two words; if not, use Arabic numerals; also, round numbers (hundreds, thousands) should be spelled out. An exception: when using percentages, use Arabic numerals and write out "percent."
  5. Use the European form for dates: 24 September 1945. Do not write June 23rd or 17th August, 1961.
  6. Capitalize when referring to a specific: Congress, but not congressmen; Senator, but not senators; Constitution, but not constitutional; Queen Elizabeth, but not the queens of England; President Johnson, but not the presidents of the United States.
  7. Use square brackets ([ ]) to enclose parentheses within parentheses.
  8. Place commas and periods within quotation marks; colons and semi-colons are always placed outside the quotation marks.
  9. A preposition is not a good word to end a sentence with.
  10. And do not begin or end a sentence with a conjunction.
  11. Avoid abbreviations in your text except for titles, such as Dr., Mr., or Jr.
  12. Ellipses in a quotation should be indicated by three periods with a space between each ( . . . ); ellipses at the end of a sentence require a fourth period with the first in the immediate space following the last letter of the last word quoted. Never use an ellipsis mark at the beginning of a quotation to indicate omission.
  13. If you interpolate any words of your own in a quotation, indicate them in square brackets. The same applies to the use of "sic" (always italicized) following an error of logic, fact or spelling in a quotation to indicate the error is not yours in transcribing the original text of the writer.
  14. When you quote from a primary source reproduced in a secondary source, always indicate in your footnote that it is "Quoted in" that secondary source.
  15. In verse quotations, indicate the divisions between lines with slashes.
  16. The first time you mention a person in your paper, identify the person by full name. Exceptions are very famous personages such as kings and presidents.
  17. Avoid, when possible, listing as (1), (2), (3), etc., and indenting the items listed. Try to work the ideas into sentences so the flow of your narrative will not be interrupted.
  18. Whenever possible, go directly to the original sources; avoid quoting sources from secondary works, especially when the source itself is available to you.
  19. Do not say "He felt the strategy was wrong," but rather, "He thought," or "He believed." One "feels" with one of the senses.
  20. Do not say "Since he opposed the strategy," but "Because he opposed." "Since" connotes passage of time.
  21. Avoid one-sentence paragraphs at all times. A paragraph should contain an introductory transition sentence, sentences developing your thought and a concluding sentence that will permit transition to the next paragraph.
  22. Although passive voice is appropriate in certain places, until you can identify passive voice, write in the active voice. An example of passive voice would be: "The ball was kicked by the child." To make the sentence active, one would write: "The child kicked the ball."
  23. Avoid clichés like the plague - they're old hat.
  24. Avoid verbosity and $20 words. Your writing should be clear and concise.
  25. Be consistent in using the same tense in a sentence. Usually historical narrative is written in the past tense.
  26. Avoid colloquialisms.
  27. Try to balance your writing between simple and compound sentences.
  28. Use parallel construction in your sentences.
  29. Avoid digressions and awkward repetitions.
  30. Do not use double negatives.


  1. A normal research paper is the equivalent of a chapter. Unless you are writing a thesis, do not break your paper into chapters or include a table of contents.
  2. Unless directed otherwise, leave a one inch margin on all sides of the paper.
  3. All narrative should be double-spaced and notes single-spaced with a double-space between each note.
  4. For research papers, use a title page. In addition to the title, this page should include your name, your instructor's name, and the course number.

Footnotes, Endnotes & Bibliographic Entries

There are five types of notes, any or all of which might be used in a research paper or thesis. They are:

  1. Every direct quotation, each statement of fact that is not generally known or self evident, and any interpretation borrowed from another source. Usually these sources will be written, published or unpublished, but they may also include interviews and oral recordings.
  2. Cross references to other parts of the narrative or other footnotes, when it is necessary to treat different aspects of the topic at different points in the narrative.
  3. Explanatory notes to amplify or qualify statements in the narrative. These should be used only when the writer believes it necessary to something outside the narrative.
  4. Bibliographical notes to cite numerous sources or contrasting accounts on the same point; to give leads to the reader for further study. Normally, this type of situation refers to all the material back to the preceding citation.
  5. Acknowledgments (which writers of research papers or theses do not use).
  6. Notes are vital to scholarly studies but should be used only when necessary and then kept as brief as possible, within reason. There are few things more annoying to the reader than to attempt to read a thin narrative with many long, detached or explanatory notes. The reader should be given enough information in the note to find the source.

For footnotes, the first time a source is cited, the note should include the name of the author or editor in its regular order and without title (not reversed); the title of the work underlined (or italicized); the facts of publication (edition, volumes if multiple, place, and date); volume number if multiple; and page. Subsequent citations should use a shorter form. After you have cited a book or other reference the first time, you should refer to it with a shorter form thereafter throughout your paper, for example, Ezell, The South Since 1865, 107.

If you cite an item immediately after the previous footnote, use Ibid. (Ibidem) meaning "in the same place." If the item is on another page, use Ibid. followed by the new page number. Ibid. is also used to repeat as much of the preceding reference as possible. For example, it can be used to repeat the author and title of multi-volume works followed by the volume and page number cited.

Bibliographic Entries
Entries for bibliographies should be categorized according to importance in the following order:
  1. manuscripts (archival materials)
  2. unpublished documents (all unpublished materials not in archives, such as manuscripts in the possession of authors, interviews or letters from protagonists, oral history)
  3. public documents (all public documents that are published)
  4. books
  5. articles
  6. newspapers
  7. other

For examples of footnotes and bibliographic entries, consult The Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide.