You have probably heard lots of different things about how to write a paper. Someone once told me that writing a paper is like repeatedly hitting one's head against the wall. Don't worry; writing is not quite so bad. Actually, the process of composing a paper is enjoyable and satisfying when one has a plan of action and a few well-guided pointers.
Before starting the writing process, make sure you understand the question to be answered or the prompt to be considered. If you don't understand the guidelines of a paper, writing becomes very difficult. Therefore, have a chat with your professor or GSI to clarify any uncertainties because, unfortunately, a well-written paper on the wrong topic will not receive an A.
Once you understand what you need to write about, use one of the methods below to get the words flowing:
- Brainstorm: Spend a few minutes writing down main points or ideas and then go back and sort through what you have written. Do not be afraid about venturing too far from your topic because you never know where a train of thought will take you!
- Free Write: Sit down and start to write. Do not worry about what you write and do not try to impress yourself with your vast vocabulary and adept use of sentence variety. The purpose of this process is to get ideas to flow and "flowing" does not occur when one is trying to be too fancy. I prefer to free write using a pen and paper in order to distance myself from the computer (that black hole of distractions). Also, I like the feeling of forming the words with my hand as they float into my mind.
- Use Notes: This method is for the student who has done some advanced planning. Go back through your text and notes to find words you have underlined, arguments you have considered, and questions you have raised. Then, jot down your first impressions about these. Think about connections between underlined parts, expand on arguments, and answer the questions.
- Draw a Map: Start thinking about your prompt and map out ideas as they come. Using different colored pens can help you to distinguish between different paths of thought. Also, this visual map comes in handy when considering how to organize the paper because your thought process is recorded.
Ideas from your free write + expansion = rough draft. This simple formula is here to show you that creating a rough draft is not as painful as hitting your head against the wall. In fact, transforming your ideas from the pre-write into a rough draft can be accomplished in one of two ways:
- Method One: This method is for the student who likes structure. If that is you, take a few minutes to organize your ideas from the pre-write into an outline that indicates your thesis and main points. Now that your essay has structure and organization, expand your ideas into paragraphs.
- Method Two: This method is for the student who likes to have wiggle room. If that is you, take a few minutes to read over your ideas from the pre-write and then write! Look back at these notes whenever you feel they may be helpful in giving direction, but don't be too worried about sticking with what you have already written. By simply writing, you will attend to the points you have already considered and touch upon new ones that perhaps you hadn't. Some people like to begin this method with a thesis in mind, but others find that a thesis comes out of this stage of the writing process. Try both ways and see which you prefer.
At this point--for some inspiration--I recommend a hot beverage at hand and Simon and Garfunkel playing softly in the background, but do what works best for you!
REVISE and EDIT
Now, you have written with passion and fury. Your head hurts, perhaps not so much unlike the feeling of hitting it against a hard surface. You have no words left, but you are not quite finished. You have written some brilliant stuff, but it needs to be polished before presentation to your instructor. Fortunately, these last steps do not have to be done alone because technology is on your side. What I mean is that you can use the computer to help you efficiently fine tune your paper.
How to use technology to your advantage
- Read through what you have written and then prepare to use the "backspace" key on the keyboard. This is the time to cut out any filler in your paper--only clear sentences that are essential for proving your thesis should survive. Your argument is strengthened when you purify it in this way.
- Now that you have only the important parts of your paper left, take some time to rewrite and elaborate. Don't add more of the fluff you just deleted, but perhaps you will find a paragraph that needs some more textual evidence or a chunk of analysis that would be clarified if rewritten.
- Although I don't really like writing papers on computers, computers are very handy for restructuring and organizing your paper. You can easily move sentences and paragraphs around with the cut and paste functions; don't be afraid to do so. Ensure that your argument flows logically and that a reader will understand where it is headed. If you are not sure that your essay does this, write your thesis and each succeeding topic sentence on a scratch piece of paper. Does what you have just written make sense? If it does not, try rearranging or cutting out some of the paragraphs. You may even find that you need to add a paragraph to complete your argument.
Don't forget to proofread for grammar and spelling errors. I recommend printing out your paper and reading it aloud. If people stare it is only because they are in awe at the melody of words springing from your lips.
But before you do, don't forget to turn in your paper.
Student Learning Center, University of California, Berkeley
©2006 UC Regents
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.