Research, referencing, style guides, and howlers: quick guide

Posted by RDN under Mind & body on 21 April 2016

This is a note which I hope is useful for anyone preparing to write essays at 6th form or university, and above, and for presentations of any sort.


What follows looks burdensome, but most of it codifies good sense and builds easy habits which save time and anxiety and help produce texts which look great to the people who judge one.

By the way: I have no teaching expertise or experience. This note is the result of a lifetime’s journalism and book-writing, including for thinktanks, and some work with PhD students.

Golden Rules

As much as you research and reference material that supports your prejudice or main argument, make sure you get to grips with and are comfortable with and honest about the best of what the opposing argument might be.

When one thinks a thought, one should aim to find someone respectable or famous who has had it already, and quote and cite them.

Never steal a thought: people who judge one will be more impressed by wide, intelligent reading and canny quotation than by challengable originality.

Academic conundrum

In most academic work the examiner is looking for originality, but will expect any argument to be substantiated by reference to academic authorities. Go figure.

Online and general research

In general, try to use and cite websites which are posted by academics at universities, or the statistical and information services of respectable countries. Think-tanks and newspapers, and even individuals and campaigners, are good to use and cite, but with great care as to their “line”. In general, always show you are alert to the biases or POVs of those you quote or source, however respectable.

Wikipedia should never be cited as though it was authoritative (unlike Encyclopaedia Britannica, one might say). But by all means use it as kicking-off point to wider research.

Even university sources are of course not the last word, let alone necessarily true in some final way. They only offer the likelihood of respectability. Except in matters of the simplest fact, there is no truth; not even in science (where the whole game is to set up theories and then to shoot them down). To be authoritative is not to offer the last word or final truth: it is to be well worth attention as seriously thoughtful, well-evidenced, and respected by people who are themselves respected.

It is weird and peculiar but true that academic work is sort of circular: academics (such as undergraduates and even schoolboys in academic mode) usually apply the rule of referring to academics when they seek to prove the value of any piece of work.

In general, when you are online, you must look for the real-world, bricks and mortar, name and address, institutional existence of your sources. Texts found online will similarly often have a real-world origin which it is important to track.

As you research issues online, keep a proper track of where you have been, and what you have picked up, the better to refer to it in whatever you produce. Find a way of saving to a hard-drive (or several) things like your favourites and bookmarks, with dates as to when they were filed.

Paper research

All the above applies and remember also to keep a track of your reading, whether in books, pamphlets or newspapers. You can photograph pages at will on a phone, but remember that title page etc will matter as much as the text you fancy…. experiment with that.


Citing web pages and sites

Make clear the exact url at which you found material, and the date you accessed it (this gives you cover in case of changes on the site.) Ideally, copy the whole page to a hard-drive (or several).

Citing printed material

Make sure you note title, author, publisher, location of publisher, date of publication, page numbers. Any reference must lay a trail which allows someone else to find the material cited.

Style guides

Writers need to pick a style and stick to it at least within any one text. Consistency, which a writer can and must deliver, matters more than correctness, which is a matter of opinion. UK and US styles are not the same. Journalistic and academic styles are not the same.

For UK writers, and for most working purposes, the Guardian and Observer style guide is excellent and easy to follow. For anything academic, the Oxford University Style Guide seems really excellent (it comes with various caveats which don’t seem at all off-putting).


To avoid howlers, one needs something like a recent edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (for keeping your grammar straight) or Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words (for pesky word confusion) – or Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors (probably a pretty good mixture of the two). Bryson wrote the best style guide I ever saw, for the Independent in the 1980s.


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