Today I want to talk about something a little different from the fiction-related posts you usually see on this blog. A new school year has begun here in the US and many people (including myself) are going back to college. The homework is piling up, exams are already looming on the horizon, and I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling pretty stressed out about it all.
Some of those assignments are easier than others. I, for one, would much rather write a paper than do a group project or take a test. I'm a writer, after all. I can turn out a decent essay in no time, but I recognize that this is something a lot of people struggle with. Throughout my entire school career, I've had people ask me for help with their papers, so I thought I'd share a few of the things that have helped me.
1. Start with an outline. Before I even start writing (and often before I get too far into my research), I make an outline. I don't focus on the details of the introduction and concluding paragraphs at this point; it's the body paragraphs that need the most thought and organization. I break down exactly how many paragraphs I need to write and figure out what I want each one to be about. This will vary depending on the type of paper assigned and the required length.
Once I start doing my research, I use bullet points to organize and fill in additional information for those paragraphs. Sometimes one paragraph ends up being too long or tries to cover too much. Sometimes another paragraph is too short. The nice thing about the outline is that it's easy to see the whole thing all at once. I can see where I might need to combine paragraphs, separate them, or move them around. I never start writing until I'm happy with the flow of things and fairly confident that I can construct a decent paper by following the outline.
Maybe you're thinking that sounds like a lot of extra work. And up-front, sure, it probably is a little more work. But it saves me so much time in the long run because it lets me avoid situations like this:
2. Don't start with the thesis. It took me a while to figure this one out, and I think a lot of students' first instinct is that they have to come up with the thesis before they can do anything else. After all, teachers put so much emphasis on its importance. It's the foundation your paper is built on. It's what ties everything together and prevents your entire paper from dissolving into an incoherent blob of goop. But you don't actually have to write the thesis first. In fact, I think it's a thousand times easier to write the thesis at the end, after you've finished everything else. Sure, you should probably have a vague idea of what your paper is about before you start writing. That's where all the outlining and research comes in. But it's nearly impossible to try and summarize the main idea of your entire paper in one neat, perfectly packaged sentence before you've even written the paper. You need to have a clearer idea of what it's about first, so just move on. Save a spot for that thesis and come back to it when you're finished with the rest.
3. Learn how to research effectively. Research is my least favorite part of writing papers for school, but it's a necessary evil. You can save yourself a lot of time and frustration by learning how to do research more efficiently. Your college or university library website is a good place to look for peer-reviewed journal articles, and many of their websites will have helpful instructions for how to run searches that will turn up the results you're looking for. I've always found that the librarians are more than willing to help out if you just ask them.
I'll just leave this tumblr post here for anyone interested in some more detailed and specific tips to help you with research. The article uses Google, but these things generally work for your college or university library's databases as well.
4. Some grammar tips. Here are two of the most common errors I've seen in papers and how to avoid them.
Sentence fragments: A sentence should have at least one independent clause consisting of a subject and a verb to be complete. If you're missing one of those components, you have a sentence fragment. I've often seen these as a result of the writer separating part of a sentence that should actually just be joined with whatever comes right before or right after.
Run-on Sentence: I think of these as sort of being the opposite of a sentence fragment. Here, you have two or more independent clauses, each consisting of a subject and a verb which can stand on their own. However, you've crammed them together without joining them properly using punctuation, a conjunction, etc. These are pretty simple to fix. You can A) use a semicolon to separate each clause, B) use a comma and a conjunction to separate each clause, or C) Use a period to create two or more separate sentences from each independent clause.
5. Use transitions. Transitions can really help with the flow of your paper if that's something you're having a hard time with. As an added bonus, they can boost your word count if your paper has a specific length requirement you're struggling to meet. Because we've all been here:
Transitions are just little phrases that tie ideas together or help you smoothly move from one idea to another. Here are some examples:
In addition to...
As a result...
Purdue OWL has a really great, comprehensive list of transitions and how they can be used, so check that out when you have a minute.
6. Ask for help. If all else fails and you're still struggling with your paper, don't hesitate to ask for help. I'd be surprised if anyone ever got through college successfully without having to ask for help at least once, and if they did, they were probably a super-genius or something.
I don't know about you, but I'm no super-genius. The first semester I went back to college to finish my degree, I was 24. I'd been out of school for six years and it was really hard to get back into some kind of groove. I was sure I could just breeze through my English class, though. Writing is my thing, after all. But towards the end of the semester, we were required to write a research paper in APA format. I had no idea what that even meant. I'd only ever used MLA format. I stayed up late all week trying to write a respectable rough draft that needed to be turned in for part of the assignment grade, but I just couldn't do it. I'd never just not been able to write a paper before. I went to my professor feeling pretty embarrassed about the whole thing, but by the time I left, I had a much better idea of what to do. I don't think I ever would have gotten through that assignment successfully if I hadn't just asked for help.
Your professors have office hours for a reason. Use them. You're not bothering them, and even if you are, so what? That's the job they signed up for. Besides, you're probably paying an insane amount of money to go to school, so use the resources available to you. Get your money's worth.
I hope you'll find this information useful the next time you have to write a paper for school. If you have any other thoughts or questions, please leave a comment below.