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How to Write Papers (advice from an English major)

 Written by    February 4, 2019

You know what I don’t have this semester? Exams.

I took a full load of English classes this semester: technical writing, literary publishing, digital media composing, poetry, fiction. Not an exam in sight. You know what I do instead? Write papers. And I love writing papers.

Every time midterms and finals roll around, I have the same conversation with my friends. They all say they would much rather study for an exam than write a paper, which absolutely blows my mind. With a paper, I know what the teacher is asking me to write about! Why would I rather study for an exam, where I’m spending hours going over every bit of information from the past three months because I’m not sure what the questions will be? It seems like an easy choice to me.

You see, writing a paper is a formula. You just have to fill in the words. Introduction, body, conclusion and citations. That’s not so hard, is it? Let’s break it down even further:

  • Introduction. For most papers, your first paragraph should be 4-5 sentences. The first sentence should give your professor an idea of what the paper is about, the next 2-3 should provide a sketch of the argument and evidence to come, and the last should be your thesis. Don’t add anything else; it should be clear and concise.
  • Body. Each paragraph should be about half a page. So, if you have to write a 5-page paper, you’ll need about 8 body paragraphs. That’s just 8 ideas, or 8 pieces of evidence, divided up in sequence. If your idea is taking more than half a page, see if you can split one paragraph in two. Just like the introduction, the first sentence of each paragraph should introduce the idea/evidence, and the last sentence should segue into the paragraph that follows. That’s already two sentences! You really don’t have that much further to go!
  • Conclusion. Restate your thesis in new language, and recap how your evidence supports it. Don’t bring in any new evidence or an argument that wasn’t made in the body. Keep it simple.
  • Citations. Here’s where you make or break your points. Follow the style carefully (MLA, APA, ASA, etc.). If you’re looking for a comprehensive resource, Purdue Owl is one of the best outlines out there on how to follow any format, and I’d recommend checking your papers with what the Owl says.

Listen, I get it. One of the biggest problems with writing a paper is starting it. You don’t want to start writing because it’s intimidating. It feels like a lot of work. You need to tell yourself that all you have to do is write a TERRIBLE first draft and get it out of the way. Just write all that comes to your head that you want to include in the paper. Word flow. Get excited about getting the hardest part out of the way. Then, after a break of an hour or a day or whatever works for you, come back to it and edit it until it’s beautiful. The editing process is both less daunting and more satisfying.

Set yourself a timer, maybe an hour or two, and just write with no distractions. Use a social media blocker on your laptop and phone so you won’t find yourself scrolling instead of working. Think about how great you’ll feel once it’s done. Write everything you want in the final draft, organize and edit it to death, and check over your format with a trusted resource. It’s so much easier than studying. You just have to look at it differently.

Academics, Advice, Classes, finals, midterms, Stress, Studying


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