This week, I have decided to put together some strategies that I have learned, and used, for writing essays and research papers. The guide is in no way meant to be comprehensive, just a short collection of tips that you may find useful when writing your own papers. If you haven’t already noticed, this post is categorized in the writing section of Tutorials and Tips. I plan to post, through video and text, a variety of tutorials in different subjects, so these categories will make it easier to find posts about specific topics. Now, without further ado, on to the guide!
- Understand your topic and goal. This one sounds like a no-brainer: of course you need to know what you’re writing about. The problem, though, isn’t knowing that you are writing about, say, the president. That much is simple. What I mean by understanding your topic and goal is recognizing that you are writing a paper regarding the legal implications of a plan, proposed by the president, in light of United States Constitutional Law, and that your approach to the paper will be different than a study of the president’s overall health throughout his term. Understanding through which field you will be approaching the problem will help you discover the proper research tools to add to your arsenal. Additionally, understanding the goal of the paper- namely length, writing style, who it is for, etc.- will allow you to better plan the overall flow of your paper, your method of citation, your timeline, and who you choose to review your drafts.
- Ask Questions. Do not be afraid to ask your professors questions about a paper, especially if it is your first time writing one in a particular style. Even if you do not think your professor is happy about legitimate questions (in that case, he or she probably should not be teaching), it is better to ask than to have points deducted for incorrect citations, incorrect style, improper sources, and other things of that nature. Writing in a new way can be challenging, so ask for help if you need it, especially if the problem in question is not answered in a syllabus or assignment handout.
- Watch your citations. I know I’ve mentioned this topic a couple of times already, but I cannot state the importance of citations enough. In addition to giving other scholars and authors their due credit, citation style is important because different professors and different journals might have a different requirement for how to setup your works cited. Don’t lose points for something as simple as a formatting issue. Find out the required format, if there is one, and make sure to follow it in your paper.
- Find proper sources. Make sure that you are using legitimate and useful sources. When writing a paper, accumulating a list of possible sources, with a short description of how you are going to use each source, can be a good plan of attack. A good way to find scholarly information is to use academic journals and databases. If you are a university student, and in some cases, a public library card owner, odds are you have access to a host of academic journals and publications through databases such as Academic Search Premier and JSTOR. Ask a professor or librarian about how to find and access these databases if you are unsure. Newspapers, books published by nonacademic organizations, magazines, websites, and other such sources are often used to describe certain events or organizations, present statistical data, and show public opinion, but caution must be used as these sources may not be peer reviewed, and may be more interested in business and ratings than overall accuracy. Almost always, when presenting scientific data or conducting research, you will be sifting through peer reviewed academic papers and books.
- Revise and review. Revision and peer review are two of the most important tools for constructing a well written paper. Upon reviewing your initial draft, you may find that your conclusion was actually the introduction you had been searching for, or that you wrote most of your sentences in a passive, not active, voice, or that you tagged all of your explanations at the end of your paragraphs, which is usually a sign that a better explanation or connection to the thesis needs to be made. Sometimes, actually, make that all of the time, an outside perspective is all you really need to work out the major kinks in your work. After every draft, maybe even after you write your introduction or first few paragraphs, have a peer, a favorite professor, or even an acquaintance read through your paper. Ask them to note grammatical and spelling errors; have them note what they believe your paper will be about after reading your introduction and thesis; make sure they mark whether or not your paper was easy to follow, and that your evidence and explanations were adequate; and, last but not least, ask them if the paper sounded like you wrote it. Trust me, as depressing as it is to see a page covered in red ink, it is even more depressing to see a poor grade circled in red ink. After all, you are writing your paper for the audience to understand and enjoy, so it is important to get a few people to point out possible areas of improvement. It is also important to not let another person’s voice take over your paper. You are putting in the work for your masterpiece, so you need to make the final decisions about which changes to make, and how to make them.
- Research all relevant sides. If you write an argument, whether legal, moral, or otherwise, it is imperative that you research all relevant points of view, especially the viewpoints that oppose your own. As my philosophy teacher told me, “how can one claim to take a side, if they have not thoroughly researched the issue?” Tackling the various sides of an issue will enlighten you with a richer understanding of the topic, and will provide you with a means of making a more solid argument: taking on the opposition within your paper. Peter Singer, a contemporary ethicist, does an excellent job of addressing opposing viewpoints within his arguments, which is why I suggest looking up some of his works, including “All Animals are Equal.” While you may not agree with what he writes about, I know there are times I don’t, his works are full of examples of how to intelligently address opposition within an argument.
- Read. The cliche phrase that all writers, English teachers, and librarians throw at you when you ask how to improve your writing ability. While many of us, myself included, have often rolled our eyes upon hearing this suggestion, it really is a brilliant piece of advice. There truly is no better way to gain inspiration for a fictional work, or to learn how scientific writing is formatted, than to read a book, poem, or in the latter case, a paper. For example, to find examples of how to write out beautiful definitions and examples for philosophy and arguments, you may look to the works of Kant, Aristotle, or Descartes. In order to better address opposing viewpoints, as I suggested in the last paragraph, you might read one of Singer’s essays. To get an idea of how scientists, art history scholars, or other academics style their papers, cite their sources, or incorporate evidence, you could browse articles in an academic journal or skim a scholarly book. No matter what you are writing, it is important to read. Just be cautious. You do not want to end up writing in another person’s style. You are an individual with your own unique voice, use it.
I’m thinking of writing individual posts discussing the different parts of writing a paper in greater detail, so your thoughts on this short “guide” will be very much appreciated. If you have any comments, questions, or requests, please comment below or send me an email (directly or through the contact form on the “Contact Me” page). I may have another post up this weekend, so check back tomorrow! Hope you’re all having a great weekend!