Many students find writing papers to be the most stressful assignment in college. The very idea conjures images of late nights in front of a computer, struggling to put words together coherently for a paper due the next day, then receiving it back covered with red marks and a lower grade than you had hoped for. But it doesn’t have to be this way!
The Key to Success
The biggest key to success in writing a paper is to start on it as soon as you get the assignment. When a professor assigns a paper, he or she calculates the amount of time needed to do a good job and then gives that much time between when it is assigned and when it is due. Many students put off starting the paper until time is running out and don’t end up with enough time to do it well. Then they wonder why they didn’t get a very good grade. Don’t let this happen to you — start right away.
There are three parts to writing: pre-writing, writing, and revising. The biggest problems come from skipping the first and last steps and only doing the middle one. If you don’t do any preparation, you won’t have much to write about, and you’ll end up with a blank screen staring you in the face as you try to come up with random ideas to fill the page. Likewise, if you don’t have time for any revising, you won’t catch your mistakes, and you are destined for a paper dripping with red ink.
Think about the amount of time that you have and divide it into chunks. If you have three weeks, for example, what do you need to get done the first week? The second week? The third week? Creating small deadlines for yourself will help you avoid putting off writing the paper until the final deadline. Plan some time for pre-writing, writing, and revising. Then get going!
Getting started What should you do first? There are lots of options, and where you start might depend on your personality or on the assignment. Here are some ideas:
• Jot down any ideas you had while the professor was explaining the assignment or any thoughts that come to you as you read the instructions; see where they lead you.
• Write down some questions you have about the topic; then start looking for answers.
• Do an Internet search of the topic. What kind of information is out there?
• Talk to a friend or another student in the class about the assignment. Sharing ideas can get your creative juices flowing.
• Go to the library in person or online and see what kind of resources are available. Ask a research librarian for help (they are awesome!).
As you start doing these things, you’ll begin to build up momentum and be able to figure out what to do next. You may want to work on it 20 minutes at a time over several days or sit down and dedicate a chunk of time to it a couple of times. Pretty soon, you’ll have a bunch of information, ideas, sources, etc.
When you visit Internet sites or use library sources, make sure to take notes on what you read — that is, write down important ideas in your own words on a separate piece of paper or computer document. Don’t rely on photocopies, downloaded files, or copy and pasted sections from your sources. Write down a complete citation for each source so that you’ll know where you got that information and you won’t have to go and find it again when it comes time to write the citations. If you take notes in your own words and use those notes instead of the original sources to write your paper, you will be much less likely to end up in trouble because of plagiarism.
Putting your ideas
in order Once you have a bunch of ideas and information written down, get them all out and look at them. What will be most useful? What things go together? What would make sense to talk about first? Start organizing and create an outline of what you want to say. Decide on a thesis statement if this is appropriate, and figure out what you can do for an introduction and a conclusion.
As with starting the assignment, it is critical to start writing before you actually think you need to. Besides, it is much easier to do a good job when you don’t have the stress of the deadline looming over you. Before starting to write, go back and reread the assignment. Make sure you know what your professor is asking for so you don’t do a lot of work writing something else.
You don’t have to start at the beginning of the paper. Start in the middle or with whatever part seems easiest. You can even start jotting down rough drafts of paragraphs while you are still in the pre-writing stage. If you can’t find anywhere to start and the words don’t come to you, start with the citations. Then at least you have something on the page and won’t end up rushing through those at the end.
NEVER write with your sources directly in front of you! This is a fast road to plagiarism because if what you want to say is already put together right there in front of you, you will have a hard time not copying it or just rearranging it to try to make it seem like your own words. Instead, use the notes that you took back when you were gathering information and don’t refer to your sources at all (unless you need to find details that you forgot to include in your notes). If you put your name on the paper, then it should be your words, which means that you created the sentences from scratch. (Including a direct quote in your paper is an exception.)
Once you have all of the parts, put them together and read through it. Do all of the main ideas support the thesis statement? Does each main idea have supporting details? Add transitions to make it flow from one idea to the next. Make sure your introduction gets the readers’ attention and that your conclusion wraps up what you are trying to say.
Before you start revising, give your writing some time to rest. If you started early enough, you’ll have a day or so to spare for this. It’s hard to see the errors in something you’ve just created, but if you close the file and don’t open it for a day or two, they’ll jump right out at you.
Look for big issues first. Does the organization make sense? Do the ideas flow in a logical order? Do the examples or supporting details you’ve given work? Look again at your introduction, transitions, and conclusion. Make changes if you can see how to improve anything.
Once you are satisfied with the larger issues, look for the details. Is your grammar correct? Spelling? Punctuation? Try reading your sentences separately, starting at the end of the paper and working your way back. Do they make sense? You can also try reading your paper aloud — sometimes you can hear problems better than you can see them.
It is also a good idea to seek help from others during the revising phase. Have a friend or two read it for you and tell you where they got confused, or if they can see any errors. Ask your professor if you can come to his or her office with a draft or send it by e-mail. Take it to the Writing Center and get some help from the tutors there. However, do not let anyone else rewrite the paper for you. If you do this then it is no longer your work, and it would be cheating to turn it in with your name on it.
Once you have finished all of your revisions, print out a fresh copy and turn it in (or submit it electronically). Then breathe a big sigh of relief. You’ve done your best! Now let it go and get on with something else.
When you get it back
When you get your paper back, look over it carefully. Did your professor make comments, mark errors, ask questions? Take note of any feedback so that you can do better on your next paper. If you aren’t happy with your grade, consider rewriting the paper. The professor may be willing to accept a revised version, and even if not, you’ll learn from the rewriting process.
Writing isn’t just for English classes. As a college student, you should expect to be asked to write papers, essays, lab reports, reflections, and so on in many other subjects. Think of ENGL 1010 and 2010 as a boot camp for the writing you will do throughout your college career and beyond. Your ability to explain yourself in writing in a clear, organized, and effective way will be an enormous asset, no matter what career you pursue. Rather than dreading those writing assignments, take advantage of the chance to improve on this important skill.