Writing academic papers can be a painful process, but it doesn’t have to be. Who hasn’t been up three nights in a row desperately trying to finish that essay? Don’t worry, we’re here to help! A lot of stress and anxiety can be avoided if you follow the simple tricks below. If you take the time to do it right, writing your academic paper can even be an enjoyable experience. And who knows, you might end up liking it!
First things first… Get Started NOW!
Once you receive your assignment, start planning your writing process. This doesn’t mean you have to write your paper right away – the more time you take, the more you will understand your subject and the better your paper will be.
Create your writing conditions
Nothing ruins an essay more quickly than not understanding the question. Even if you write a great paper, if you aren’t answering the question, you won’t be rewarded with a good grade. Take some time to read your essay question carefully, identify the key concepts and make sure you know what they are referring to. For example, if your essay question is:
What role did European newspapers play in the development of 19th century Arab nationalism in Egypt?
make sure that you clearly define your terms and concepts and answer the question accordingly. Here, the key concepts you need to watch out for are ‘European newspapers’, ‘Arab’, ‘nationalism’. It will also be important to focus your answer on the timeframe and geographical context specified: ‘19th century’, ‘Egypt’. So, if you end up talking about Arab nationalism in Peru during the time of the conquistadors, you probably won’t get that A+!
TO USE OR NOT TO USE?
Mendeley, Zotero, and other bibliographic reference managers
If you want to use a bibliographic reference manager, you need to commit from the start.
Each has advantages and disadvantages, so try out a couple to see which one fits.
Now you have your key terms and context, it’s time to get brainstorming! On a blank piece of paper, write down some ideas of areas to explore based on what you already know, and more importantly, what you don’t know. Make sure to mark things you need to read up on!
Then, make a small bibliography. If you have a reading list, look through the titles to see where to get started, but don’t stop there. You’ll never write a great essay if you stick to what all your classmates are also reading! So, how do you start creating your own bibliography? First you need to map what is ‘out there’. Divide your reading into two parts:
PRO-TIP: Make time to just think
Now you have your small bibliography, it’s time to start reading. This might seem like the simple part, but reading for an academic paper is actually quite tricky. If you’ve often finished a book without remembering what you just read, or if you spent your whole day trying to find that perfect quote you found somewhere in a 600-page book, you’d better read on…
Always write corresponding page numbers with your reading notes
Write out some quotes fully, so you don’t have to look for them when writing
Write your notes for your extended bibliography on post-its and stick them on your notes.
That way, you’ll remember where you found the reference and why you want to add it.
Whether you’re writing a PhD thesis or a 500-word position paper, your structure is the backbone of your paper. Without a structure, your paper will be weak and messy. Even on a tight deadline, this is not a step to be skipped over. If done right, 75% of your grade can already be earned just by writing the right structure. Follow these tips below to make sure you make the most out of this stage of the writing process.
Your structure should change and grow as you read. Colour code different sections according to a specific theme, idea or argument to keep an eye on what goes together and what can be moved. Keep shuffling around the elements of your structure until you have a framework you like. Remember, there are many different ways to format a paper. Your professor won’t be blown away by the 100th ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’. Be creative and try to find a structure that fits your argument.
Once you are more or less done reading and researching your paper, your structure should reflect that. It should be detailed, showing where you will put all the ideas, examples and arguments your paper will contain. Make sure to spell out the relationship between different parts of your paper. Once complete, a detailed structure can be several pages long, depending on the length of your paper.
Your structure needs to make sense without your explaining it. You should be able to hand it to a reader and have them understand exactly what it is you are going to write. If you accomplish this, you’ll be a long way toward that A+.
Now you have your detailed structure? Give it to a friend, colleague or professor to read. Don’t stick around to explain it – they should be able to understand it without you. For larger projects, like dissertations/theses, you should always have your supervisor read your structure before you start writing.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Now you have a great structure, this should be the easy part. All you need to do is fill in the structure. Don’t try to impress your professor with your literary flair- a good academic writing style is above all a clear and concise one. The end result should be a well-written, easy-to-read paper with a compelling argument.
Pay special attention to the first and final sentences of each paragraph. These sentences link one paragraph with the next, smoothly connecting one part of your argument to the next. Without these linking sentences, your ideas will appear disconnected and random.
In order to keep the flow of your argument, you need to set a writing rhythm. Divide your paper into parts – chapters, sections, subsections – and commit to writing one part every day. Re-read your whole structure every day before you start writing, it will help you to remember the function of that particular section in the whole, making your writing clearer and more to the point.
Always leave at least 24 hours to proofread and edit. The first impression of a paper counts, and you don’t want your professor to get distracted by spelling mistakes or half-finished
sentences! Print your paper and read it through, making notes for mistakes and sections that don’t make sense.
If you’re writing a thesis, dissertation or article, you’re expected to produce something qualitatively different from an essay or end-of-term paper. While the guidelines above apply to the writing process in general, here are some specific pointers to get started on a larger project.
Read wider than your topic. To start, you should read outside your specific topic to get a better sense of the broader field in which it is situated. Don’t limit yourself to the exact period and location of your topic. It will help you to contextualise and understand the specificities of your topic.
Use different resources where possible. Read widely, but don’t confine yourself to books. Attend conferences and lectures by experts working on subjects related to your topic, watch films and documentaries, or go to museums.
Get in touch with specialists in your field – they will be happy to correspond with someone working on a topic of interest to them, and you will gain a valuable mentor who can give you invaluable feedback. This also lays the groundwork for future academic relationships, and you’ll need their help if you’re contemplating a PhD or postdoc application.
Read a lot of introductions/first chapters/conclusions of well-known books and articles (in and out your field). This will help you starting and concluding your paper.A good exercise consists in reading a good article and extracting the detailed structure out of it. This way, you’ll get familiar with how to structure a paper.