[Revised paper advice, May 27, 2011.  In class, we worked on theater games, then talked about how to apply theater game principles to writing.]


  Basic advice for writing college papers

Writing a paper can be a dreadful chore--or it can be one of the most valuable learning experiences you'll ever have.  Sometimes it's both.  In my own undergraduate days, I learned more from writing papers than from anything else my professors asked me to do.  The assignments forced me to read closely some of the greatest works of all time.  Often enough when I began my work, I didn't see any point in struggling through the difficult and sometimes lengthy works assigned.  But as I read and reread the texts, struggling to find something to say, quite often a light would come on.  All of a sudden I would see what the writer was up to, or at least part of what the writer was up to--and I'd get excited about writing. I hope that you have the same kind of experience as you write papers here at Northern. 

The ability to express ideas clearly on paper is one of the most important attributes of the successful student.  Fortunately, it is a skill that, with a little effort, almost all students can acquire.  Following the suggestions I give you below will (at least most of the time) ensure you a decent grade on almost any paper you turn in.

1.     Pay especially careful attention in class whenever a professor is explaining to you what he/she wants you to do on an essay assignment, and note exactly what the requirements are.  Don’t rely on your memory!  Also, be sure to read carefully any written instructions the professor gives you for the paper assignment.  Be sure to follow the professor’s guidelines regarding length, format, and (above all) topic choice.  There’s no quicker way to fail than to write a one-page summary of the latest novel you’ve read when the professor has asked for five pages comparing the imagery used by Keats and Yeats—especially if you turn in the paper three weeks after the due date!

2.     Begin research right away.  There’s nothing more frustrating that finding out the day before an assignment is dues that a book you need has been checked out by another student, or that the book store has sent back the text you didn’t buy because you didn’t think you would have to use it.<>

3.     Jot down ideas for your paper as you read/do research.  Mark any passages that you think you may later cite in support of your thesis.  DON’T MARK LIBRARY BOOKS—DO MARK YOUR OWN BOOKS!

4.     Be sure to have a thesis: some point you are trying to prove.  State this thesis clearly.  Usually, your thesis statement will be the last sentence of your first paragraph. Lack of a good thesis is almost always the reason students have trouble with this assignment. Also, once a student comes up with a good thesis, the paper almost writes itself. 

5.     Be sure to give your paper an interesting title.  A good title reinforces your thesis and will often help the reader see the logic/organization of your paper.

6.     Be sure your paper has a clear thesis.  It's almost impossible to get credit for logic or analysis if your thesis isn't clear. Said this before, didn’t I?  Do you suppose there’s a reason for this?

7.     Now try “brainstorming,” i.e., jotting down a list of things you may want to include in your paper.

8.      If necessary, revise your thesis.

9.     Outline your paper.

10.  Write your paper.  Don’t worry if everything’s not perfect the first time.  You can always go back and revise.  And speaking of revision...

11. Don’t fall in love with your first draft.  First drafts never represent your best work.  If at first your paper doesn’t seem like “A” work, revise and revise again.  During the course of your revisions….

12.  Make sure each paragraph of your paper contains a clear topic sentence.  Each topic sentence should relate to your general thesis.  Most often, the topic sentence will be the first sentence of the paragraph.

13.  Make sure everything in each paragraph supports your topic sentence.  The fancy name for this is “coherence.”  If your professor tells you your paper lacks coherence, he/she means that the sentences/paragraphs are not properly joined together.

14.  Proofread your paper carefully.  Errors in spelling and grammar make your work look second rate.  Take advantage of the spelling and grammar checkers in your word processing software.  Those in WordPerfect and Microsoft Word will catch almost all of your errors, and there’s really no excuse at all these days for turning in a paper with grammatical or spelling mistakes.  It is a good habit, by the way, to look at each highlighted mistake and be sure you know why your word processor tells you it’s a mistake. 

15.  Always have someone else read your paper before you turn in the final draft.  It’s nice to get the opinion of someone who writes well, but anyone who can read can tell you if your ideas come across clearly or not.

16.   Professors are often willing to look over your work and discuss your paper with you before you turn in the final draft.  Make sure, however, that you’ve put some effort into the assignment yourself before seeing the professor.  It’s best to have at least a tentative thesis and an outline of what you intend to write before you talk with your professor.

17.   Be sure to avoid plagiarism, i.e., taking someone else’s ideas/words without giving them proper credit.  Remember that, even if you mention your source in your footnotes, you may still be plagiarizing.  The best way to handle secondary source material is to remember that, while you are usually not  an expert on the topic discussed by your sources, you can be an expert on what the author of the source says.  Suppose, for instance, that while doing a research paper on the Ante-Nicene church, you come across the following remark:

The Montanist eschatological position was almost the reverse of that of the Gnostics.  They were believers in the literal resurrection, believers in the millennium, and especially firm believers in prophecy and its fulfillment. 

                  The proper way of using this idea in your own paper is to say something like this:

According to Art Marmorstein, Montanist eschatology was very different than that of the Gnostics.  He notes that, unlike the Gnostics, the Montanists believed in the resurrection, the millennium, and in the fulfillment of prophecy.

One of the problems students face is that professors are not always as clear as they might be in telling you what they are looking for in a paper.   Many professors, however, will provide a “rubric” that tells you exactly what they expect.  The generic writing rubric I give you on the syllabus is a good guide, not just to what I am looking for, but to what *most* professors tend to look for whether they tell you so specifically or not. 

Better writing--how not to write like a professor

A general rule of thumb in education is that we teach as we have been taught.  I use the same lecture techniques my instructors used in high school and college.  And my students, when they go out to teach high school, often imitate me. 

With writing, too, we tend to imitate the styles of our teachers—and, often, that’s unfortunate.  Students associate subject material with the stuffy academic style in which it is often presented, and they imitate that style in their own papers.

Often enough, that’s an ok strategy if all you are looking for is a grade, and I suppose that, often enough, students even get a better grade by imitating “academic” style.  It’s sort of like putting on a coat and tie: you may not be any better at what you do, but, if you dress the part, people think you’re proficient.

The problem is that “coat and tie” writing is not much fun either for the student or those who read their papers—and it seldom adds anything much at all to the “great conversation.”

What to avoid

George Orwell’s short essay “Politics and the English Language” (http://orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit) is an excellent guide to avoiding some of the worst of the stuff writing problems.  Five important principles to better writing from Orwell:

1.     Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.     Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.     If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.     Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.     Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.     Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

All the term paper is a stage: high-energy writing

Every year, I devote one session of my SEED 415 class (Social Sciences Methods) to showing the students how to use theater games in the classroom.  I tell the students that, if used well, theater games can add life and energy to the classroom.

The basic technique here I call “IONizing” the classroom.  An ion is a charged particle, a particle that’s more interactive because of its positive or negative charge. But, in this case, the IONization process has nothing to do with gaining or losing an electron.  IONization involves incorporating a number of qualities that just happen to end with “ion.”

We work on cooperatION and positION, things important to good theater.  And then we move on to some IONs that make not only for good theater, but for good writing.

ConcentratION is of the skills important both for good theater and good writing.  One typical “concentratION” exercise is to pass around an object with each person in the group asked to say something different about it.  This is a helpful writing trick as well.  In this class, you are looking at many primary sources.  One of the things you can try to do is to look at these sources very closely and try to find something to say about those sources that no one else has said.

A closely related skill is imaginatION.  With a theater game, one might pass around and object and say “what could this be if it weren’t exactly what it seems to be?”  With paper writing too, it helps to use your imagination, especially when dealing with primary sources.  What are all the possible reasons an author includes certain ideas?  What might be the external circumstances affecting the work?

And then there is motivatION.  The trick to successful theater improvisation is to make sure your character always has a motivatION, something your character wants.  Your goal in the scene is to gain your objective.  Keep going until either you get what you want or it’s clear you’re going to have to give up. 

Of course, if there are no obstacles, the scene ends very quickly—and so we need also complicatiION.  Complications generally come from other characters whose motivations are different from your own.  If characters have strong, conflicting motivations, a scene ends up writing itself.  Without conflict, though, the seen dies—and quickly.

A key to good writing, too, is to have a strong motivation, something you really want to achieve in your writing.  If there is a strong underlying conflict, once again, you’ll have a paper that almost writes itself.

The trouble is, of course, that essay writing doesn’t have the obvious conflicts you might see in a two or three character improvised skit.  So what you will have to do, to a certain extent, is anticipate the arguments on the other side.  One excellent paper technique is to outline as clearly and persuasively as possible the arguments you intend to rebut.  The stronger you make the opposing case, the more you will have to say in response!

There are other ways of finding a conflict that will energize your work and lead to a good paper—and, again, theater gives us some good example.  In general in the theater, playwrights are taught to avoid giving their characters long speeches.  Monologues or soliloquies are usually not very interesting.  An essay can easily turn into a long, rather tedious monologue.  However, soliloquies can be extremely effective.  Consider the most famous of the soliloquies, Hamlet’s.  “To be, or not to be?” asks Hamlet.  To live, or not to live?  Well, here’s our conflict, and the fact that it is an internal conflict takes nothing at all away from its dramatic interest.

Now notice that, in this course, what we are dealing with is the ultimate “to be, or not to be” question.  As Pascal notes, we are all in a position where we have to make a big, big wager with immense stakes.  We can place our bets on the idea that Christianity is true, or we can gamble that it’s not true.  Is it true, or is it not true: that is the question—a question so big, so important, and so relevant, that it should inspire you to a “star” paper—a paper with lots and lots of energy and interest, a paper you’ll be proud of.