In the early 1990s, while traveling from Florida to Pennsylvania to visit family, I developed the first version of this page of suggestions about improving the quality of student papers and any other written works.  Over the years, I improved the list of requirements and suggestions.  A downloadable PDF of "Miller's Memo" is available here.


A thesis, a logical argument, the proper use of details to support a case, and the reliance on a variety of pertinent primary and secondary sources are the ingredients of a good paper in the social sciences.  There are two more factors, however, that students often overlook: style and grammar.  Some of the items in this memo are mandatory; others are suggestions.  All will help improve a paper and a final grade.

When planning your paper, regardless of the length, do the reading and research ahead of time.  Think about the topic and develop a thesis.  Make an outline, no matter how rough it is.  More drafts will result in a better paper.  Read the final draft aloud or have a friend read it to critique the content and eliminate linguistic abuses.

NEATNESS AND BINDING: Give the reader a good impression with a neat paper.  Staple all papers in the upper-left corner.  Paper clips, plastic folders, and another method of binding papers are unacceptable.

LENGTH: Papers must be the proper length to receive full credit.  Page numbers, in arabic numerals, should appear on the upper right-hand corner.  To count the number of words in your paper, select File-Properties in the property bar.  To determine the words manually, count the words in four lines of the draft and divide the total by four to get the average number of words per line.  Count the number of lines per page and multiply it by the average words per line to obtain the number of words per page.  A typical double-spaced typewritten page will have about 300 words per page.  Notes, bibliographies, and illustrations are not part of the text.  The text must be double-spaced with no added spaces between paragraphs.  Margins are to be one inch.

PROPER GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION: Observe all rules of grammar and punctuation.  It is inevitable that mistakes will occur–this is true for all writers–but attention to the details will eliminate most errors.

MISCELLANEOUS NOTES ON PUNCTUATION: Generally, information on punctuation is available in any grammar or in an appendix of a good dictionary.  Review the rules for commas on a regular basis, and proofread to put commas in their proper places.  Place hyphens only at syllable breaks.  When in doubt, check a dictionary.  Place a space between the dots of ellipsis.  If a sentence is omitted between quoted sentences, place a period at the end of the first sentence and then the ellipsis. . . . Never use ellipsis to begin or end a quotation.

CAPITALIZATION: Proper capitalization is always necessary.  Consult a grammar or another source if there is any doubt about capitalization, such as the cold war, the Second World War.

PRONOUNS: Be careful about the use of possessive pronouns, as opposed to contractions.  Do not duplicate the humorous confusion of the comic duo Bud Abbott (1897-1974) and Lou Costello (1906-1959) during their "Who's on First" skit that they performed in One Night in the Tropics (1940), The Naughty Nineties (1945), and on many other occasions, each with slight variations, two of which appear below.  Costello asked Abbott, who acted as a baseball team manager, the names of the players, and confusion ensued (because of space restrictions, the text about Abbott and Costello in the "Pronouns" section of the PDF of "Miller's Memo" is slightly different than what appears here):

Costello: Well then who's on first?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: I mean the fellow's name.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy on first.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The first baseman.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy playing...
Abbott: Who is on first!
Costello: I'm asking YOU who's on first.
Abbott: That's the man's name.
Costello: That's who's name?
Abbott: Yes.

A pronoun at the beginning of a sentence refers to the subject of the previous sentence.  Misused, pronouns can be humorous and dangerous:  “Tom and Martha bought two cats. They already use the litter box.”  Identify the antecedent of a pronoun (e.g., write “historians recognize” instead of “everyone recognizes”).

PROPER STYLE: Style is a personal affair, but formal prose has certain requirements.  One would not attend a formal wedding in jeans, so one cannot submit a formal paper using anything other than proper English.  A crucial aspect of style is to write using active voice instead of passive voice.  Write sentences like “Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Kennedy” (active voice), not “Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald” (passive voice).  Write “the Nazis considered them enemies” not “they were considered enemies ” [by the Nazis].

ABBREVIATIONS: Do not use any abbreviations, such as etc., vs., v., or misc., unless they are part of a quotation or a required part of a citation.

CONTRACTIONS: Do not use contractions, unless they are part of a quotation.

COLLOQUIALISMS: Learn to recognize and eliminate all colloquial phrases, such as in the sentences “Mohammed’s job was to convert everyone to Islam” and “She had a good head on her shoulders.”

QUOTATIONS: Too many students fill a paper with the thoughts of others, and even though they may properly credit the sources, the practice is unacceptable.  The paper writer must present evidence and interpret on their own, using quotations sparingly.  For quotations ending with question and quotation marks, place the quotation mark inside the quotation marks if the entire quotation is a question and outside the quotation marks if the quotation is only a phrase within the question.  Any quotation which exceeds four lines in the body of the paper must be blocked, that is, indented and single spaced.  Do not place quotation marks at the beginnings and ends of block quotations.  As part of the text, state the name and the significance of the person who made the statement worthy of being quoted.  Do not force the reader to check the footnotes or endnotes for such information.

FOREIGN PHRASES: Set all foreign phrases in italics, and place a translation in brackets or parentheses (be consistent in using one or the other) when phrases appear for the first time, such as with the saying in vino veritas [in wine there is truth].  Translations are not usually provided for words and phrases in French, German, and Spanish.

FOOTNOTES OR ENDNOTES: The writer must give credit in footnotes or endnotes to any source of quotations, unusual information, or unique ideas.  When employing footnotes, extend the text to compensate for the notes.  There is only one acceptable style of citation in history: the full footnote or endnote, as described in Turabian’s A Manual for Writers (see “Helpful Aids” below).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: If the instructor requires a bibliography (one may not be necessary if the student uses only assigned sources), include sections for primary sources and secondary sources (place the former before the latter).  Do not pad bibliographies.  For proper bibliographical citations, see Turabian’s, A Manual for Writers.


THINGS THAT TRAVEL IN PAIRS: There are certain phrases which must appear together.  It is impossible to have something “on the other hand” if there is no “on the one hand.” “Not only” and “but also” are two more phrases that travel in pairs.  Be cautious, however, not to use “both” in combination with “as well as.”

AWKWARD SENTENCES: Beware of awkward and wordy sentences that blur meaning:
Incorrect: “William, with his traditional way of reasoning, reasoned that, for the most part, he had no choice but to marry.”
Correct: “William, who held very traditional morals, reasoned that he had no choice but to marry.”

REPETITIOUS WORDS AND PHRASES: Use a thesaurus to help remove repeated words and phrases in sentences and paragraphs.

SHORT SENTENCES AND PARAGRAPHS: Combine short sentences and paragraphs to eliminate the machine-gun attack of thoughts that assault the reader.

TENSE: Never mix tenses.  History is a record of the past, so it is best to use the past and past perfect tenses.

DATES FOR HISTORIC INDIVIDUALS: The first time an individual’s name appears in a paper, the writer should provide the full names and dates: George Washington (1732-1799); Michael S. Gorbachev (born 1931); Louis XVI (1754-1793; reigned, 1774-1792).

DECADES: When referring to a decade with numerals, do not use an apostrophe.  When using only the last two digits, spell them completely.
Incorrect: Considering the difficulties of the 1880's, the 90s were less problematical.
Correct: Considering the difficulties of the 1880s, the nineties were less problematical.

PROOFREADING: Proofread all assignments before submitting them.  Instructors note errors, and an abundance of mistakes can harm a grade.

HELPFUL AIDS FOR THE WRITER: Every college student should have: 1) a good collegiate dictionary; 2) a thesaurus; 3) a reference grammar; and 4) Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, latest edition).  The Manual for Writers is an indispensable book available in most bookstores.  In includes examples of notation and bibliographical entries for several different citation systems, including that of the University of Chicago.  Turabian’s work is actually an abbreviated version of University of Chicago Press Staff,  A Manual of Style for Authors, Editors, and Copywriters (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, latest edition).  
Those who are serious about developing their writing skills may wish to consider purchasing:

Follett, Wilson Follett.  Modern American Usage: A Guide, edited and completed by Jacques Barzun in collaboration with Carlos Baker, et al.  New York: Hill and Wang, latest edition.

Fowler, H. W.  A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.  Rev. and ed. by Sir Ernest Gowers.  New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, latest edition.  (This is for British English, but it is still very useful.)

Strunk, William Jr. and E. B. White.  The Elements of Style.  New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, latest edition.

Truss, Lynne.  Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  Foreword by Frank McCourt.  New York and London: Gotham Books, an imprint of the Penguin Group, 2004.

For additional copies of this style sheet, contact Daniel E. Miller at

Rev. 16.IV.17 (the section in "Pronouns" about Abbott
and Costello is slightly longer here than in the PDF)