On The Writing Of Essays

Revised 9 September 2020

It is the bane of every student that every professor has his idiosyncratic requirements. Here are mine.

I. Essays: Clear, Concise, and Cogent

To be successful, essays in this course must be clear, concise, and cogent.1

An essay is clear when it propounds an explicit thesis. A clear essay should contain a thesis sentence somewhere in the first 600 words, after a brief survey of the relevant secondary literature. A thesis sentence is a brief statement of what the essay intends to prove. For example, that great theologian J. Swaggart once proposed:” Calvinism is the most destructive heresy in the history of Christianity.” This thesis is clear and false. A thesis may also be an attempt to answer a question. E.g., “Why did Augustine teach both predestination and infusion? He taught both predestination and infusion because…”.

A thesis sentence is not a statement of the method, plan, or program of the essay, but rather declaration of the conclusion of your research and what it is you intend to prove in your essay.

Brief is Better

As a general rule, if an argument cannot be formulated briefly (e.g., in one sentence) an essay will likely not be clear. Avoid the temptation to hide the thesis until the end of the essay. If the conclusion is clearer than the introduction, then the latter probably needs revision.

Two Masters

If your essay propounds two theses, pick one and omit the other. A paper cannot serve two masters. It will hate the one and love the other. This problem arises when a writer has changed his mind midway through an essay. Submission of an essay with two theses indicates that the writer did not revise his essay which, in turn, suggests laziness.

Research Presented

A clear essay is research presented not research in progress. A clear essay propounds a thesis (usually in the first 600 words or so) that is the result of diligent research. It reduces research to a manageable form, summarizing conclusions in a thesis sentence, explaining and defending that thesis in the body of the essay. A clear essay will be well written, using correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

The Steps of Research

A successful paper will follow these tested and true steps.

  1. Pick an author
    1. Your essay is an opportunity to demonstrate that you understand and can apply a sound historical method.
    2. You are not investigating a topic but an author. You must not decide a priori what that author is going to say or should say.
  2. Get to know the major works of this author
  3. Read the primary source (some text by the author that you intend to analyze).
  4. After you have read the primary source:
    1. Compile the bibliography of secondary literature (references, monographs, and periodical literature
    2. Survey the field to determine the major authors concerning your source or subject
  5. Re-read the primary source
    1. Carefully.
    2. Narrow the topic.
    3. Develop a thesis which explains what you are
    4. Test the thesis against the primary sources.
  6. Read appropriate secondary literature
    1. Monographs and journals.
    2. Test and modify your thesis as necessary.
  7. Re-Read Primary Sources
  8. Outline essay beginning with the thesis
  9. Research is usually inductive, but a good paper is not. You (the researcher) must submit yourself to the facts as they are uncovered. You must discover what the author or text is saying (or what happened) and why. The thesis explains the “what” and the “why.” The essay explains and defends the thesis and is thus deductive.One must resist the temptation to begin with secondary literature (apart from an initial consultation of sound reference works for orientation) but one should also resist the temptation to ignore the secondary literature. Research begun with monographs and journal articles before having read the primary sources is prone to confusion. In the absence of primary sources, how can one evaluate the secondary literature? One should not, however, ignore the relevant secondary literature. Research which ignores relevant secondary literature will be ignorant.

A Template for Research Papers

Writing academic research papers requires more discipline than creativity. Below are the basic steps and questions of a sound research paper:

    1. Introduction
      1. Tell us story. Draw the reader into the time, place, and world of the author.
      2. What is the issue?
      3. Why does this author or text merit attention?
      4. Survey the relevant secondary literature on this topic in a paragraph or two.
      5. State your thesis?
      6. How do you intend to explain and defend your thesis?
    2. Explanation of the Thesis
      1. Historical survey (where relevant)
      2. Show and explain the the evidence (directly from the primary source and from the historical circumstances) that lead you to your thesis.
    3. Secondary Literature
      1. Interact with secondary literature
      2. State possible or actual criticisms of your thesis.
      3. Respond to possible criticisms
    4. Conclusion
      1. If possible, tell us another story.
      2. Restate your thesis
      3. Restate your major evidences for your thesis.

Any essay that fails to state a thesis unambiguously will receive a failing mark. An essay that fails to summarize briefly and discuss the relevant secondary literature is not eligible for an A.

Narrower is Better

An essay is cogent when the thesis is explained and defended with a succession of arguments well considered and expressed. Cogency is aided greatly by a narrow thesis expressed clearly. The broader a thesis, the more difficult it is to defend.

Valid and Sound

Each argument must be sound. Its premises must be true and its form valid, that is, free of fallacies. Here is an incomplete list of informal fallacies.2

          • Describing and defeating an argument which no one actually holds. (Straw man).
            1. All good theology must account for the Dominical evangelical mandate.
            2. Predestinarians neither believe nor practice this mandate.
            3. Therefore all predestinarian theology is bad.

The middle premise of this syllogism is false. It is fallacious to caricature a position in order to defeat it. An effective essay will describe a competing view sympathetically. Caricaturing an opposing position will not convince the reader. Second, the straw man argument is a form of bearing false witness.

          • Attacking the source of an argument (Ad hominem).
            1. Hitler believed p.
            2. Hitler was evil
            3. p is wrong.

The first two premises are true, but the conclusion does not follow (non sequitur). One can be evil and correct. A view must be defeated on its merits or lack thereof. Even Hitler was correct about some things (time of day etc.). One’s position or sins do not necessarily invalidate one’s argument.

          • Begging the Question (Petitio principii)
          1. We all know that the republication of the covenant of works is incompatible with the Westminster Confession.
          2. John Owen taught the doctrine of republication
          3. ergo John Owen contradicted the Reformed faith.
All true knowledge presupposes the triune God, who is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Nevertheless, we are not entitled to presuppose the correctness of every subsidiary conclusion. In arguments about less than ultimate things, it is fallacious to assume what you intend to prove. In this case the major premise assumes what is in question, namely that the doctrine of the republication of the covenant of works contradicts the Westminster Confession. Whether Owen actually contradicted the confession is contingent upon the truth of the major premise which has yet to be demonstrated. Assuming what one intends to prove is vicious circularity since, in this argument, good taste is defined in terms of the first premise.
  • Appeal to Force (Argumentum ad baculum).
  1. 18 million Southern Baptists hold believer’s baptism.
  2. 18 million Southern Baptists cannot be wrong.
  3. Ergo believer’s baptism must be true.

The problem here is with the middle premise. In fact, large numbers of folk can be wrong. The numerical, social, or physical superiority of those advancing a proposition does not make that proposition true.3

  • Appeal to illegitimate authority (Argumentum ad verecundiam).
  1. Fred Jones is an expert in swine propulsion (p).
  2. Fred also believes q (unrelated to p).
  3. Therefore q must be true.

The conclusion does not follow from the premises. Jones’ expertise in porcine propulsion does not confer credibility on his arguments about anything else.

  • Post hoc ergo propter hoc (“After which, therefore because of which”).
  1. Felix the cat is dead in the street
  2. Elmer Fudd drove over the late Felix
  3. Therefore Elmer Fudd murdered Felix

It does not follow that because Elmer tactlessly drove over Felix that therefore he is the cause of Felix’s demise. In fact, it may be that Felix had a myocardial infarction only moments
before Elmer drove over him. At worst, Elmer is guilty of malice toward cartoon cats.4

  • Appeal to Mercy (Argumentum ad Misericordiam).
  1. Pork is a great good.
  2. Jones was deprived of pork as a child.
  3. Therefore Jones is not morally culpable.

Withholding pork from Fred may have been cruel, but is not sufficient grounds to relieve his moral or legal liability.

Consider Objections
An essay will be made even more compelling by considering counter arguments. It is not necessary to produce definitive responses to every possible objection, but one may certainly suggest responses to major criticisms of the thesis. It is also useful to suggest further areas for research.

An essay is concise when it uses only the number of words necessary to make its case adequately and when that number does not exceed the stated limit. Note well that a limit is not a goal. The word count does not include
footnotes, but please be judicious.

II. The Nature of the Essay

In my courses, papers will ordinarily be historical or dogmatic in nature. In either case your essay should be exegetical, i.e., you must interpret some text, theologian, or event.


Dogmatic or systematic theology propounds what ought to be believed and is therefore prescriptive.


Historical theology and church history investigate what was believed, why, where, and when. Therefore they are descriptive disciplines. HT and CH papers must prescribe a thesis, but they should not argue dogmatic or systematic theological points. Please observe the distinction.

III. The Style of the Essay

    1. The text of your essay should be in double spaced, 12-point, serif (e.g. Times New Roman) typescript.
    2. Please use margins of at least 1 inch to allow for comments.
    3. Abbreviations of Biblical books should follow SBL guidelines.
    4. It is best to cite published materials. If you must cite unpublished, electronic, or web-based materials, please restrict your use to academic, refereed sites or acknowledged journals (e.g. JSTOR et al). Follow the Chicago Manual of Style. Do not cite lecture material in lieu of published materials.
    5. Please use footnotes:
      1. MLA style references clutter the text;
      2. End notes are unwieldy in an academic essay.
      3. Footnote references are best placed at the end of the sentence. If necessary, a reference may be placed after punctuation other than a period.
      4. The reference number in the text should be superscript like this.1 The footnote number, at the bottom of the page, however, should not be superscript. It should be flush (not indented) left thus: 1.
      5. It is better to gather related footnote matter into one footnote rather than to scatter multiple references throughout a sentence.

Please see The Chicago Manual of Style for help.5 There are computer programs which will format your footnotes and bibliography for you such as BookEnds, EndNote, and StyleEase Here are some examples:


Fred Jones, The Aerodynamic Properties of Swine (Omaha: Porcine Press, 1912).

Journal articles:

Fred Jones, “Propulsion in Swine: A New Proposal” Scottish Journal of Flying Swine 23 (1913): 129-55. 6

Essays in a collection:

Fred Jones, “Anesthesia in Post-Flight Recovery for Swine” Stinkium Olfactaribus: A Festschrift (Omaha: Porcine Press, 1920).

According to the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, the Latin pronoun ibid may be used in place of successive references to the same source in the same footnote or in successive footnotes where no other references intervene. Idem is used in place of the author’s name in successive references in the same footnote. Always be clear. If ibid or idem might be confusing, give the author’s name and/or title.

6. After the first full reference, subsequent footnote references to a work should be abbreviated to the author’s name and a short-title reference to the work being cited. Hence subsequent references would be, e.g., Jones, Aerodynamic, 22.

7. Proofreading is best done by reading hardcopy. It is easy to miss typographical errors when proofing texts online.

8. A seminary essay is not a text message or an email. It is a formal academic paper and is expected to meet appropriate standards. Avoid colloquialisms. To improve your grammar read, Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (New York: Gotham Books, 2003).

9. Be careful regarding the use of prepositions. Ordinarily a sentence should not end with a preposition. Avoid the temptation to intensify expression by adding prepositions (e.g., “early on,” “separate out”).

10. “Luther said that….” introduces a paraphrase. “Luther said….” introduces a quotation.

11. The verbs “to feel” and “to think” are not synonymous.8

12. The first person singular (e.g., “I think”) can be useful to avoid circumlocutions, but it should be used sparingly.

13. In American usage, most punctuation precedes the closing quotation mark. Hence, in the following quotation from Calvin this punctuation is correct: “We do not use musical instruments in public worship.”

14. Footnote reference numbers should be in superscript and should be placed at the end of a clause or sentence and after punctuation.

15. In contemporary American usage, single quotation marks are used only within another quotation. Thus: “It is a little known fact that George Washington employed porcine projectiles in his assault on British forces at Yorktown. Washington was heard to mutter, ‘Stupid pigs. I warned LaFayette that pigs would never fly but he never listens to me.’ Despite Washington’s admonition French forces persisted with the pugilistic pork.”

16. Use the Oxford Comma because it signals the end of a list. Notice the difference between:

The Panda enters the restaurant. He eats, shoots, and leaves.


The Panda enters the restaurant. He eats shoots and leaves.

The first sentence tells us about a crime committed by a panda. The second tells us about his diet. (See Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves)

Five points from C. S. Lewis

  1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
  2. Always prefer the clean direct word to the long, vague one.
    Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
  4. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”
  5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.7


Most papers written in my courses will be historical in nature.

  1. A historical paper is descriptive not prescriptive. A prescriptive paper argues what ought to be believed theologically or exegetically or pastorally. A descriptive paper seeks to tell the truth about the past within the limits of human finitude. It is not appropriate to make dogmatic-theological or biblical-exegetical arguments. A historical paper does make arguments, however. It must make an argument (i.e., a thesis) about what ought to be thought or believed about the past. It may well argue this or that interpretation of the past is right or wrong.
  2. If you find yourself introducing the paper or appealing to biblical-exegetical or systematic-theological (or philosophical) resources, these may be clues that you are not thinking historically and that you may not be writing historically.
  3. Conducting philosophical, theological, exegetical, or pastoral arguments with dead people is not the same thing as writing history. Simply because ones dialogue partners are dead it does not make ones essay historical in nature. A historical essay seeks to explain what happened or what was written and why. History asks when something was written (or occurred) and to whom (or with whom), and under what circumstances. If one has not answered these questions one is not writing history.
  4. A historical or descriptive paper will be more effective if it shows the reader rather than a merely prosaic paper telling the reader. See the advice from Lewis above. This will particularly true in the introduction of the paper. If you begin your essay with an idea (“p has always been a controversial topic…”) you lead the reader first of all to think about abstract ideas. If you begin your essay, however, with a narrative, you lead the reader to think about a time, a place, a person, and ideas in their historical context. A historical essay should begin historically rather than theologically.
  5. In a historical essay, please use the past tense where possible. For example, “Luther said we are justified by the imputed alien righteousness of Christ.” Resist the temptation of trying to make Luther more relevant by making him speak in the present tense, e.g., “Luther says….” If an author is still alive at the time of writing, it is appropriate to speak of him in the present tense. Two exceptions to this rule are Scripture and the confessions. In the case of Scripture, given its nature, it or the author is still speaking. Since the confessions are ecclesiastically sanctioned documents, they are the voice of the church on those topics and thus the present tense is appropriate.
  6. The thesis of your essay must be sustained by appeal to primary sources or evidence. This usually requires the exegesis of published texts (e.g. books and articles) or unpublished texts (e.g. letters, diaries) or some other contemporaneous accounts or sources (by others about the subject or event).
  7. Your essay will be strengthened by the judicious use of relevant secondary literature. You should briefly, in a paragraph or two, survey the most important arguments and authors before you state your thesis. E.g.:

    There are three major interpretations of the history of porcine aviation. Fred Jones III has argued that pork began to fly spontaneously as an evolutionary adaptation to bacon. F. Jones Jr., however, has contested that claim pointing out the absence of empirical evidence of unaided porcine flight. The oldest approach was that of Fred Jones who claimed that it was the Picts who launched the first pork in an eighth-century battle with Lombards. This essay seeks to reconcile the various Jonesian schools by turning attention to the recent discoveries of the long-lost Edinburgh Slingshot and hitherto unknown Papua Pork and by arguing that porcine flight, under certain circumstances, began in the eighteenth century in the American Revolution.

  8. After you explain and defend your thesis in the body of your essay you should return briefly to the secondary literature to respond to the relevant arguments or to anticipate and respond to possible objections to your thesis (in the absence of relevant secondary literature).

V. Pet Peeves

These are mistakes that other students have made. I tend to notice them in student essays.

          1. Please do not use the expression, “this begs the question whether” when you intend to say, “This raises the question….” To beg the question is to assume what has yet to be proved. To raise a question is not the same as assuming what is to be proved.
          2. Please do not use hopefully when you should write, “I hope Hopefully is an adverb, which modifies a verb as in, “She ran hopefully to the shore.” In this sentence, “hopefully” describes the attitude with which she ran. If you mean, “I hope to make this argument clear” please say that rather than, “hopefully, the argument will become clear.”
          3. Please observe the distinction between who and whom. Who is the relative pronoun for the subject of the verb and whom is the object (either direct, as in the accusative, or indirect, as in the dative). E.g., “Tom saw John who went to the river. John saw Fred whom he had pushed into the river. Fred floated downstream toward his grandfather, to whom he had spoken rudely earlier that day.”
          4. Please do not use “impact” where you mean “influence.” Cars may impact one another, but ideas, persons, and movements usually have influence, unless they meet on the field of battle.
          5. Do not write about an “amount of people.” inanimate objects are purchased or occur in amounts. People, however, are numbered. Thus: “A great number of people gathered outside the church carrying a large amount of rice.”
          6. Do not orphan indented quotations. If an author is worth quoting, he is worth explaining. Few quotations are self-explanatory, so please explain the meaning of the quotation. Therefore, one should not begin a new paragraph following an indented quotation but should exposit the indented quotation.

          7. Please date and paginate your essay.

          8. Avoid beginning sentences with conjunctions such as “And” or “But.” If you find yourself doing this, it is probably a clue that the sentence is not actually finished. For example, the two sentences, “Van Til was a brilliant apologist. But he did not write as clearly as we might have wished” should be, “Van Til was a brilliant apologist, but he did not write as clearly as we might have wished.” If you need an adversative try “however,” as in “Benny Hinn, however, has not repented of his errors.” Please note the postpositive location of “however.”

          9. Contractions are not appropriate to formal academic writing. Tip: If you use MS Word, set the “writing style” to “formal” (under tools, spelling and grammar). MS Word will highlight contractions and other informalities.

          10. Do not use online or electronic references (e.g., from a CD) unless the source is not otherwise published. If the work is published in hardcopy, cite that form. A writer should refer the reader to a publicly accessible primary or secondary source. Web sources are ephemeral and may disappear as soon as they are cited. CD-based texts are not always standardized, edited, or consistently available. Google Books provides full access only to books that are in the public domain. This means that if you are using a secondary source via Google Books the scholarship may be outdated. There are exceptions: Archive.org, CCEL, EEBO, and DLCP are good sources for primary texts.

          11. References to titles and schools (e.g. Dr, Professor, Dean, etc) should be avoided unless they are material to the argument.

          12. Do-able is not a proper English word. Possible is still a perfectly serviceable word.

          13. Please put your name, postal address, and email address on your essay.

          14. Pay attention to instructions.

          15. References to Calvin’s Institutes are to be given thus: Book, chapter, title, e.g., 1.1.1. Using this standard form of reference allows the reader to consult other editions (e.g., the Latin and French texts) without first finding the edition the writer cited.

          16. American style requires double quotation marks for a quotation that is not indented. If there is a quotation within that quotation, it is in single quotation marks.

          17. Please observe the distinction between subject (he, she, who) and object (him, her, whom).
          18. It is usually best to avoid split infinitives (e.g., “to boldly go…”).
          19. Separate dates, e.g., Fred Jones (1900–83) and page numbers with an en dash, e.g, Fred Jones, “Post-Anesthesia Recovery for Porcine Missiles” Porcine Aviation 37 (1972): 12–54.
          20. More tips here.


1. The categories: “clear, concise and cogent” have been borrowed from John Frame but modified to suit my purposes.

2. This list is intended to be suggestive not exhaustive. See a standard logic text such as Irving M. Copi, Introduction to Logic, 5th edn (New York and London: Macmillan, 1978), 86–125.

3. This has in view illegitimate appeals to secondary authorities. There are legitimate appeals to authority. For example, one may legitimately appeal to divine authority since it is on another order. Belief in God’s existence is a necessary presupposition to all knowledge and is therefore properly basic. Nevertheless, even an appeal to Scripture does not necessarily prove a given point unless one shows that one’s reading of Scripture is also correct.

4. I owe this example to a lecture by Richard Cross.

5. I used the dreaded end notes in this document only because I am forced to it by HTML.

6. This ground breaking essay has been revised recently. See F. Jones III, “The Effect of John Denver Recordings in Pre-Flight Preparation of Swine,” Scottish Journal of Flying Swine 108 (1997): 350–97.

7. Letter from June 26, 1956, quoted in Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, eds., The Quotable Lewis (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1989), 623.

8. Points 12–14 in this list are borrowed with thanks from notes by James E. McGoldrick, Professor of Church History, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

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