I realized that I have written to you in a number of capacities – as a member of Sigma Tau Delta, as the Editor and Publisher of Karawane Magazine, and as a creative writer and sometime critic. But I have not written as a consultant of the Writing Center. As we are in the final crunch for papers, and as the Writing Center is almost completely full now to the end of the semester, I thought I would give some advice as a writer of 30+ years and as a “lifelong learner,” or maybe a “lifetime student” as my father says, on how to write papers and not lose your mind, especially at this time of year.
Start now. Or sooner than now. If you have a paper due in 2 weeks or less and you haven’t started it, don’t procrastinate any longer. I know that a lot of people believe they get inspiration from deadline pressure. And there is a degree of truth in that for many of us, myself included. But there are things that you can do to start writing and still allow for that last minute burst of brilliance.
- Write an outline. Even if you don’t have the mojo to write the actual paper, you can write an outline, a roadmap of where you are going to go with the paper. You probably have books and and articles already in your possession. Why did you pick those materials? What do you hope to find there? Many of us were taught the “rules” of outlining in grade school or high school but you know what? No one is looking at your outline this time. You can do it any way that makes sense to you. You can also change it as you get going on the paper and see that maybe the paper is going to take a different direction that you thought. But get a roadmap ready now!
- Write your thesis sentence. The thesis sentence is like an outline. The thesis sentence is a single sentence or two, usually at the end of your first paragraph, which tells the reader precisely what you are going to talk about. It serves several functions for both reader and writer: It tells the reader what you are going to talk about and whether or not this information will be relevant to them. Think about all the times that you have done research. You read the first paragraph hoping to find out if this article will help you with the research of it will be a waste of time. If you read and read in order to find out if the article will help you, only to get to the end and find that it wasn’t what you needed, you become extremely frustrated, right?
The thesis statement also helps the writer to stay organized. Many people talk about a “working thesis,” because sometimes you will need to change it in the course of writing your paper just like with your outline. The main difference between a thesis and an outline is that your outline will be much more detailed that your thesis. You don’t need to say every single thing you are going to talk about or argue in your thesis. Just what your main points are.
If you are writing a five-paragraph essay, the traditional format in many beginning composition classes, then your thesis will have 3 points that correspond to your three paragraphs. Any good thesis should have been 2-4 points. If you are writing a longer paper, the thesis should correspond to the sections of your paper. For example, a good thesis might be: Environmentalists are very concerned about water pollution that comes from oil spills, dumping, and even from everyday littering. The reader knows that you are going to talk about water pollution, and specifically oil spills, dumping, and even the effects of everyday littering. I know of professors who grade 80% on the thesis sentence because they think it is that important.
- “Free write,” free associate whatever comes into your mind. This might spur you on to write a little bit more on your paper as well. You might come up with the perfect idea because you are not stressing out about the paper, but you are just thinking about what to write. This is often (usually) more fun that writing the actual research paper and it can give you a boost.
- Write your introduction. But don’t be married to it. As you write the introduction the first time (yes, the first time), think of it as a downward pointing triangle. You want to bring the reader into the world of the paper. Have a catchy first sentence, then talk more about the subject matter, getting more specific, until you come to the thesis sentence. Some professors like more introduction than others. If you are in Supply Chain Management, you won’t give us as much of an introduction as if you are a literature major. However, you always need an introduction, something the provides context for the paper. Think of this is a “so what,” moment. Why are you telling us about this in the first place? But remember, your introduction might change as you write the paper.
Don’t spend all your time trying to write the perfect first sentence. I have watched any number of student athletes at the University of Minnesota, where I was a mentor-tutor, procrastinate on their papers because they couldn’t write the perfect first sentence! Keep in mind,too, that most professional writers write the introduction and conclusion last. A good introduction and conclusion are essential to drawing in and keeping readers and to summarizing your paper. That’s why they can actually be the hardest thing to write.
Now that you are ready to sit down and write this thing, here are some other suggestions for you.
- Make sure you understand the material you are citing. I find that the better students understand their material, the clearer their writing is. When someone brings a paper into the writing center and I ask them to clarify a sentence’s meaning, they will usually say something like “I don’t know. I didn’t really understand it myself.” If you don’t understand it, you won’t be able to explain it to a reader and your authority as a writer or as a subject expert will be undermined (and your grade will be affected). You have done the research. You are an authority on the subject you are writing about. Read and re-read the material, the whole thing or a particular section that is giving you trouble, several times until you understand it. Cross-reference it with other sources. This is the time that you might even look at Wikipedia to make sure that you understand the material. (Don’t cite Wikipedia unless you quote from it. But that might be a tool to help you understand the concept you are writing about. Remember, Wikipedia is a starting point not a final source.)
- Keep all your old drafts. Each time you start a new draft, give it a new file name. That way, if you have written something in a previous draft and decide that it is better than you thought it was, or you have some research that you have now decided to put back in, you don’t have to remember or recreate it. Unless all you are doing is correcting typos and fixing sentences, always give your next draft a new name by numbering your drafts. I also keep two research files: one that has all of my notes and another one that I call “dwindling notes.” The dwindling notes file gets smaller and smaller. As I use piece of research, I cut it from the dwindling notes file and paste it into the document. But I always have my larger overall research file just in case.
- Think of your conclusion as a summary of the paper. A good way to think of the first line of your conclusion is “So as you can see . . .” You should kind of repeat your thesis sentence giving the reader a little bit of the information that you have just talked about. You can think about it as having gone on a journey together through this particular material. This is the upright triangle where you are taking the reader back out of the world of the paper. Just as your first line should be catchy and attention-grabbing, the last line of your paper should leave them with something to think about. But remember what I said about introductions? Many professional writers often write the introduction and the conclusion last. How can you write the conclusion before you know how the paper ends?
A paper without a conclusion is like driving your readers off a cliff. Remember the movie Thelma and Louise where they drive off into the Grand Canyon? Yeah. That’s what a paper with no conclusion is like for your reader. Try it. Try reading an article or a short story and not reading the last paragraph and see how you feel about it!
- Expect to write several drafts – at least two! You might still have an all-niter ahead of you, but if you have done a significant amount of work, you will still be on draft two or three on at least part of the paper. You will turn in a better paper and it will be less stressful on you if you don’t write the whole thing in a mad Mountain Dew and M&M’s fueled push. (Ask me how I know this?)
- Leave yourself enough time to set the paper aside for a day or so. You would be amazed at how much you will catch in the way of bad grammar, typos, completely incomprehensible sentences, etc. if you come back to the paper fresh. If you have a paper over 4 pages, write a section a day for four days. Then put it away and work on something else, go to the movies, play video games, whatever, and come back to the paper fresh.
- Along those same lines, proofread! I am a terrible proofreader, as some of you might have noticed! I used to hate proofreading because it meant I would have to go back and re-read what I had written and I was afraid that would be too painful. And sometimes it was! When I worked at the Moline Dispatch as an undergrad (many many years ago!), someone had a sign on her desk that said “I live like I type. Fast and with a lot of mistakes.” I have taken that as my own (but you can use it too).
The best way to proofread is to read it out loud. Read it for yourself. Read it to your roommate, your cat, your mom, your invisible friend, etc. That is why at the Writing Center we will have you or us read your paper out loud. You will catch a lot of things by reading it out loud that you might skim over when you read it even silently to yourself. Your brain will fill in the gaps for you. There are studies proving that people will identify a circle as closed when actually it has a piece of a side missing. The mind is that powerful. So when you read it out loud, you are adding the faculties of speech and hearing, not just the visual faculty of looking.
That is your online general writing center appointment, since we can’t see all of you during these last two weeks! I hope this is helpful to you and I wish you good luck with your final papers and exams.