I am an undergraduate student of philosophy with expertise in sewing and study habits.
Writing a good paper is a process, but it doesn’t have to be full of frustration. Here are a few tips that, with practice, will help you take the anxiety out of writing that dreaded paper.
1. Find a Topic and Narrow a Thesis
The first step of writing any paper is finding a topic (or using one that has been assigned) and narrowing your thesis. A thesis is essentially your conclusion. It’s the reason you are writing the paper, other than the fact you need to pass the class. A good thesis has at least these four characteristics:
- Clarity: Your thesis should be clear. Not only should it be easy to understand, but it should be introduced in your paper in a way that makes it clear that it is the thesis of the paper. As a reader, I should not get past the introductory paragraph and still not know what is being argued in the paper.
- Concision: Your thesis should be concise. It should take up one to two sentences max for the average paper (5–8 pages). Don’t use too many decorative words or unneeded phrases.
- Significance: Your thesis should be significant, not obvious. It should be something that can be disagreed with. You should not be arguing for something that is taken as fact in the academic world.
- Modesty: While it should carry significance, it shouldn’t carry too much. A good thesis makes a point but doesn’t reach too far. You should not try to make an argument that seeks to change the academic landscape surrounding your topic, nor should it be essentially opinionated, e.g., “the best...,” “the most important.” This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is advised because of the difficulty of supporting such arguments with evidence.
2. Make an Outline
Outlines are underrated. They help keep you from getting “stuck” and also help you avoid rambling. The key is not to try to have an extremely clear-cut topic for every paragraph but to explain to yourself the purpose of writing each paragraph. For example, some paragraphs will be used to explain background information that helps your reader clearly understand what your paper is about.
Others will be used to support your thesis with evidence. Some will be used to explain other scholars’ arguments or to explain a conflict in the scholarly world. Still others will be objections and responses to the argument you are making.
Find sources to support your argument. Most colleges allow access to research tools like JSTOR and Academic Search Complete, as well as many other more specific databases. The key to a good search is to use the advanced search option and search the article abstracts (usually an option in the drop-down boxes beside the search bars).
Also, remember to search many databases and consider using the library! Books may be overwhelming, but using specific, relevant chapters from those books will be useful and help you add to the range of kinds of sources used. You do not need sources that support your exact thesis so much as you need sources that support parts of your thesis that you can tie together for yourself. Remember to quote and cite these sources within your paper. And, of course, .coms are not usually legitimate sources!
4. When You Get Stuck, Skip Over It!
The most dreaded part of the paper-writing process for me is that point where I just can’t think of the next thing to write: that point where I am just stuck. It is hindering. It can make you procrastinate. Worse, it can make you ramble and waste time writing unimportant sentences that you will ultimately just delete. The best way to keep yourself from this frustration is to skip over whatever it is that you can’t seem to write about and write something else for your paper, following your outline.
To remind myself to come back to something that I am stuck on, I write in bold all-caps FINISH THIS, NEED MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS, or whatever else I can’t seem to write about. It doesn’t have to be an entire paragraph you get stuck on either. Maybe it’s just one sentence you just can’t seem to word right. Whatever it is, skip it! Go back to it later.
5. Do Not Get Too Attached
Don’t be afraid to delete sentences and maybe even entire paragraphs that, in the end, are not essential or important to your paper. If the paragraph doesn’t help support your thesis in some way, it should be deleted. If a sentence is added just because it is interesting or as a filler, it should be deleted. Every part of your paper should have a purpose, and that purpose should be to support your thesis in some way.
6. Present It as an Argument
For 100-level classes, a paper can be about 1/2 background information ad 1/2 arguing for a thesis. For upper-level classes, though, the background information should be minimized and the argument expanded. Your paper should also come full circle; to some extent, your thesis should be repeated towards the end because you should have presented a solid argument with evidence supporting it.
Use words like “because,” “thus,” and “therefore” to help lead your reader through your line of reasoning. Also, make sure that your thesis doesn’t change throughout your paper. Sometimes, during the research and writing process, I unconsciously “change my mind” about whatever it is I am writing, but this means I am writing for a different thesis than I stated earlier. Therefore, I must go back and change my thesis in order to be as consistent and clear as possible.
7. Cite Last
Citing sources in a bibliography or works cited and within your paper itself may be the most annoying part of writing a paper. It is also interrupting to the writing process. To solve this, I always do my citations last.
In order not to forget where the quote came from, I enter only the necessities: the author’s name and the page number. Make sure to cite correctly, and do not trust any internet tool that claims to do the citation for you. They usually do not cite properly. Here are some internet tools for learning common citation styles:
- MLA: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/09/
- Chicago: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html
- APA: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/01/
I hope these tips and tricks help make your next paper-writing experience as quick and painless as possible!