How to Write Papers
Know What You Want to Write Before You Begin
The purpose of writing is to communicate. Therefore it is essential that you, the writer, have a clear idea of what you want to communicate before you begin to write. There is some truth to the observation that writing can clarify our thinking about a subject; but it can only do so if we’ve got some general idea that we work out by writing. And of course “drafts” in which we have been working out our ideas need to be edited before being offered to others for their reading.
Have a Schedule for Completing the Assignment
Nothing academic happens without a plan. That is certainly true of writing papers. You need to start on the paper early and have a schedule for finishing it on time, including getting it printed out and stapled or in a folder (whatever the requirements are) the night before it is due. The only way to accomplish this is to have a schedule that instructs you as follows: “On these specific days I will research a topic. On this day I will write an outline. On these days I will write the draft. On this day I will edit. And on this day I will rest, satisfied that I have done my best.”
Develop Your Ideas Before You Begin to Write
You need a specific topic, a thesis statement, and an outline before you begin to write your first draft. Of course none of these springs into your mind full blown like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. You must do some preliminary work. Choose your topic carefully as this is the first determinant of success or failure—too narrow a topic and you will have difficulty finding enough information, too broad and you will be unable to say anything intelligent about it within the parameters of your assignment. A successful topic must be something you either already know about or one that you have resources to learn about. Often your professor will help by assigning a topic; but even then you have to make it your own. How you do that depends on the type of writing assignment. If it is an essay you will need to search your own thoughts and feelings for a valid and interesting point of view about which you are competent to write. If it is a research paper you will need to research what experts have written about the topic. Even here you will need to make a selection based on what you want to say about the topic.
Next develop a thesis statement. Before you write you need to be able to express in one controlling sentence what you want the reader to take away from your paper. Students will often say “But I don’t understand it well enough to express it in one sentence.” In that case you don’t understand it well enough to write about it either. Go back and do some more research and studying until you can do so.
Your next step is to consider how to convince the reader that your point of view is valid—that your thesis statement is true. Should the paper be chronological or should your arguments be ordered according to relative strength or should you organize according to examples or expert opinions? These decisions will guide you in developing an outline before you begin writing the first draft.
Determine the Scope of the Paper
Even as you choose a topic, write a thesis, and develop an outline you need to keep in mind the parameters of the assignment; that is, how long will it be. Don’t attempt too much, resulting in a cramped, uncertain and incomplete treatment, nor too little, resulting in repetition and a desperate attempt to drag out the meager material to meet the word count.
Develop an Outline
Students often get lost in the details of outlining. For most papers I find that a simple, topic-sentence outline is best. As you research for a paper or plan an essay write out your main points in full sentences. The number of sentences (main points) is determined by the requirements of the paper. I suggest something like 20-25 for a ten page paper or 10-12 for a five page paper. Next examine your sentences: Can some be collapsed into others or are some too broad and need to be divided? Are they of approximately equal importance or scope? Now arrange them in the best order to accomplish the purpose of your thesis statement.
Write the Draft
Now that you have an outline you are prepared to write. Each sentence represents one paragraph; and, since it is atopic-sentence outline, you already have the most important sentence of each paragraph written. You can now parcel out your work—writing the paper a paragraph or two at a time as you have time. Of course you may need to make some modifications as you write—doing more research or changing the outline slightly as to order or adding additional points or merging some points together. Remember that you’re writing a draft. The sentences don’t have to be perfect at this point. Many students are paralyzed by the erroneous idea that whatever they write has to be perfect. But that is why you’ve started early and have a schedule, so that there will be time to edit and rewrite before turning in the paper.
Begin and End Well
Next write your introductory and concluding paragraphs, remembering that these are the two most important paragraphs in your paper. The introduction must get the reader’s attention in a way that does not belie the contents to follow and the conclusion must leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction that the paper was worth reading. In other words, make certain that the introduction prepares the reader for what is to come and that the conclusion supports and or summarizes the thesis without adding new material.
Edit, Edit, Edit
Once you’ve written the first draft you will have a feeling of accomplishment; but you are not finished. Let the draft sit for a day or two and then reread it. Editing will save you the embarrassment of getting your paper back with the professor’s marks on it and either recognizing immediately that you’ve made careless mistakes or reading and rereading the sentences that are marked as unclear and wondering to yourself “what in the world was I trying to say.”
Avoid the following common mistakes:
- Writing a different paper than the one that is assigned- Make certain that you understand the assignment, and then meet the parameters of that assignment. If the topic is specified, stick to that topic. If the topic is open, make certain that you understand the criteria for choosing your own topic. If you are unclear ask your professor. Stick to the word count or page count requirements. Don’t write a word less than is required and don’t write more than a page over what is required without first getting permission to do so.
- Writing in a flowery or pedantic style- Some students try to impress the professor by writing in an overly dramatic style. Others mistakenly attempt a pseudo-academic style that often leads to misuse of the passive voice. Find your own voice and write naturally, but clearly and concisely.
- Being too colloquial- You are writing academic papers and the style should be appropriate for college level work. Therefore avoid breezy, folksy or “hip” language and expressions. The balance between pedantic and colloquial (between pretentious and commonplace) is difficult for some students, but it is critical to academic writing.
- Plagiarizing- The internet has made it far too easy for any or all of us to fall into the trap of cutting and pasting with only slight editing. But in academia ideas are the coin of the realm and thus stealing ideas without giving due credit is as heinous as stealing tangible property.
- Using excessively large quotations or narratives- Do not burden your paper with long quotations, narratives or examples that are disproportionate to the rest of the paper. Try to keep your points balanced in service of the overall purpose of the paper.
Be careful with grammar and style:
- Be concise.
- Eschew “very unique.”
- Avoid excessive use of the passive voice; if you know who is responsible then share that with your readers.
- The first person (“I” or “we”) is now permissible in most forms of writing (check with your professor); but the second person (“you”) is still verboten.
- Less should be used when the quantity can not be counted and thus must be measured; few or fewer should be used with quantities that can be counted.
- Don’t confuse “into,” entering, and “in,” already there.
- Be careful to use the subjective “I” and the objective “me” appropriately. You and I will go to town. It will be good for you and me.
- Be careful with effect and affect. Effect as a noun is a result. Affect as a verb means to have an influence. Thus to affect something is to have an effect on it. To effect as a verb means to bring about thus a doctor may effect a cure.
- Don’t confuse “it’s,” a contraction for it is, and “its,” meaning belonging to it.
- Never use two negatives to express a simple negation. Remember your algebra: two negatives make a positive, albeit often inelegantly and confusedly in writing.
- Use personal pronouns with persons, “who” not “that.”
- Semicolons should only be used between two independent clauses (that means they could be separate sentences) or to separate parts of the sentence that already contain commas.
- Never use a colon to separate the verb from its object even when you are making a list of objects.
- Periods and commas go inside quotations marks.
- Within paragraphs don’t dangle in-text citations outside of a sentence.
- Remember that punctuation marks serve a purpose. It should not be sprinkled willy-nilly throughout the text like paprika.