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.