1. Omit needless words, and be clear.
- Avoid passives and nominalizations.
- Avoid convoluted sentences and paragraphs.
- “Don’t try to dress up your writing.” Don’t try to sound smart.
- Everything from your paper’s title to its introduction, thesis, headings, and conclusion should clearly indicate what and how you are arguing. Is your approach inductive, deductive, or a mix? (See Don Carson’s advice about two ways to approach writing a dissertation.)
- Be more specific than “points” or “things.”
- Correct typos. Read your draft aloud, and then make your computer read it aloud. Sometimes your ears will hear errors your eyes miss.
- See “Six Useful Books on Writing.”
2. Cite sources in footnotes and the bibliography correctly.
- For names and places of presses, see pp. 76–82.
- Wrong: Wheaton: Crossway Publishers, 2016
- Right: Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016
- Consult the “Student Supplement.”
- Use the author’s published name. If the book’s title page lists the author as D. A. Carson, then don’t write Donald A. Carson or Don Carson.
Also, if a book is available in print, cite actual page numbers—not Kindle locations.
3. Use the hyphen (-), en dash (–), and em dash (—) correctly.
- Hyphens: half-baked idea; one-third
- En dashes
- References: Rom 1:16–17 (not Rom 1:16-17)
- Pages: 113–14 (not 113-14)
- Dates: 1980–2016 (not 1980-2016)
- Em dashes: “Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?” (Rom 2:3).
- Update on 11/1/2016: See “Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes” at the SBL Handbook of Style blog.
4. Use only one space between sentences.
The two-space rule accommodated manual typewriters.
5. Capitalize words correctly.
For theological words follow The SBL Handbook of Style (pp. 37–52). For example,
- biblical (not Biblical)
- covenant (not Covenant)
- Gospel (not gospel) when it refers to the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John
- gospel (not Gospel) when it refers to good news
- kingdom of God (not Kingdom of God)
- Messiah (not messiah)
- messianic (not Messianic)
- temple (not Temple)
6. Abbreviate correctly.
Follow ch. 8 in The SBL Handbook of Style (pp. 117–260), especially for books of the Bible (pp. 124–25). For example,
- Gen 3:16 (not Gen. 3:16 or Genesis 3:16)
- Rom 3 (not Rom. 3 or Romans 3)
Two exceptions: Spell out the book name if (1) a chapter (or chapter and verse) does not follow it or (2) it comes first in the sentence. For example,
- Right: Paul wrote Romans in about AD 57.
- Wrong: Paul wrote Rom in about AD 57.
- Right: Romans 3:21–26 is the most important paragraph in the Bible.
- Wrong: Rom 3:21–26 is the most important paragraph in the Bible.
- Right: First Corinthians 13 is about love.
- Wrong: 1 Cor 13 is about love.
7. Punctuate correctly.
- Add a comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses.
- Use the Oxford comma. (Yes, I just linked to Wikipedia. It’s not all bad.)
- Don’t place footnote numbers before punctuation such as a comma, semicolon, or period.
- Add quotation marks after a period or comma.
- Right: I answered, “Chipotle.”
- Wrong: I answered, “Chipotle”.
- Add a comma after the abbreviations “e.g.” (for example) and “i.e.” (that is) but not for “cf.” (confer or compare).
- Add commas around nonrestrictive or nonessential clauses (e.g., The apostle Paul, who wrote thirteen letters, was prolific) but not around restrictive or essential clauses (e.g., The author who wrote Romans was prolific).
- Don’t put “ff.” after verse references (e.g., Rom 3:21ff.). Specify the precise range (e.g., Rom 3:21–26).
- Jesus’s (not Jesus’). Moses’s (not Moses’).
8. Footnote what translation you are using the first time you quote Scripture.
For papers (and journal articles), say something like this: “Scripture quotations are from the ESV.” Or “Scripture quotations are from the ESV, unless otherwise noted.” (I know—the previous sentence has both a nominalization and a passive. It’s legit rule-breaking.)
Anecdote: In my first PhD seminar with Don Carson at Trinity, a student was defending his paper before the class, and Don asked him something like this: “Why do you use your own rigidly form-based translation in your paper? That is a very MDiv-ish thing to do. Why not simply use one of the standard translations like the NIV or ESV and then diverge from that when you think helpful?”
9. Evaluate others fairly.
Critique a book or article on its own terms. Don’t criticize an author merely because they didn’t write the book you wish they would have written; critique a book or article based on what its author intended it to be. Here’s a good diagnostic question to ask yourself: Would you critique an author differently if they were in the room listening to you evaluate them?
- Aaron Armstrong, “How to Write a Great Book Review”
- Tim Keller’s 6 Principles for How to Argue When You Disagree
10. Be above reproach about plagiarizing.
Don’t present specific arguments that aren’t original to you as if they are. Usually when seminarians plagiarize material to some degree, they don’t intend to. Understand what plagiarism is so that you don’t do it.
- How to Write a Theology Essay
- Ten Things You Should Never Do in a Theological Research Paper
- Should Seminaries Require Students to Write So Many Academic Research Papers? John Frame Says No (The comments after the article are thoughtful.)
- This is the rubric I use for grading papers (based on a 10-point scale where 90–100 = A, 80–89 = B, etc.):