Writing in the Liberal Arts

From Gerald R. Lucas

When writing about any cultural text — a book, a poem, a painting, a song, a play, a film, etc. — established conventions should be followed, even when writing digital documents.

These are fundamental practices for literate writers and should be heeded whenever writing a formal assignment for a college class — especially those in English or Humanities. Please read the entirety of this post carefully.

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When writing online, follow the conventions of the platform you’re using. See a Digital Style Guide for a general approach when writing online.

Focus, Focus, Focus

Narrow your topic to one that can be covered adequately within the assignment’s parameters. For example, if the final essay is supposed to be two pages, discussing a major theme within Hamlet would be impossible to cover adequately. Consider, instead, how the third soliloquy compares death to inaction. Or perhaps perform a close reading of the first ten lines of the third soliloquy. As a general rule: the more focused a paper’s topic, the more interesting and comprehensive the final paper will be.

In addition, always have a point whenever you write or respond to something. Having a point means adding to a conversation. In traditional college-level writing, this is called a thesis statement. If you don’t have a point to make, it’s better to stay silent and keep thinking about it.


Always write about texts (literature, film, essays, etc.) in the present tense. While it might make sense to consider art as something that has happened, each time you experience a work, even in memory, it’s happening again. Change your tense accordingly.


When researching, it’s often appropriate to begin with dictionaries and encyclopedias, called generally “reference materials,” but you should never quote or cite them in a college-level essay. Reference materials should help you get an idea about the issues within a work of literature (or any subject for that matter), and they will frequently contain suggestions for further reading. Use these suggestions and read further.

In writing a traditional essay, you should also avoid citing web sites, unless you are sure that the source is reputable. The best sources to cite, quote, and reference are books and scholarly journals. If you are unsure about a source, ask your professor before using it.

For blogs, choose the best web sources to cite. Solid sources will have a clear author, supporting material like links and references, be error-free and professional, and use strong writing. Don’t just link anything for support (see below).

Cite using a consistent citation method, like “Digital Citation.”


Generally, when writing the title of a text, use quotation marks for shorter pieces and italicize longer pieces.

Titles of short poems, songs, short stories, television episodes, and articles (essays) should appear in quotation marks; titles of novels (books), movies, long poems, plays, and television series should be presented in italics (underlined if you are using a typewriter). For example:

  • short story: “Hills like White Elephants”
  • novel: Perfume
  • movie: Blade Runner
  • poem: “To His Coy Mistress”
  • newspaper: New York Times
  • television episode: “The Galileo Seven”
  • television series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • essay: “A Rape in Cyberspace”
  • song: “Ants Marching”
  • play: Hamlet
  • videogame: Call of Duty

Alternately, consider: the titles of complete works are italicized and excerpts or portions of those works are in quotation marks.

If you are unsure about how to present a title, look it up and see how critics have done it or how your professor has written it on the syllabus. The titles of novellas can be tricky, so checking a secondary source becomes necessary.

Capitalize the first letter of all nouns and verbs in titles.


Use precise vocabulary. When writing about a novel, write “novel,” not “book” or “story.” Use “protagonist” instead of “main character” or “hero,” and “antagonist” instead of “bad guy.” Similarly, be sure you know what you’re writing about: don’t call a “book” a “novel” when it isn’t. A precise vocabulary shows your knowledge of the subject matter and lends your writing more credibility.


When making an assertion about a work of literature, use specific evidence from the text. This is using “primary” evidence and is the basis for a strong essay. In fact, this is an essential skill in education: always support what you have to say with specific evidence by using a logical citation method. This also helps you avoid plagiarism.


When quoting from a literary text, make sure to incorporate the quotation into your sentence. For example:

Correct: The writer shares a connection with the axolotls through their eyes: “the axolotls spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing” (398).

Incorrect: “The axolotls spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing.” The writer shares a connection with the axolotls through their eyes.

In the first example, the quotation supports the author’s supposition with a gracefully integrated quotation. The second example presents a quotation out-of-context, supporting nothing, called a “dropped quotation.” Quotations cannot stand on their own.

Also, when the quotation exceeds four lines on your paper (or screen), you must present it as a block quotation by indenting it an inch and using no quotation marks. Also, when block quoting, do not use quotation marks, e.g.:

My students encountered only one department - psychology, of all fields! - that did not want us to meet in one of their lounges. But we were welcomed or at least tolerated everywhere else we went. We also found ourselves, on occasion, meeting in the midst of other students who were sitting and studying nearby. While we did everything possible not to disturb them, we also found some students listening in on our discussions as impromptu auditors, which struck me as one of the great values of being on a campus, as opposed to taking classes online: the serendipitous encounters that become unexpected learning opportunities. (Fisher)

Leave the Reader Alone

Leave the reader out of your essay. If you type the word “reader” or “us” or “we,” see if you can’t just get rid of it. For example:

Incorrect: This play is trying to show us how we can believe with so much passion that we are right about our feelings, when in reality we are far from the truth.

Correct: Tartuffe illustrates how excessive passion can obscure reality.

The latter example is much more precise and specific. Be sure to proofread and revise your writing before submitting it.