How do I write a College Paper?
May 12, 2021 6:49 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend a youtube video or free online class that breaks this down for me like I am 5 (er.. or say 12)?

I'm having to write long academic papers as a result of returning to school, which is super exciting but I realize that my style of writing papers for a three page paper of just creating really chaotic notes, writing the paper and then trying to fit the citations in doesn't work as well when it's a 12 or more page paper. I took english comp 1 and 2 but the first was about 20 years ago, and the second I took recently but it assumed you actually remembered the first.

If there are good lists of tips, of break downs of different ways of notetaking or of how to build an outline for a paper first and some reminders of things that make a good paper, I'd like to brush up on this for college level writing! Thanks everyone!
posted by xarnop to Education (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I used to tell my students this - this is the framework:

Your thesis is the ANSWER to a question. Like "Why is this that way?" "This is that way because of this!" - the second one is your "thesis"

For structure:

Intro sentence
2 sentences to set up context
Thesis sentence
Closing intro sentence/transition

Sentence transitioning to your first argument point
Proof (from text/what you're looking at)
Comment on this in relation to your thesis.
Closing sentence/transition.

Sentence transitioning to your second argument point
Proof (from text/what you're looking at)
Comment on this in relation to your thesis.
Closing sentence/transition.

Sentence transitioning to your third argument point
Proof (from text/what you're looking at)
Comment on this in relation to your thesis.
Closing sentence/transition.

Transition into your closing paragraph which is re-stating a lot of what you've said, only now you're going to broaden things out. Think of your essay as hourglass shaped - you start broad, go to your thesis (narrow), to your dissection (narrower) and now you're moving back out into broad strokes.
If you can relate your thesis to the larger class/theme as a whole, try to do that.


Transition are like, "One way we see how [restate thesis differently] is through..."
And always ALWAYS start with this = Point: Proof: Comment.
So you make your point,
Then provide "proof" using your text/sample/data
Then comment on that proof

If you fill in the blanks with this very mechanical structure you'll have a very good foundation for any college essay.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 7:00 AM on May 12, 2021 [16 favorites]

Take a look at the Purdue Online Writing Lab if you haven't already! They have some nice "where do I begin?" articles for various types of writing assignments. Like, here's the intro for research papers.
posted by mskyle at 7:02 AM on May 12, 2021 [6 favorites]

Does your current institution have a Writing Center or Writer's Workshop? Usually you can book a consultation with a trained writing advisor who can work with you on a specific assignment at any stage of the process. They are great for helping with organizational/structural issues.
posted by TwoStride at 7:21 AM on May 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

A couple of suggestions:

(1) They Say / I Say : The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing - this focuses on how to situate your own ideas in the context of other people's ideas - how and where to summarize, how and where to quote, how to present other people's ideas and and give a "yes" or a "no" or a "yes, but" or "I see your point but actually" to them.

(2) Ask your professors for examples of excellent and readable papers in your discipline. Student papers can work for this, and your professor may have saved some examples of the papers of excellent previous students; published papers can also work for this. But a lot of awful papers get published - get people's recommendations rather than just trying to read an issue of Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal cover to cover.

(3) Yes, definitely talk to somebody at your college's writing center!

(4) The difference between a 3-page paper and a 12-page paper is that each of your arguments can be explored in more detail; your arguments might need to have subpoints and sub-arguments.

I find it hard to write this kind of paper from the top down (figuring out my main thesis, then the arguments that support my thesis, then the subpoints that support each argument). What I do instead is throw out a bunch of ideas that touch on the main ideas that I want to write about, and then start to figure out how to put them together with each other in a way that makes sense. I tend to write a couple of pages from the middle of the paper first and then start to figure out the other connections I need.

Bottom-up and top-down strategies can both work, depending on your personal style. Mind maps can be really helpful.

(5) Write your introduction and your conclusion after you write everything else, especially if you tend to get stuck on introductions and conclusions. When you already have the body of the paper, it becomes easier to figure out how to introduce your argument, and what the implications of your argument are.
posted by Jeanne at 7:37 AM on May 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

my style of writing papers for a three page paper of just creating really chaotic notes, writing the paper and then trying to fit the citations in doesn't work as well when it's a 12 or more page paper.

One quick trick for the citations: never fit them in after, always start with them. Those scrappy notes? Include a little citation. I make quick-and-dirty citations, usually parenthetical, such as "King Lear = king (KL sc1)" - and later, when I'm writing my paper
"Shakespeare introduces King Lear as a King (KL sc1)..." it's just there and I clean it up later.* If I'm typing, I'll use footnotes. I've written 80 page academic chapters (yeah, way too long), and my "rough draft" will have ~100-200 footnotes - but my notes that started the chapter already had those footnotes in (otherwise, I'd never remember where a given fact or quote came from). Endnote supports this - it's called "Cite as you Write" - but you can do this just as easily with lo-fi parenthetical references. I do the same when note-taking: source at the top of the page; notes down the page always followed by a page number.

Citations are very discipline specific - my specifics are from History & English, but if you're in the social sciences/natural sciences, it still holds, except that you'll probably be citing whole papers or chapters and won't care about page numbers. For the social sciences, I'll use parenthetical APA, e.g. (Shakespeare 1608) while I am taking notes and/or writing, whether long-hand or typing.

For overall structuring, I follow something rather like Dressed to Kill describes, though I would note that the number of points doesn't matter (anything from 2-23 works, thought more than about 6 is unwieldy), and not all academic papers are argumentative (though most will be at the undergraduate level).

As for whether one starts writing first, or gets all your points together: that's personal. I'm a jot-note maker: all of my writing starts as jot notes, and gets (very slowly) strung together into sentences. I write tight and almost never need to cut back (because I did so in the notes process). My partner is the opposite - he thinks in sentences and writes long paragraphs that he will eventually go through and edit into something shorter and more to-the-point. It's like the difference between making something out of Lego, and making up a brew and then distilling it. Either works - except that I highly encourage getting those references in right away, regardless of how you write. Not doing so has led to issues that I've seen.


But you've asked for instructional material - and it looks like my undergraduate university has a whole online resource on student papers and academic research, including modules on structure - though their section on outlines is a bit weak.

Your own college or university very likely has a writing lab or tutors available - I highly recommend using it if you do. At my university, the story was that students who used the writing lab generally had their grades increase by a letter; I know that I did (went from B to an A).

*NB: I have never read or seen King Lear. It may be that he is not a king.
posted by jb at 7:45 AM on May 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

This video is aimed at faculty, but I have used it successfully with advanced undergraduates, who find it very helpful. I'm also partial to the 'Three Modules on Writing Style' based on the method developed in the University of Chicago writing program--if you google, you should be able to find plenty of free pdf versions of this.

If you are in the humanities, Eric Hayot's work is also quite popular--I haven't read this book, but have heard great things about it as a reference.

Also I want to second everything Jeanne says!
posted by dizziest at 8:08 AM on May 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

It has been a long time since I had to write a college essay, but this is what worked for me.

I too would collect a bunch of notes and half-baked ideas before I sat down to actually write. I would usually start to develop an outline, but I'll admit that the outlines were usually half-baked.

You should be able to state your argument in a single sentence. That's your thesis. That belongs in your first paragraph, which should lay the groundwork for the rest of paper. I would spend a disproportionate amount of time getting that first paragraph right, because I found that the rest of the paper flowed more easily once I did. Write from the assumption that your reader is generally smart but knows basically nothing about your subject.

The rest of the paper is supporting your thesis: presenting supporting evidence, and anticipating/responding to counter-arguments. As Jeanne said, the difference between a long paper and a short one is the amount of detail, so you may need to prioritize.

Finally, you conclude by restating your thesis and tying together the supporting evidence you've presented, and offering a "next step" based on the ideas you've developed. It is OK if, by the end, you discover you have argued yourself into a different thesis than you started with. It does mean you need to rework the paper though.
posted by adamrice at 8:34 AM on May 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Does your current institution have a Writing Center or Writer's Workshop? Usually you can book a consultation with a trained writing advisor who can work with you on a specific assignment at any stage of the process. They are great for helping with organizational/structural issues.

One of the great things about using the school's writing center is that it is an ongoing resource -- you can go back more than once over the course of a semester/quarter while you work through various writing issues. My experience when I was teaching was that students who used those resources almost always improved and did better. And, their advice is likely to be specific to the expectations and norms at your school, which is also an advantage.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:44 AM on May 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

Good advice above. Another resource worth checking out are university writing center websites; there you can find handouts and videos explaining various aspects and genres of academic writing. These pages are publicly available for free twenty-four hours a day. For example, I often find myself referring folks to the resources at UNC Chapel Hill and Texas A&M. They might not be quite as ELI5 as you want, but they might come in handy all the same.
posted by xenization at 8:53 AM on May 12, 2021

Personally, I write a little bit less linearly than others. I usually write the body of the paper as my way of sorting through the sources and figuring out what my argument is, and then go back to write the intro (with thesis sentence) and then the conclusion at the end. I'd written a bit more about this process, in case it's helpful.

So, rather than there being one and only one right way to do things, try different methods to find what works with your way of thinking too.
posted by past unusual at 8:56 AM on May 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

You've already gotten some good advice, but I'll just briefly add:

Talk to your professors! Don't be shy about emailing them. There is some range between disciplines in terms of how professors evaluate (and even within the same field), so if after reading over the assignment directions you're unsure of anything, ask!

And as way of providing some relief: honestly, most professors I know are mainly looking for "has this student thought critically about the material? Are they drawing on evidence to back up their claims? etc." Especially this year, we're generally happy whenever there is evidence of learning happening, so don't stress *too* much over the craft of the writing (outside of a composition course, obviously).
posted by coffeecat at 10:59 AM on May 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

The #1 resource that got me through intensive philosophy and literature courses in college was the University of Chicago Writing Center’s guide to writing a paper. It is very specific and aimed at helping you produce high-quality argumentative writing, assuming you have and are willing to take lots of time to edit and rewrite. Unfortunately it seems to have been taken offline, but I recently found a pdf someone had put online that contains all of the material. I’m on mobile so can’t link it myself, but hopefully that gives you enough search terms to find it yourself.
posted by chaiyai at 11:02 AM on May 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Philosophy instructor here. Jim Pryor's advice on writing philosophy papers is solid. It's worth emphasizing that there is a lot of variation in expectations from one discipline to another, so I do recommend looking for discipline-specific advice.
posted by HoraceH at 11:54 AM on May 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I teach intro to composition and research. Here are some videos that have helped my students:

Taking Notes for a Research Essay
Integrating Sources into Your Writing
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:18 PM on May 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Some students find Essay Jack to be a very handy tool. It provides a scaffold/outline that will help get the process started. Created by two professors.
posted by frau_grubach at 2:52 PM on May 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

When I’m having a hard time writing a paper, I use the old technique where each fact goes on an index card with its citation and I can rearrange them until I get something that flows. Some cards get left out, sometimes there’s a hole in the argument that I do targeted research to fill.

You can take notes directly onto the index cards, but I tend to write/type the short citation (Lastname and Lastname Year), underline it, and do bullet points underneath while I figure out what’s important. Also: citation management software like Zotero might feel like overkill to you, but it makes all your PDF articles searchable and you can tag them and it can automatically rename the files to something useful and it handles making/formatting your bibliography.

You pick a topic to direct your research but you won’t know your thesis until you’ve done some of that research. With short papers you’re more likely to already know enough to guess a good thesis beforehand; your thinking is more likely to change if you do enough research to write ten+ pages. You may still have to rewrite the intro because writing the paper developed your thinking even more. Roll with it.
posted by momus_window at 7:20 PM on May 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Ya'll are so amazing and I thank you for all the great resources! I'm familiar with some of the longer form resources on APA guidelines and purdue recommendations but the longform books about papers but I found a little overwhelming- still resources I'm using but I really appreciate this accumulation of different formats to look for some good tips in. Thanks everyone so much!!
posted by xarnop at 7:22 PM on May 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

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