ENVS101 Writing Guidelines


Effective writing:

Great ideas are worth very little unless they are effectively presented.  In an expository essay, the first paragraph should clearly and concisely establish a theme or thesis.  Each subsequent paragraph should support this thesis. Each paragraph should have a clear topic sentence and text within this paragraph should support that sentence.  Assertions and opinions must be explained and, where appropriate, supported with evidence.  The essay should end with a concluding paragraph that draws together ideas and follows logically from arguments presented in the essay.  Although letters and reports may differ in style, the rules of effective writing are similar to those that apply to an essay. 


Write clearly and directly.  Contemporary writing favors the use of the active rather than passive voice; it is preferable to write “I [or we] recommend that….” Rather than “It is recommended that…”.  Be certain that it is clear who is being represented in an argument.  If you write, “We need to consider…” be certain that it is absolutely clear to the reader who is being included in this “we” (i.e., you and your group members, citizens of the U.S. or citizens of the world).


Simple and concise writing tends to be more effective than complex writing.  Avoid use of hyperbolic terms such as “horrifying”, “incredible”, etc.


Citing the ideas of others:

Your writing should be informed by the readings that you have done for this class.  I expect you to discuss these ideas and to cite the authors whose ideas you are discussing.  Neglecting to cite ideas or quoted text that come from other sources is a violation of academic ethics and of the Oberlin honor code.  Unless the particular wording that a reference uses is important, it is preferable to paraphrase text and then cite the idea rather than to extensively quote text. 

Preferred: Nations are increasingly fighting over fresh water (Masteny and Cincotta, 2005).  

Less good: Masteny and Cincotta (2005) tell us that, “History shows us that nations pick fights over fresh water”


Citation format:

A fundamental tenant of academic writing is that you need to provide sufficient information in a citation that someone else could easily find the cited work.  I give you two choices for citation format for ENVS101.  You can cite in footnotes or you can use in-text citations and then include a literature cited section. 


Footnotes: Use MSWord’s footnote feature. Place the curser at the end of the sentence (before the period) in which you are citing an idea.  From the “Insert” menu, choose “Reference” and then choose “Footnote”.  The default settings of “bottom of the page” and “numbered” are appropriate, press the “Insert” button.  Within the footnote window use the reference format described below.  I use the footnote format for the case studies – these provide a reasonable example.


In-text citations: In this case you place the author’s names and date of publication in the text.  You can either include the last names of the authors in the sentence and then include the year of publication in parentheses, or you can include the authors’ names in parentheses together with the year of publication.  If a work has two authors, include both last names.  If a work has more than two authors include the first and write “et al.” after the first author’s last name (this is the abbreviation for et alii, which means “and others” in Latin). 


Here are some examples of various options for correctly citing authors work: 

>The German chemist Liebig was one of the first to point out the connection between the loss of soil fertility on farms and the sewage problem in cities (Foster & Magdoff, 1998)

>The German chemist Liebig was one of the first to point out the connection between the loss of soil fertility on farms and the sewage problem in cities[1].

>Thermodynamics provides a critical context for understanding environmental problems (Ehrlich et al.., 1996).

>Ehrlich et al. (1996) argue that thermodynamics provides a critical context for understanding environmental problems.

>Ehrlich et al. (1996) write that, “The essence of the accounting is embodied in two concepts known as the first and second laws of thermodynamics”.


Whether you use footnotes or in-text citations you need to include a complete reference to the cited work in either the footnote or in a literature cited section at the end of the paper.   In the case of footnotes, you will have a separate footnote entry associated with each use of a reference.  In the case of a literature cited section, list the references alphabetically by the first author’s last name.  A literature cited section includes every author cited and only those that are actually cited in the text of the paper (don’t include reference information for papers that you do not directly cite).  Copy the format used in the example literature cited section immediately below (author, date, title, pages, journal or book, volume, publisher information).  Note carefully how authors’ initials and edited books are formatted. 


Literature Cited:

>Ehrlich, P. R., A. H. Ehrlich and J. P. Holdren. 1996. Availability, entropy, and the laws of thermodynamics. Pages 69-74 in H. E. Daly and K. N. Townsend, eds. Valuing the earth: Economics, ecology and ethics. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

>Foster, J. B. and F. Magdoff. 1998. Liebig, Marx, and the depletion of soil fertility: Relevance for today's agriculture. Monthly Review 50:32-45.

>Wilson, E. O. 1992. Resolution (Chapter 14). Pages 311-342 in The diversity of life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.



Please make an extra effort to use grammar and punctuation appropriately.  For example, semicolons should only be used in two situations.  First, they are used to link independent clauses.  You know you are using a semicolon correctly in this situation if you can replace it with a period and end up with two complete sentences.  Second, semicolons can be used to punctuate a list of elements in which one or more of these elements contains an internal comma.  In this case, semicolons are used in place of commas.  Random use and abuse of the semicolon will be dealt with harshly in this course.


Writing assistance:

Everyone can improve their writing skills.  At Oberlin you are fortunate to have a “Rhetoric and composition program” which is dedicated to helping students to improve their writing skills (http://www.oberlin.edu/rhetoric/info_students/campus.html).  Check out their web site for availability of trained peer tutors who can help you out with assignments in ENVS101.  In addition, the Writing Center (http://www.oberlin.edu/ptp/writing_center/), located in the Mudd Academic Commons, offers peer tutors with drop-in hours who can offer help in all stages of the writing process.


[1]Foster, J. B. and F. Magdoff. 1998. Liebig, Marx, and the depletion of soil fertility: Relevance for today's agriculture. Monthly Review 50:32-45.