How to Compose a Paper

Many students struggle with different aspects of writing a paper, but perhaps the most common difficulty we all face is remaining aligned with our thesis statements. Once you form a cohesive thesis, it can be tempting to speed through the rest of your paper. However, this can put you and your thesis in grave danger of the red pen! Of course, a paper that does not follow its thesis will confuse its readers and be graded poorly. There is a simple way in which you can avoid this trap when you begin working on a paper. The solution is: preparation. From thorough research to forming an outline with points and sub-points, preparation will serve as a lifeline to follow when you’re in the middle of writing.

After forming a thesis, you may feel as if you have enough information on your subject to begin writing a masterpiece. This might be true, but before putting words to paper you should identify two or three main points that address your thesis well. In this way, you can organize your thoughts and develop a good grasp on how to tackle your chosen subject. Many times, we have hundreds of ideas floating around in our heads, but if we don’t develop them, it can be challenging to put them into words. For example, when I write a paper, I jot down every single thought or idea I have on my subject that might support my thesis. If I do not do this, these ideas will be completely forgotten when I begin to focus on writing. There’s nothing more frustrating to me than losing a fantastic idea! This can happen to all of us though, so we need to write our thoughts down in order to remember them because there are so many components that go into writing a paper.

When we do write a paper while trying to retain all of our thoughts in our heads, the paper can get messy. You are more prone to going off topic or even arguing against your own thesis by accident. Some of the content might become repetitive, and other parts might not make any sense. Therefore, writing down thoughts, ideas, and points will aid in the organization of your paper. This is what we call an outline, which is one of the most beneficial tools a writer can use. Every writer should create and follow an outline for every paper. If you have never used an outline before, you might be surprised just how good of a writer you are when you begin to use one.

After forming an outline with all of the points you want to address, begin to research each area. If your assignment requires research to be done, the points in your outline should be supported by research. It is not enough to simply have a point in your paper if you cannot dive into that point and explain its relevance to your thesis. Always look for ways to back up your points with evidence. Because, a thesis needs to be backed by points, and points need to be backed by evidence. If you can do both of these when writing a paper, you are in a good spot. Your thesis can claim that the earth is flat as long as it is supported by main points with good evidence (although I would not recommend arguing this topic). Such evidence and support is everything in paper-writing; you need it in order to construct a good paper.

When I write, occasionally, another idea will pop into my head that I did not even consider when forming my outline. I always make sure to write the idea down and then look for sources that relate to it later on. When this happens to you, first make sure that the idea can be properly supported by evidence. Then, check to see if it helps or hurts your thesis. Unfortunately, not all ideas are good ones, and what may seem like a good thought could actually be detrimental to your entire paper. However, these thoughts could also have the potential to add depth and originality that main points lack. Therefore, look into ideas and thoughts of your topic regardless of how small you might think they are. You never know when such a thought might improve your paper.

Ultimately, preparation goes a long way when composing a paper. Work out your main points, ideas, and thoughts regarding a paper topic before you dive into writing. Use an outline and remember that research builds support for your paper. Following these tips can improve your skills as a writer. Even if some of these tools seem tedious and boring, give them a try! With these methods, everyone has the ability to write a strong paper!

Written by Jack

For more information on paper composition and other writing subjects, check out our Composition of a Paper handout and the Quick Reference Flyers page of our website!

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Letter to the Patchwork Writer

Dear Patchwork Writer,

You might not have any idea why I just called you a “patchwork.” That’s because I made that name up. All it means is that you like quotes and paraphrases—a lot. If you have a habit of stuffing your papers with words and ideas from other sources and not including many of your own thoughts, pull up a chair—let’s discuss.

Now, for those history majors out there whose papers consist of biographies and other collections of information, you don’t really have a lot of choice. Those kinds of assignments leave little to no room for original thought, so don’t bother trying to shoehorn it in there.

For the rest of us, though, quoting too much can rob us of the most important part of writing papers in the first place—critical, applied thought. If you’re using block quote after block quote, all you’re doing is regurgitating what you’ve read; you’re not learning anything (and neither is your reader!). Adding your own thoughts is a way to connect what you’re reading with what you’re saying and thinking. It also raises your credibility by showing your ability to use research to back up your thoughts.

Imagine trying to sew a quilt without thread or assembling a car without bolts. Nothing holds together, and it falls apart into an unrecognizable heap of useless parts. That’s what an all-quote paper feels like to a reader.

On the other hand, you obviously don’t want to go on a rant and disregard quotes entirely. Your opinions matter, but they are far more convincing when they’re backed by credible sources.

Imagine you’re forced to listen to someone talking about how great (or how awful) their vacation was for half an hour. You can’t leave without offending them, but you’re dying of boredom and want to disagree just so it gets you out of the conversation faster. That’s how your reader (e.g. your professor) feels when you try to write an academic opinion without gathering facts from outside your own head.

So where’s the balance? In reality, it varies from assignment to assignment. I like to structure my papers in a specific way, in what I colloquially call the “quote sandwich.” (Hungry yet?)

Each paragraph starts with a topic sentence. Think of it like the first slice of bread. After that, I add some metaphorical mayonnaise or a slice of cheese by introducing my quote with the author’s name, the title of the work I’m citing, or some other important information to justify the quote’s existence. Then come the lettuce and tomato: the quote itself.

The key with this sandwich, however, is the lunchmeat—explanation. I spend at least a sentence (maybe two) explaining and applying the quote to my topic sentence or thesis. That way, I’m not just pulling a random thought to meet a source requirement; I’m actually using it to back up what I’m trying to say. After that, I might introduce another quote to further my point, but there are layers of mayo or cheese (introduction), veggies (quotes), and meat (original thought). I always end my paragraph with the other piece of bread—a restatement of my topic sentence or a transition to the next paragraph.

Now that you’re good and hungry, let me clarify that there’s no magic ratio of quotes to thoughts. It’s just important that you, as the writer, demonstrate a clear understanding of how these different ideas from different places support your claim—and not just to please your professor. When you are forced to include your reasoning, you often come to better understand it yourself, which is the whole reason you’re writing a paper to begin with. Seize this chance to explore new things about yourself and experiment—the end result will be much more delicious when you do.

Written by Catherine

Image credit

Letter to the Meandering Writer

Dear Meandering Writer,

Before we go any farther, please don’t be concerned that I had to Google a definition for the word “meander.” I promise I’m qualified for my job. Really, I am. You can’t judge me too much because I bet you don’t know how to define “meandering writer,” either. According to a conglomerate of online dictionaries, “to meander” basically means to take an unnecessarily indirect or aimless journey. In the world of writing, this is the author who loses his or her audience by going off on an irrelevant tangent or taking too long to get to a clear point. In my experience, meandering writers are the ones who have the best ideas and most well-conducted research, but simply lack the structure to tie everything together into a nice, neat, presentable package.

Some might argue that meandering isn’t really a big issue to worry about, but the reality is, a wandering paper fails to show the intelligence and understanding of a skilled student because it does not clearly communicate with the audience. Every once in a while, meandering does pay off—just ask Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Their proposed 25 essay project, known as the Federalist Papers, turned into 85 essays that took 6 months to complete. In the end, they eventually made their point: the Constitution of the United States is a document worthy of the full support of the states. If you enjoy being an American with free speech and a representative government, thank Hamilton and Madison for meandering around their topic, but unless you’re writing to define the direction of a new nation and establish a democracy, it’s probably best to stay on topic and to the point.

I know. That is easier said than done.

Here are a few things that may help prevent your essay from turning into a second edition of the Federalist Papers.

  1. Your paper is a tree, so avoid twigs. Every single point made within a paper either needs to support the thesis directly or directly support something that directly supports the thesis. (Is that as clear as mud?) In other words, your thesis is like the trunk of a tree. The limbs are your direct support because they connect immediately to the trunk. Branches are necessary secondary evidence for the direct support found in the limbs. Anything past the branches are flimsy twigs that barely link to the trunk. Chances are, these weak arguments can be pruned from your paper in exchange for a stronger, more straightforward essay.word tree
  2. Keep your thesis visible. The farther you get from the introduction, the harder it is to remember exactly what your thesis is claiming. This is especially true when you’re looking at a page count that extends into double digits. Write your thesis down on paper and refer back to it at every new paragraph and every time you get stuck. If you prefer to write your thesis after you’ve finished the rest of your paper (this is a great strategy!), go ahead and jot down a working thesis anyway. It never hurts to have a roadmap handy, even if you plan on changing your route.
  3. Don’t delete stray sentences; save them for later. Nothing is more painful than composing a beautiful sentence, paragraph, or page, only to realize it is not necessary for the paper. Unfortunately, this is a natural part of the writing process. Never keep something that distracts from the thesis of your paper, but don’t assume that just because something doesn’t fit in one paper that it might not fit in another. If you find yourself consistently writing and removing eloquent passages, the kind you wish you professor could actually see, create a document where you can save your meandering words for later. That way, none of your work is ever really in vain, and if you ever find yourself stuck for ideas or brilliant sentence structure, you’ll know where to start.

And of course, it goes without saying that you should always bring your paper to the Writing Center! We all know what it’s like to have more thoughts, sources, and ideas than space in an essay, and we’ve all struggled at one time or another to stick to a thesis. Nothing helps guide a meandering writer quite like a fellow student who has walked the same, winding path.

Written by Savanna

Image credits: Header image, Tree Outline (words added by author)

Words: Not to be Used Lightly

words1

Fluff.

Every student has done it. Every student has written it. More often than not, college papers are stuffed to the brim with the unnecessary. Some people add extra ideas at the last minute to reach that five-page requirement. Others repeat the same idea over and over in different words so the conclusion takes up half a page. With deadlines approaching, we haphazardly stuff words onto the page, hoping the professor will think our ideas are semi-passable.
Writing is hard. We know. Even for famous authors, putting ideas down on paper is still a challenge. Ernest Hemingway said that “there is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” Even waking up for an 8am class is easier than writing. With this mindset, however, students often forget the purpose for writing. Words get crammed into paragraphs that students don’t really care about, and papers full of neglected words get turned it at the start of class. And this is a tragedy.
Words are not to be used lightly.
Writing is a transformation. Words, when strung together correctly, can alter the average, spur on the weary, and inspire the great. Words express the ideas within us, the ideas that should be shared. When we fluff our papers, not only are we misusing our education, we are also misusing the single most powerful tool given to humanity. Words have the power2013_speech_4_3-4_3_r541_c540 to tear down kingdoms, to unite divided peoples, and to birth whole countries. Even God Himself began the creation of the universe with four spoken words.
As students, we are trying to communicate our ideas. See writing as an opportunity to express yourself. Be bold. Take pride in your thinking. Share those thoughts for all to see. Refuse to settle. Don’t see a paper as another useless assignment, but see it as the need to build on what others have done before you. Contribute.
Make every word count.

“Wise men speak because they have something to day; fools because they have to say something.”
–Plato

Written by Jenna

“Man Speaking to Men:” The Writing Center as an Arm to the Liberal Arts.

personWilliam Wordsworth defines a poet as “a man speaking to men… a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him” (sic) (299). Every person, to Wordsworth, is a poet in his or her fashion; however, one becomes a better poet when he or she delves deeper in to the beauty of life. Thus, a poet takes a holistic mindset of life, praising both the mundane and glorious. This correlates to the ideal of a college which studies the liberal arts. As Arthur Holmes details, “the liberal arts are those which are appropriate to persons as persons, rather than to the specific function of a worker or a professional or even a scholar” (emphasis added) (27).

So, how does a Writing Center help establish people as people? How can it contribute to the development of the soul, and thereby become an arm to the liberal arts? I would like to make two quick points in accordance to these questions.

First, the liberal arts are the consummation of the individual and tradition. Conflicting with Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot postulates in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that “no poet, no artist of any art, liberalarts_2865655-655x280has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the poets and artist” (2556). In the Writing Center, consultants guide students according to predating rules and distinctions made in the English language. However, a consultant fulfills this task while allowing the student to produce his or her original work. Thus, the individual exists, hence man to men, while within the realms of tradition.

Second, the liberal arts mature versatile persons. Indeed, the Writing Center, and education in general, can be seen as a mechanism to future success. Students often enter the Writing Center anticipating an assembly line service. They desire to hand in their essays and expect the employees of the Writing Center to correct sloppy grammar, refigure poor syntax, update formatting, and revamp un-academic diction. After this smoldering purification process, the students return and gleefully submit their essays to their respective professors.

Though this appears freeing, this mentality actually entraps and handicaps students. They become dependent on the Writing Center to craft an excellent paper. On the other hand, if consultants interact with students, then the consultant is able to explain why a certain linguistic rule exists and the logic behind Liberal-Arts-Educationit. The student then is able to utilize this knowledge in the future. Not only this, the Writing Center aids the student in thinking logically. Logical reasoning is beneficial towards all aspects of life, allowing the Writing Center’s influence to move past the walls of a room or building.

Let us then, as Writing Centers and employees of Writing Centers, learn how to be an arm of the liberal arts and promote a love in the liberal arts in all students we come in contact with.

Works Cited

Holmes, F. Arthur. The Idea of a Christian College. Revised ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987. Print.

Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Norton Anthology English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. F. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 2554- 2559. Print.

Wordsworth, William. “Preface o Lyrical Ballads.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 292-304. Print.

A Writing Center Poem

arabica_coffee

The pale desk
Scintillates in
The Bland lights
Which checker

The roof of an
Old schoolroom
Carpeted in
Gray and blue

Squares; coffee
Makers hum
With their
Colombian brew

A broken Clock
Ticks away
Its Hands
Refuse to move

Hours snore
Back and forth
Like waves
Breasting the shore

Red ink soils
A desperate
Paper
From a desperate

Student, whose
Sweat lingers
And swells
On the desk

A coffee ring
And unmodified
Run-ons
Stain page six

My mind moils
Is it time?
Not time?
Hark, I hear aloft:

The coffee maker
Beeps; Complete,
So I end
This long session

Coffee_Stains_2

Academic-struggle Bus

Are you a frequent rider of the academic-struggle bus? Do you think writing papers is the worst part of college? Do you cry over impending deadlines and dread being given written assignments?

Then this blog post is for you!struggle-bus

First, I want to say I have definitely been there. I’ve procrastinated and pulled all-nighters. I’ve missed deadlines, misplaced rough drafts, misread the directions for assignments. And worst of all, I’ve stared into that awful abyss of an endlessly intimidating blank page, feeling absolutely sure that I would never find worthy words to fill it.

So please believe me when I say this: I know how you feel.

I hated writing for the longest time. And then little by little, I didn’t.

Over the years, particularly the last few of high school and the first few of college, I had to write quite a bit. Even though I didn’t especially love the process, I did love the feeling of accomplishment I got when I finished a paper. I always told myself I was reading my final draft multiple times to check for any errors I’d missed, but in all honesty, I just enjoyed getting to read something I had created.

For me, that was the key that opened my mind to accepting writing as an interesting activity –realizing that writing was creating – that everything I wrote was an entirely new creation and nobody else in the world had ever or would ever arrange the same exact words in the same exact order that I did. Realizing that was amazing to me.

When I started to think of writing as a creative process, I started to see how beautiful it really is, how gifted we really are to have the capability of translating the fluid language of our thoughts into the solid language of our words in writing. That’s how I came to believe that writing is cool.

Sometimes all it takes is a change of perspective.

If creativity isn’t your thing, you can think of it another way. What if you like to argue? Think of writing as arguing. A great deal of the writing you’ll do in college will require an argument of some sort anyway. Writing StruggleEven if you’re writing a compare and contrast essay, you’ll essentially be arguing that two things can be compared and contrasted, and your paper will support that argument with evidence.

What if you like football? You can think of writing a paper like you would think of designing a football play. In football, it’s all about finding the right pattern of moves to reach the endzone without losing the ball. In writing, it’s all about finding the right pattern of words to reach the conclusion without losing the point.

What I’m basically saying is this: whatever you have to do to convince yourself that writing is cool, do it. And as a general rule of life, remember that your attitude will shape your actions. If you spend all day thinking tomorrow will be miserable, it probably will be. If you refuse to think of writing a paper as an opportunity, you will lose the opportunity to enjoy it.

But, if you are confident and excited about your ability to prove your point or reach the endzone or create something new, you’ll enjoy writing a lot more.

 

-Caitlin

For more information on writing an essay please click here.