Writing tips

In all likelihood, your university years will require writing a lot of papers. Professors generally assign papers that require students to collect information about a particular topic, assimilate the data and express an informed argument about it. They don’t just want a summary of the facts, but usually expect the student to interact with and develop the material beyond its current stage. Follow directions carefully, keeping to the lengths, formatting and criteria provided by the professor.

You cannot complete a degree without writing. No matter what your focus of study, you will have to write papers. Writing provides a reasonable way to present what you know, to express your ideas, to argue your point and to create a link between various facts and theories. You will more effectively communicate your knowledge and development when you turn in clear, well-written papers.

Students who learn to write well in one area can generally translate that accomplishment to other areas as well. Of all the tasks you undertake in earning your degree, writing is one that will benefit you throughout your career, and your life.

Preparation
Some professors will assign papers about a specific topic, but others will only provide a subject and ask the student to decide on the topic. (Assignment: write about a theory; so the student then decides whether to compare two theories, to argue against a theory, to promote a theory, etc.) Find out any particulars you will need to know: How long should the paper be? What formatting does the professor request? Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to acquire information from a variety of resources so that your paper shows you have thoroughly studied the topic.

In order to prepare an academic paper you need to ask yourself these questions: What do I know about this topic? What seems important about it? How does it relate to other things I know? What do I need to find out about it? What do I think about it?

Research provides the foundation for any good paper. Find out everything you can about the topic before forming your opinion. Don’t only look up information that supports your opinion, but find out about the opposing opinions so that you can form reasonable responses to them and show why you think they don’t make sense. Once you know what you will write about, decide who you will write it for—who is the audience you will address? Then, decide how you will present the information and argument. Now, you can begin to structure your information.


Resources
Libraries offer an expansive variety of resources for collecting research. In addition to reference books, publications, encyclopedias and periodicals, you can involve the reference librarian in your search, and use online resources at the library. Remember that while the internet provides an impressive amount of information, you must verify its accuracy carefully. Make sure and document source information for all the material you gather, both online and in written form, as you will need to provide it in your bibliography.

Sources generally fall into one of two general categories: primary or secondary. Primary sources provide information directly from a source, like the Declaration of Independence or Adolf Hitler’s architectural sketches. Secondary sources, on the other hand provide indirect information about sources, like an author’s opinion about Hitler’s personality based on his sketches. With secondary sources you must use your judgment to evaluate the validity of someone’s opinion as a research source. Consider things like their expertise, motivation and credibility.

Organization
Before you undertake the task of writing a paper, you must first organize your material. Usually, you read and research material for the paper you plan to write. Don’t forget to write down the sources of information that you use as you will need to refer to them in a bibliography of some kind. Hopefully, while taking notes on your reading you have figured out what angle you will take in your paper and organized your notes to address that perspective. In reading through your notes, you can benefit from writing comments or ideas on note cards that you can then arrange into related categories. This provides the framework for creating an outline.

Always generate an outline so that your paper follows a logical order that supports your position. Writing a paper based on an outline helps keep your writing focused and sequential. Since you know where you will end up, you progress toward that goal throughout the composition. Make sure that all the information you include clearly supports your premise.

Make sure that you state your thesis at the beginning of the paper, support it and then construct a conclusion that briefly restates your point, how you supported it and conclude with a strong rationale that hopefully convinces your reader to agree with you. Never introduce any new information in the conclusion.

Writing Process
Every well-written paper includes an introduction, a thesis statement, acknowledgement of opposing views, supporting paragraphs and a resounding conclusion. Always begin the process with a thesis statement that provides a one or two sentence summary of the argument or analysis that you will present. A strong thesis statement gives the reader of a good idea of what the paper explores. It should take one main idea and adopt a specific stand on it.

While the thesis will give you a general direction, you need to sketch out an idea of how you will structure the material to bring the reader to an understanding of the evidence and support for your position. Jot down the points you want to make and decide how they will best flow. From this sketch, you can create an outline that guides you through communicating the material thoroughly and coherently in order to steer the reader through your arguments.

From the outline you will begin to write the supporting paragraphs that make up your paper. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence which you then develop and corroborate throughout the rest of the paragraph. Well constructed paragraphs flow into each other, following from one point to the next without losing the reader along the way.

The conclusion should not just abruptly end the argument by restating your thesis, but it should leave the reader with a solid summary of how you supported your points, as well as persuade the reader that he/she now knows more than they did before. It should never introduce new information, but rather leave the reader with a strong case and something to ponder.

After you have written the whole paper, always check to make sure you have placed each point in its strongest position. If it provides better support in a different location, change the paper around to support your thesis in the most logical way. And always, always go back through and edit your paper thoroughly before calling it complete.

The writing process requires a lot of work—planning, constructing, checking, and revising. If you shortchange any component, the whole paper will suffer.

Formatting
Most professors will require a specific format for papers assigned to their students. Requirements can vary greatly, so you will need to pay particular attention to the precise criteria for each one and follow it specifically. Conforming to the standards provided will often affect your outcome as usually some portion of the grade reflects whether the student has followed the formatting requested.

Editing
Once you have written a paper, don’t just breathe a sigh of relief and turn it in. To make sure it represents your best effort, you need to edit your manuscript. Editing thoroughly reviews a document, correcting errors and ensuring clarity and accuracy. Ideally, someone else should also edit your work to make sure that it makes sense, flows well and accurately addresses the issues. You know what you’ve written and have spent a considerable amount of time on the subject, so you don’t always catch your own problems.

If you need to, you could hire someone to edit your paper. Campus bulletin boards and local newspapers usually run advertisements that offer editorial services. Alternatively, you could ask a fellow student to read through your paper and give you their feedback.

Proofreading
Never turn in a paper without proofreading what you have written. Proofreading means that you read through the document carefully, looking for misspellings, punctuation and typographical errors and formatting problems. Many people interchangeably use the words “edit” and “proof,” but technically they serve two different functions. Editing refers more to improving the actual content and proofing to the correction of typographical and formatting errors.

You may have read over your manuscript numerous times and miss the errors because you know what you wanted to say and therefore see it that way. Having someone else proof it for mistakes can prove valuable. Remember, you can’t always rely on the word processing program to catch your mistakes. You might have typed the word “bass,” intending to type “base,” and the word processor won’t catch it because “bass” constitutes a legitimate word—but it makes no sense in the context of what you wrote.


Presentation
Sometimes a professor will require students to present the papers they have prepared. While drawing from the same material, presenting a paper differs greatly from writing a paper. Do not simply stand up in front of the audience and read through your paper. Think of the presentation as a light version of your paper, focusing on the core parts in an engaging way.

Written introductions don’t usually have the same impact as spoken ones, so don’t assume you can use the same introduction you did in your paper. You need to pull the audience in and engage them right away, previewing the purpose of your presentation and explaining how you will organize your talk.

Use smooth and clear transitions to ensure that the audience follows you as you move through your points. Make sure you deliver the presentation with energy and enthusiasm. You cannot expect your audience to feel engaged in a paper if you as the presenter do not communicate passion. Incorporate support material and visual aids to enhance audience participation and retention.

In concluding your presentation, remind the audience what you want them to take away from it, and provide a strong summary of the information you presented.

Writing Center
Many campuses offer on-site and/or virtual writing centers to provide one-on-one writing help free-of-charge to students, faculty and staff at the university. At your scheduled appointment, you will receive feedback, advice, resources and sometimes practice with your particular writing project. The staff available at the writing center has specific training to help with tasks like preparing an outline, organization, argument or learning how to edit and proofread.


They will not do the work for you, but rather provide input and ask questions to help you improve your writing.

Word count
Many professors assign writing projects that include a word count requirement to guide students regarding the amount of information expected. Since word counts do not depend on font styles, sizes or line spacing, they give a more accurate standard than number of pages. Word counts take into consideration characters and lines.

Professors who give word count guidelines expect students to adhere by them. It could affect your grade adversely if you submit a paper that falls more than about 100 words above or below the expected count. If your professor assigned a 1,200 word essay, he/she does not want a 2,000 word essay, no matter how well written. Sometimes a professor will simply stipulate a maximum number of words, but no minimum. That means if you can adequately say everything you need to without using that many words, more power to you.

Since no one actually expects you to count the number of words in your document, most people rely on either the word processing method of estimating words or a counted count formula. Word processors have a function which calculates an estimate of words based on preset criteria that determine what constitutes a word. While they do provide a rough guideline, watch out! Not all word processors agree on what constitutes a word and not all editors agree on the validity of this method of calculation.

We call the standard method of word count calculation “the counted count.” It requires you to count the characters in an average line and divide by six (let’s call that answer X); then count the average number of lines on a page and multiply it by X. Next you multiply that answer by the total number of pages, round it to the nearest hundred and use that as your total word count.