Guidelines for Writing a Paper in a Classics ClassWriter's Web
(printable version here)

Essays written for Classics classes are often similar to those written for any class that analyzes texts. The same general rules for organization and structure still apply. However, there are differences that come along with writing about ancient texts. Translating Latin and Greek is an important skill and one that you may have already mastered. Crafting an effective argument around the texts and their translations, however, includes many pitfalls which we will try to address here.

Forming a Thesis

Often, when a novice writer begins a paper, s/he thinks of the "perfect thesis" and then refuses to change it, no matter what. This narrow-minded approach often means that the writer completely overlooks an even better thesis or winds up attempting to support a weak thesis. Don't make your thesis set in stone! It's perfectly fine to start out a paper with a preliminary thesis--in fact, it's a good idea, as it will give your paper direction and focus--but don't be afraid to change it! The more you write, the more you will understand your topic, and the less likely it will be that your original thesis should be kept. Keep an open mind as you write, and don't be afraid to change your mind.

Sometimes, however, even coming up with a preliminary thesis is difficult for first-year writers. Developing a thesis is never easy, even for experienced writers. However, with some practice, it will eventually become second nature! The Classics department at the Queen's University in Ontario suggests using a WHAT/HOW/WHY method:

  • WHAT: Your topic. What exactly are you talking about in this paper?
    • Ex. Setting, portrayal of (attempted) rape in Ovid's Vertumnus and Pomona myth.
  • HOW: What's your main point? Through what examples/themes are you proving your argument?
    • Ex. cultured garden rather than wild forest setting; "nice" rapist who uses words rather than force.
  • WHY: What's the point? What is the significance of your interpretation?
    • Ex. Shows the transition from Greek to Roman civilization.

With these three things figured out, you can write your thesis. (Or, at least, your first thesis!)

  • Ex. Through his change in both the setting and the portrayal of attempted rape in the Vertumnus & Pomona myth, Ovid subtly notes the change from Greek to Roman civilization in his Metamorphoses.

Foreign language phrases

There are many different methods for including foreign phrases in your paper, and each professor may want writers to use different methods. Be sure to check with your professor to understand his/her specifications. Below are two popular techniques

1. Within the flow of the English sentence

  • If it is a short quotation--usually a single phrase--that fits grammatically in an English sentence, place it there, italicized, and without quotation marks, but still cite it at the end of the sentence (either parenthetically or in a footnote).
    • Example: However, the girls' superior preparation tota mente ultimately does not matter (Catullus 62.14).

2. In quotation marks

  • If the quotation does not fit within the grammar of the English sentence or is a whole sentence in its own right, quote it just as in any essay and include a citation.
    • Example: They say, "Cernitis, innuptae, iuvenes? Consurgite contra" (Catullus 62.6).
  • An exception to using quotation marks comes when the quotation is three lines or longer (sometimes two lines for poetry--again, check with your professor). In this instance, the whole quote should be indented and single-spaced, as with a normal block quote. It does not need to be either italicized or put in quotation marks, but it should still be cited.

Literary devices, specifically sound and meter

As in many English classes, analyzing literary devices plays a crucial role. However, specific discussions of sound and meter tend to be more prevalent in Latin and Greek essays. These devices, since they are largely set aside in English language analysis, can cause problems for some writers. There is the temptation to twist the sounds to support the writer's thesis rather than to analyze them honestly. Though sound and meter have a subjective effect on each reader, a higher level of objectivity is needed in analytical essays. If you wish to include a discussion of sound and meter within your paper, there are two pieces of advice:

  • Have an argument to make with the devices.
    • Like every device, simply saying that alliteration or elision exists in a line does not constitute an argument.
  • Have a precedent with which to argue.
    • Quote articles that make the same assertion (or a similar assertion about a different poem) to prove a precedent for your argument.
    • Be systematical about your research and find the precedents on your own. The more examples you find for a pattern, the more convincing your argument will be.
      • For example, an argument you make about the sound of the word "edax" in Horace's Ode 3.30 will be all the stronger if you can prove that your argument also applies for the word in Ovid's Amores 1.15 and Metamorphoses 15.

Also, remember that the subjectivity of how these devices affect each reader may not allow them to be the strongest argument. A writer may be sure that the repeated s's (sigmatism) in a line signal the poet's sleepiness; the professor may be equally sure that the sigmatism is a sign of the poet's perfidy. Because of the higher possibility for this disconnect than in the discussion of other literary devices, a writer may want to use sound and meter just as qualified add-ons to other, stronger arguments.


To truly convince your audience, you cannot include only your own arguments in your essay. When assembling your argument, try to answer any counter-arguments that your professor may think of. Both Professors Stevenson and Simpson used the analogy of a court room where the reader (the professor) stands as judge and jury. You must develop your ideas so that they would stand up to a "cross-examination." You want to minimize the chance of your professor asking a question while reading and not receiving an answer.


Each professor will likely give you a different answer on this issue. Some wish for a translation to be included when you quote in Latin or in Greek, others (especially in the language classes) do not require a translation. If your professor does ask for translations, there are a few guidelines for including them.

  • If you are in a Latin or a Greek class, when you quote in that language, you will usually want to use your own translations. If for some reason that is not the case, be sure to use the translation your professor provided/assigned.
  • Translations, when provided, should come either directly after the quote in parentheses or be put in a footnote at the bottom of the page, complete with citation.
    • Example of parentheses method: Ovid’s poetry does not need the Roman state, for it is protected by “suus… honos” (his own honor, Amores 1.15.40).

Integrating and Citing Quotations

Learning to properly integrate quotes is a difficult process for many first-year writers.

Dr. Elizabeth Baughan, professor of Archaeology at the University of Richmond, says that many students "seem unsure of how to use secondary sources beyond quoting them, and quotations are often inserted awkwardly, without being incorporated into the structure of the paragraph." When you simply stick quotes into your essay without introducing them, it makes your paper extremely confusing for the reader. Dr. Baughan suggests "introducing a quote somehow with a phrase followed by a colon or comma, or breaking up a quote into shorter chunks that can be incorporated into the student's own sentence." Keith Hjortshoj says:

The same principles of clarity, honesty, and courtesy apply to references in academic writing. To help your readers to understand who is saying what (and perhaps also when and where), you need to use your own voice as the writer to introduce sources to the reader, clearly distinguish their voices and ideas from yours, and represent what they have said as accurately and fairly as possible. When you shift between their words and ideas to your own, the reader should have no difficult making these distinctions. (145)

But remember--even if you're not directly quoting a source, you must cite your source! Paraphrasing (or, taking someone else's words and rephrasing them) isn't plagiarism, as long as you properly cite, as you would a direct quote.

For more information on integrating and citing quotes, see Chapter 7 of Hjortshoj's The Transition to College Writing.

Other Disciplines | Writer's Web | Writing Center | Make an Appointment | Library
Department of Classical Studies
| Copyright Info