On Writing

Writing is a skill that you will need to develop and hone to succeed, whether in school or in your future career. A group of students might have the identical facts but depending on how each presents that information, they may receive grades ranging from A+ to a much lesser mark. The difference will be in formulating the argument, general presentation, critical thinking (analysis), and proper grammar and spelling. This is a learned skill.

Remember, when you write you will be interpreting and analyzing information–even in a book review! If your paper is purely descriptive, do not expect a good grade, unless that is what you were assigned to do. Make sure you understand the objectives of your writing task.

Need Help?

The Writing Centre at Vancouver Island University (VIU) offers personal and professional help to students on all kinds of writing activities, free-of-charge. It is located in the Library, Fourth Floor, Room 474. Students can sign up for two half-hour appointments per week. You can now book appointments online.

The Writing Centre becomes booked VERY quickly. Remember to sign up early and bring your assignment instructions so that the people at the Centre can better assist you.

Matters of Form: How should your paper look?

Your paper represents YOU. Its appearance is one indication of the effort you have taken. Did you allow sufficient time for a final proof-reading and editing, rather than penning in corrections or not at all?

Make sure your paper is readable. Remember that your instructor is grading many papers at the same time! Check that your printer is working properly (smudges and/or faded ink will not work in your favour). Use 11- or 12-pt font size. A simple font style is best, e.g., Ariel, Courier, Times Roman). 

Some tips for producing decent looking papers (adapted from Moerman 1998, 4-5):

  • Plan ahead. Writing a paper the night before is not the best strategy. Planning allows you to discuss your paper with your instructor; some will even review an outline, so ask! Be aware that many instructors will not accept late papers, or will deduct marks for every day late.
  • All papers must be typed on letter-size (8½” by 11″) white paper. With many computer labs on campus, there is no excuse for handwriting a paper.
  • Double space everything; use one side of the paper. Do not include blank pages anywhere (this is padding!). As well, when submitting through VIULearn, you do not need to worry about ‘saving trees’ when you print.  Double space so that comments can be added during evaluation!
  • Leave one inch (2.5cm) margins around each side, unless requested to do otherwise. Adequate spacing allows for comments in the margins, as well as for corrections (grammar and spelling).
  • The title page and first page are NOT numbered; begin numbering with page two. Pages need to be numbered so that reference to previous or later material can be identified.
  • Indent a new paragraph using five spaces or 0.5cm. Indenting will eliminate any ambiguity of whether you have begun a new paragraph.

For a quotation of four or more lines, indent the entire quotation on both sides, like this. Do NOT put quotation marks around the indented material. Quotation marks are used for short direct quotes. Indicate your reference according to your discipline’s style-guide (for anthropology, click here).

  • Do NOT justify the right margin because justification creates erratic spacing between words; your paper will be less readable using it.
  •  “A picture is worth a thousand words.” If a figure or table clarifies and/or provides more information, then use it. Your instructor is NOT looking for “pretty” pictures. Figures and tables should be labelled and numbered sequentially, referenced if borrowed, and referred to in the text so that the reader knows which part of your argument it follows and supports.
  • On the title page, centre your title just above the middle of the sheet of paper. Capitalize all the title words except for “in,” “the,” or “and,” and always the first word. Include your name, course title, instructor’s name, and due date on the page.
  • Before submitting your paper, PROOF-READ and correct! Spell-check will not pick up all errors. Rereading your “finished” paper after putting it aside for a minimum of 24-hours will give you fresh eyes to see errors that might be initially missed. Also, reading aloud will help identify awkwardly worded sentences. Having another person unfamiliar with your topic or subject read your paper will help identify problems, as well.
  • If submitting a hard copy in person: paper clip or staple your paper in the upper left-hand corner.   If asked to submit through VIULearn, then do so.  Check to see if there is a time submission deadline; do not wait to the last minute, this is usually when a technology problem arises.
  • Keep a photocopy of your paper or save one to your U: drive (or cloud) in case your paper is accidentally misplaced; it happens on the rare occasion. From a student’s perspective: You may also want to keep other bits and pieces of information used in writing your paper (drafts, notes, etc.) until its return. If there is a question about the work submitted, draft copies are evidence.  Only after you have received your final grade should you delete your saved copy.


You have a topic or question and have begun the task of researching and writing.  At some point in your writing, you will include a thesis statement.  If you are wondering what this is, read John Hill’s Five Minutes on Thesis Statement.


  • When you begin your research you might select books and/or articles that provide an overview of the subject or topic. This is fine as a starting point, but ultimately you should be reviewing more specific texts. Do not restrict yourself to books alone. Books can take several years from solicitation of articles to publication. For up-to-date information you will need to seek out other sources.
  • Journals have current information, so use indexes or databases in seeking out appropriate articles. The VIU Library website has a number of research guides to help you in this endeavour, including one specific to “Anthropology.” Guides to other disciplines are available, as well.
  • Films, newspaper articles, theses (Masters and Doctoral), websites, oral history tapes on file, etc. are all potential resources. The variety of resources used is one indication of your research abilities.
  • If you are not sure what types of resources to use, consult your instructor and speak with the librarians. Always evaluate your sources.  VIU Library has a guide, INTR 101 Intro to Research in Scholarly Sources.  Included is a section on Evaluating Web Resources. You can also refer to UC, Berkeley’s “Critical Evaluation of Resources.”
  • Depending on your topic, you might also undertake your own research. Any research involving human subjects requires approval by VIU’s Research Ethics Board. As a researcher you have a responsibility to protect your human sources. Refer to: Does Your Project Require Ethical Review?


  • There are two kinds of writing: writing for a reader, and writing for yourself. Be the former, not the latter. If you are the latter, you are more likely to exclude statements or points that would clarify your argument; you have all the information in YOUR head but not necessarily on paper.
  • Incorporating definitions of key concepts to your argument will ensure that the reader understands exactly what you mean. Some concepts have specific uses in certain disciplines, or you may have adapted a definition that might differ from the standard.
  • When writing always ask yourself, “How does this relate and/or support my argument?” A student will sometimes veer off on a tangent that is interesting in itself but has nothing to do with the topic. It will appear as filler, if not relevant.
  • Ideas are constantly borrowed. This is perfectly fine, just remember to acknowledge the source. To not do so is plagiarism. If you are not sure what constitutes plagiarism, review Academic Integrity & Plagiarism.  If you are cutting and pasting text into your paper, unless you are the author, you need to cite the reference.
  • Direct quotes, identified with “quotation marks,” require a page number included in the citation. Paraphrasing specific information should also be cited with page number. A change of a word or two in a sentence is not paraphrasing. If you are not certain whether you should be identifying your source, ask yourself, “Is this bit of information common knowledge?”
  • Long quotes are identified as an indented block, example above. These should be used judiciously. If you are asked to submit a 5-page paper and 3.5 pages are long quotes, do not expect a good mark. This is an example of over use and shows you know how to borrow passages, not your thinking ability.
  • Refrain from using informal language (slang, colloquialisms, etc.). Use formal language in academic papers.

Using Internet Resources

The Internet offers plenty of information for the casual browser, as well as for the more serious researcher. As a research resource, proper citation is required as with any other media form, whether book or film, etc.

  • The quality of your Internet resources matters. Just because it exists, does not mean it is appropriate for a research paper. There is plenty of “junk” to sift through. Evaluate your resources!
  • Online books or articles are another matter, as they are also in print form. There is no limit to the number used. EBSCOhost Electronic Journals Service or JSTOR provide articles through the library server; the source is NOT EBSCO or JSTOR, but the scholarly journal from which it originated.
  •  As with any resource, be critical. If there is no identified author (individual, or organization), the information provided is suspect. How are you going to reference the page? Is the website regularly updated? Check for the date of creation and/or update, as this is needed in your citation. A recent “last updated” date will indicate that the site is still being overseen and active. Wikipedia is not an appropriate research resource!
  • Always provide the URL (location) of the website, as well as the date that you accessed the material. Use a permalink or stable link.  Some websites come and go very quickly, including online versions of print magazines.
  • Internet Citation Guides are available online. Examples of Internet sources are found online of the Chicago Manual of Style. Check VIU’s Library Guide “Citing Your Sources.”

Acknowlegement: Comments for this webpage are based on the many papers graded over the years, as well as the helpful suggestions of Vancouver Island University (formerly, Malaspina University-College) students and colleagues.

Reference cited:
Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Writing Anthropology: A Guide for Students. General Anthropology Division, Modules in Teaching Anthropology, Module 6. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.

Last updated 2023-09-04