For lots of college students (myself included), writing papers is probably the most dreaded part of the course load in college. Often, they carry a huge percentage of the weighted final grade and can make or break a GPA. No matter the major, practically everyone will have to write a paper at some point in their college career, so why not learn to do it with less stress and more finesse?
Here are some of my favorite writing tips for papers:
1. Find out what they REALLY want.
This might seem dreadfully obvious, but bear with me. Every single professor is different and most have TA’s that work underneath them and do most of the grading. It’s imperative that you find out who is actually reading and grading your papers because they’re the ones you want to impress. When you figure out your target audience, meet with them to talk ideas.
Using them as a sounding board can help you figure out what they’re looking for as far as structure, topics, and even writing style. If they’re not too busy (and you get your act together in time), you can even ask for them to read over a draft either in person or over email with markups. Remember to consult the syllabus before reaching out to find out what your professor or TA’s preferred mode of communication is.
2. Think about your other classes and activities.
As soon as your paper is assigned, go into that planner of yours (time to get a planner like a real adult) or your iPhone app and write down the due date on both the calendar and daily pages. If you’re doing this for the rest of your classes and activities then you’ll be able to see what other assignments, obligations, and events you have between now and the due date.
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This is super important in planning out the next step so that you can figure out exactly what needs to get done by certain times as well as what times are best for you. If you know in advance that you have another big assignment or exam at around the same time, planning your paper work sessions can help save you from a huge meltdown and the inevitable hit to the quality of your work farther down the road.
3. Determine a general time line for research, writing, and editing.
Like professors, every student and every assignment is different and students will handle assignments differently. That’s a lot of uniqueness. Because of this, there’s no magic formula for how much time you’ll need to write your paper. As you write more and spend more time in college you’ll start to figure out what works for you. However in the meantime, ALWAYS overestimate. I cannot stress this enough. It’s always better to end up with some extra time to spend on editing (or Netflix) that you didn’t anticipate having than to be scrambling to finish in time. I like to set daily benchmarks (i.e.: have all sources outlined by Sunday, have 3-4 pages done by Tuesday evening etc.) in my planner as soon as I have the prompt and due date. This motivates me to get to work sooner rather than later, if I have these little challenges staring at me every time I open my planner.
4. Write in small chunks of time.
I had an English PhD candidate once tell me that the optimum amount of time in which to write a paper was over a week in 40-minute daily intervals. This is a great writing tip. Now of course this is contingent on the length of the paper you’re working on, the amount of research your’e doing, and your personal learning/working style. However, lots of educational professionals have shown that these shortened work windows punctuated by breaks can optimize creative flow and learning retention (check out the Pomodoro Method that all the bloggers are talking about). If you’re on a shorter time frame and can’t space out your sessions by the day or are getting close to the due date, try working in chunks of 20 – 40 minutes at a time with 3-5 minute breaks.
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5. Talk to your classmates.
Don’t forget that you’re not alone through this paper writing business! Talking to your classmates can help stimulate ideas for everyone involved, kind of like an in-class discussion. Just be careful not to steal ideas from your classmates, your TA’s could notice and you both could get in trouble. Worse comes to worse and none of you know what you’re doing you can commiserate for a bit before getting back to work.
6. Know thyself.
When it comes to editing, you need to know your own style of writing before going into it. Do you tend to type out every thought that runs through your head in hopes of covering as much as possible? Or do you leave vague, half-baked ideas in the middle of a paragraph that you never quite fleshed out? Knowing which of these styles you fall into (or a mix of the two) will help you look more objectively at your work when editing. My final writing tip is going through it once yourself, making the changes, and passing it on to a peer or TA for review. Then take a step back for at least a few hours before doing a final read-through.
Ta da, now you have a pretty great paper and it’s on time too!
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Ellen Harris is a pre-med bio major at the University of Chicago. She enjoys drinking good coffee, exploring Chicago, and napping.