A Guide to Writing Successful College Papers Josef M. Castañeda-Liles Ph.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 through course 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 are insights I have gained from my own experience with writing, and from years of teaching and grading 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 is that this guide allows you to think about your own writing process, and give you some tools to make 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 some important details to consider when organizing and draft your college papers: Remember: the writing process begins before you actually start writing. Do the required reading beforehand. Get organized. Jot down notes about key points of the reading, with page numbers, or better still, type up your notes so that you can cut and paste from them later to speed up your writing. I used to hate note-taking, but I’ve found that writing notes makes the process much smoother once I sit down to draft the actual paper, because it’s kind of like writing the first draft of your paper. Think about your thesis (we’ll talk more about this below), and how you will structure your paper around that thesis. Be concise—but not too concise. As an undergrad, I used to think that longer, more flowery sentences were better, perhaps because I was trying to show off how smart I thought I was. But think about your papers from the standpoint of the college professor/instructor. Your college instructors will have to grade tens, maybe hundreds of papers on a regular basis every quarter/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, and applying for grants or fellowships, not to mention their own personal commitments. In short, the typical college instructor may tend to read your paper very quickly, especially if you attend a larger university. I’m not saying you cannot get creative—you should whenever possible, but also keep focused and organized. I have wrestled with offering this advice to you, as it sounds a little stifling, but I also know the reality of writing in the professional world (whether it entails writing book chapters, articles, encyclopedia entries, or simple business letters), and word, page, and time limits are a reality of this world.

Don’t get hung up on writing the “perfect” draft the first time. Sometimes, often times, we have 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 we are 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, and especially 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 trusted friend to look at a draft, particularly if it is a longer essay or research paper. Professional writers ask 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, it shows 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 assignment might 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, unless a summary is the explicit purpose of the assignment. You should be able to state your thesis in 1-2 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 it should guide the organization of the rest of your paper. USE LINEAR ORGANIZATION. Films, TV shows, or literature that flow in a stream-ofconsciousness style or have a puzzle-like narrative can be very entertaining (think of something like 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 to Point C) in which one paragraph logically leads to the next. This does not mean that you cannot reference creative literature or personal experience when you are writing, but do it in a way that will 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

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—Karl Marx, for example, had paragraphs that were pages long. Long paragraphs are often a problem of organization—that is, trying to cover too many points or use too many examples (such as quotations 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 you want 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 you use ellipses (. . .) to take out the less important section of the quotation? PARAPHRASE MORE, QUOTE LESS. Many times, I have seen students use several quotations 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 actually talk about the reading in their own words, and thus engage their critical thinking skills. When making 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 with the quotation from the author. For example, you may want to include a quotation, and then spend time discussing why you agree or disagree with what the author is saying. A quotation from 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’s attention, just as long as you don’t leave it hanging and discuss it in some way later in the introduction or the body of the paper. USE CITATION PROPERLY. When you paraphrase or quote from a source, or whenever you are citing a key argument or finding from a source (even if your discussion of this argument or finding is predominantly in your own words), it is best to cite the source. Your instructors may give you specific instructions with regard to citation style, but the minimum requirements are almost always the last name of the author, the date of publication, and the page number, either in a parenthetical reference at the end of the sentence or in a footnote or endnote. Instructors often expect a reference list or bibliography at the end of your paper. This is a general convention in writing 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 is called 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.

MAKE YOUR CONCLUSION STAND OUT. One of the more interesting pieces of advice I received about writing was that conclusions are not just summaries of your paper; they are your opportunity to leave your readers with a lasting impression. Conclusions, in other words, not only give you the chance to recount key points from your paper, but also offer the reader something else to think about with regard to the topic. For example, has the course material or assignment prompted you to think about what other research should be done on the topic? Has the course material inspired you to do some investigation of your own? If the material is more historical, does it have some relevance to our present-day world? If the assignment relates to service learning, has your experience in the field changed your outlook, or prompted you to take action outside of the course or in the future? Has the course material made you energized, angry, upset, or moved you in some other way? These questions may not always be appropriate for every paper, but try to think about one final point you’d like to make. Give your reader the wow factor. And while we’re at it. . . REVISIT YOUR INTRODUCTION. I put this point toward the end because you may find it easier, as I do, to work on the introduction last. You should always strive to have a thesis statement to guide your work, but the introduction often involves other elements that you may not be able to identify until you have finished the body of the paper. I can recall countless times when I have sat frozen trying to come up with the right introduction, when it is sometimes best to put out your thesis statement, concentrate on the rest of the paper, and then go back to the introduction when you have made some progress. No matter how much pre-planning you do, some of your best work will just emerge through the process of writing. If it helps you, write a so-so introduction just to get going, and then go back to it once your juices get flowing. LAST BUT NOT LEAST, PROOFREAD. Yes, I know this may be boring, but proofreading is an important step to a successful paper. Keep in mind that you have re-written some sentences two, three, four, maybe five or more times. You may have cut and paste some sentences to other paragraphs to improve your paper’s flow. The automatic spell check function might have inserted the wrong word when you were hastily typing out that one sentence. Are you sure your paper makes sense all the way through? It’s best to check it out at least once. If you have time, take at least an hour or so off once you finish your paper, so that you can be refreshed once you back to proofread. Having been there myself, I know that there are so many exciting and demanding things about college that it is often tempting to dismiss these writing assignments. But you never know how important some of these assignments might be in terms of changing your own perspective. You


also never know what role a well-drafted paper might play in opening new connections with professors and even new opportunities. It worked for me. Maybe it can work for you.

Good luck, Josef Castañeda-Liles For comments or questions, please contact me at jmliles@umail.ucsb.edu or at multiracialstudentsurvey@gmail.com. You can also visit my blog (http://www.multiracialstudentsurvey.blogspot.com/) or my site on Academia.edu to read about my current research or for updates on other helpful documents for students and academics posted online.


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