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A Guide to Writing Successful College Papers

A Guide to Writing Successful College Papers

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Published by: Josef Castañeda-Liles on Oct 13, 2010
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A Guide to Writing Successful College Papers
Josef M. Castañeda-LilesPh.D. Candidate, Sociology, UC Santa Barbara
As a college student, you will have many, many opportunities to develop your writing skills.Though the process of writing papers can be time-consuming and maybe even a little frustrating,writing is an excellent way to explore the ideas and the knowledge you are gaining throughcourse materials and your everyday, empirical observations of the world around you. At its best,writing allows you to grow intellectually and even spiritually. My words of advice below areinsights I have gained from my own experience with writing, and from years of teaching andgrading papers in college, as well as my several years of experience working as an editor. I offer this guide not because I am the best example when it comes to writing—far from it. My hope isthat this guide allows you to think about your own writing process, and give you some tools tomake your writing process work better for you.I’d like to start below with a few general words of advice before moving on to highlight someimportant details to consider when organizing and draft your college papers:
Remember: the writing process begins before you actually start writing.
Do the requiredreading beforehand. Get organized. Jot down notes about key points of the reading, with pagenumbers, or better still, type up your notes so that you can cut and paste from them later to speedup your writing. I used to hate note-taking, but I’ve found that writing notes makes the processmuch smoother once I sit down to draft the actual paper, because it’s kind of like writing the firstdraft of your paper. Think about your thesis (we’ll talk more about this below), and how youwill structure your paper around that thesis.
Be concise—but not too concise.
As an undergrad, I used to think that longer, more flowerysentences were better, perhaps because I was trying to show off how smart I thought I was. Butthink about your papers from the standpoint of the college professor/instructor. Your collegeinstructors will have to grade tens, maybe hundreds of papers on a regular basis everyquarter/semester. In addition, they have many other professional demands on their time,including, but not limited to: preparing for classes, attending department or committee meetings,working on their own publications, preparing syllabi for the upcoming quarter/semester, andapplying for grants or fellowships, not to mention their own personal commitments. In short, thetypical college instructor may tend to read your paper very quickly, especially if you attend alarger university. I’m not saying you cannot get creative—you should whenever possible, butalso keep focused and organized. I have wrestled with offering this advice to you, as it sounds alittle stifling, but I also know the reality of writing in the professional world (whether it entailswriting book chapters, articles, encyclopedia entries, or simple business letters), and word, page,and time limits are a reality of this world.
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Don’t get hung up on writing the “perfect” draft the first time.
Sometimes, often times, wehave to write out the first draft that may look nothing like what we actually want to say in order to create that more polished second (or third) draft. Writing is a multi-draft process, whether weare talking about college papers, academic books, or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”(Seriously—Dr. Seuss went through hundreds of pages of writing and sketching to create his beloved children’s classic.) Ideally, take a break when you have finished with your draft, andespecially if and when you get stuck. You might be able to look at your paper from a new perspective once you come back from your break.
Also, don’t be afraid to get some help if you are stuck.
Go visit your professor or instructor during office hours, or make an appointment if the hours conflict with your schedule. Ask your  professor if he or she has examples of strong papers from previous classes. Seek out a trustedfriend to look at a draft, particularly if it is a longer essay or research paper. Professional writersask friends and colleagues to look at their drafts all the time. Writing is not just a multi-draft process; it is often a multi-person process. Asking for help does not make you weak. Rather, itshows how committed you are to your education.
 Now, let’s get to more specific tips on how to effectively organize your college papers.
START WITH A CLEAR, CONCISE THESIS. A thesis statement is the main argument, position, or point you want to make with regard to the topic in question. This may be implied or even explicit in the prompt you are given for the assignment. Other times, your assignmentmight be more general, and you may have to think more carefully about the thesis of your paper.The point of a thesis is to engage your critical thinking skills—professors rarely are interested in just seeing summaries of books, articles, or descriptions of observations without analysis, unlessa summary is the explicit purpose of the assignment. You should be able to state your thesis in1-2 sentences, perhaps up to three sentences if you are asked to write a longer, more complicated paper (such as a 10-15 page research paper at the end of the quarter). Your thesis is crucial, as itshould guide the organization of the rest of your paper.USE LINEAR ORGANIZATION. Films, TV shows, or literature that flow in a stream-of-consciousness style or have a puzzle-like narrative can be very entertaining (think of somethinglike
 Pulp Fiction
or the show
 Lost 
), but these styles often do not work for typical college papers(unless it’s creative writing). The best approach is to have a linear flow (Point A to Point B toPoint C) in which one paragraph logically leads to the next. This does not mean that you cannotreference creative literature or personal experience when you are writing, but do it in a way thatwill make sense to the reader. In other words, be strategic. Often, a quotation, a short poem, a personal narrative, song lyrics, or other creative reference will serve as a great introduction to
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grab the reader’s attention, and it’s something that you can in turn make reference to later in the paper.SHORT, ONE-POINT PARAGRAPHS. The “page-long paragraph” is one of the most recurring problems in undergraduate (and graduate) writing. You shouldn’t feel too bad about this—KarlMarx, for example, had paragraphs that were
 pages
long. Long paragraphs are often a problemof organization—that is, trying to cover too many points or use too many examples (such asquotations from multiple works) in one paragraph. Think of each paragraph like a building block toward your central thesis. In other words, what is the key point or key piece of evidence youwant to present in this paragraph? If you see yourself approaching one full page, can your  paragraph be broken up at some point? If you want to provide multiple examples of evidence,can they be organized into two paragraphs or more? If a lengthy quotation is the culprit, can youuse ellipses (. . .) to take out the less important section of the quotation?PARAPHRASE MORE, QUOTE LESS. Many times, I have seen students use severalquotations per paragraph, perhaps as a way of demonstrating that they have done the reading.The problem with students using quotations frequently is that students have less room to actuallytalk about the reading in their own words, and thus engage their critical thinking skills. Whenmaking a specific reference to a work (a key sentence, argument, or finding), it is better to paraphrase than to quote. You should use a quotation when you feel you are not able to paraphrase the sentence (or sentences) effectively, or especially if you want to make a point withthe quotation from the author. For example, you may want to include a quotation, and thenspend time discussing why you agree or disagree with what the author is saying. A quotationfrom the source might demonstrate how the author is using evidence effectively, or ineffectively,to bolster his/her argument. As indicated earlier, using a quotation at the beginning of a paper, particularly a provocative or controversial one, might be an excellent way to grab the reader’sattention, just as long as you don’t leave it hanging and discuss it in some way later in theintroduction or the body of the paper.USE CITATION PROPERLY. When you paraphrase or quote from a source, or whenever youare citing a key argument or finding from a source (even if your discussion of this argument ofinding is predominantly in your own words), it is best to cite the source. Your instructors maygive you specific instructions with regard to citation style, but the minimum requirements arealmost always the last name of the author, the date of publication, and the page number, either ina parenthetical reference at the end of the sentence or in a footnote or endnote. Instructors oftenexpect a reference list or bibliography at the end of your paper. This is a general convention inwriting so that readers can go to the listed sources for more information. Failing to use proper citation makes it look like you are passing off somebody else’s work as your own, which iscalled plagiarism. This is the mortal sin of academic work, and can result in a failing grade for the paper, the course as a whole, or worse.
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