How to Write a Great Academic Paper

By Nerdpro on 5 October 17 Academic Paper


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

  • Turn off internet and phone. Don’t panic!
  • Take breaks every hour
  • Don’t write when you’re tired/not thinking clearly.
  • Write in a nice environment/ have your work-corner where you can leave your stuff

Getting started

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:

  1. The context: find a well-known book dealing with your general context. In our example, you could start with a good history of Egypt in the 19th century.
  2. Your specific topic: Have a look for books or articles dealing with all your key terms – who know, maybe someone already wrote a book on your exact essay question. You might want to read it

PRO-TIP: Make time to just think

  • Take a ½ hour every day to sit and think. No computer, no articles, no books. Let your mind wander and you’ll be surprised where it takes you!
  • Always have a notebook with you to write down your ideas. On the bus, at a café, in the shower – you never know where inspiration will strike.

Gather your Information

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…

Golden Rules of Reading

    1. Make a mental map. Before starting a book, always read through the index to note the sections that may be most important to you. This way, you’ll know where to focus your attention and time, though you should always read the whole book if you don’t want to risk misunderstanding everything! Check out the introductory chapter too – it often has an outline of the argument, which will help you to know whether you’re going.
    2. Take notes selectively. Notes are meant to help you remember important information. You don’t want to rewrite the entire book!

DON’T FORGET

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

    1. Write your notes by hand. On a computer, you will spend more time trying to rearrange and format your notes than actually reading. You’ll have much more freedom to arrange your notes the way you like them, linking them with arrows, drawing diagrams or colour-coding related elements.
    2. Highlighting is for dummies! Highlighting sections of a text is NOT the same thing as writing notes. By writing notes, you do two things: first of all, writing forces you to reformulate the text, which makes you think about what you are reading. Second, while writing, you’re already putting ideas into a structure.

PRO-TIP

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.

  1. Good notes are not just quotes! You need to reformulate and express the substance of what you’re reading. Only write quotes when they are impossible to reformulate, or because you may need to use them in your paper.
  2. Follow up on your readings. In your readings, you will come across other potentially relevant literature. Add them to your bibliography, making a note of why it’s important to your topic.

Structure

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.

A structure isn’t set in stone.

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.

A good structure is more than some keywords.

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.

A structure needs to stand alone.

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+.

Get feedback and advice.

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.

Now your structure is done! Print it and put it on the wall while you’re writing.

Writing

FIRST THINGS FIRST

  • Don’t lose your work! Always save a copy on a USB or external hard drive

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.

DON’T FORGET

  • When writing your first draft, always reference properly! You don’t want to spend your last writing day frantically looking for references.

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

Always print your paper to proofread and edit

sentences! Print your paper and read it through, making notes for mistakes and sections that don’t make sense.

Long-term Hacks

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.

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