How to Write a College Paper

It’s been pretty emotional here on my humble little blog, so I decided to mix it up today and write about something that has been a big part of my life lately. In the past few weeks, I’ve written or drafted no fewer than three papers for two different classes. While each paper had a different focus and required different things from me, the core process of how I write a paper is always the same.

I start by reading the prompt at least twice. It sounds simple and a little bit obvious, but you’d be surprised what you can miss if all you do is read it once and start working. I look for any clues in the prompt or any hints that there might be something specific the professor is looking for in the paper.

Second, I get out a piece of paper and write down some initial notes on the prompt. For example, my next paper is comparing the UN Charter’s rules for military interaction to the jus ad bellum branch of just war theory. I started by writing down the UN charter’s rules and the just ad bellum regulations so that I had an easy reference point for the basic facts.

Once I have the facts written down, I start writing questions that I want to answer in my paper. I try to follow lines of thinking and have one question connect to another. For the last paper I wrote, I had to consider a fictional society practicing female genital mutilation and discuss whether or not the United States should support a secession effort within that society. I started with the simple question of whether or not the United States should support the secession, then asked what it would mean for the US to support it or not, then asked what the moral foundation would be for either decision. Through those lines of questioning, I’m able to fully develop my thoughts and create a clear progression of the ideas. It also helps me make sure I’m not leaving out any points I need to consider or perspectives I need to include.

After I get the questions written, I usually try to meet with my GSI (Michigan calls them GSIs, most other schools call them TAs) to discuss the ideas I have so far and make sure I’m on the right track. Even if I’m confident in my thoughts, I like to check in and make sure I’m going in the right direction. These meetings are almost always helpful, especially for my philosophy papers because writing philosophy does not come easily to me!

When I get back from the meeting, I try to synthesize the thoughts I have from that meeting and the questions I’ve already written into a very, very rough outline. This outline usually just states what topics I’m looking to write about in each paragraph. It helps me organize my ideas and make sure that there’s a logical progression through the paper.

After I write that rough outline, I just start writing! Though I know it would likely improve my writing, I’m not one to spend a lot of time revising. The first draft I write is definitely first draft, but I try to make it as polished as possible. My goal in a first draft is to write something that isn’t totally perfect but I could turn in and get a decent grade on.

Once I have a draft written, I step away from it for a while. If I’m being a good student and writing a few days in advance, I leave the paper for at least a day. If I’m not being such a good student, I leave it for an hour or two. It’s really, really hard to revise something you’ve just written because you won’t see the flaws in it as clearly as you will after waiting a while. I always see my papers much more objectively when I go to revise them after taking a break from it for a while.

I don’t typically do more than one revision, and I know that’s controversial. Honestly, a lot of the time I’m just so fed up with the paper that I want to be done with it and don’t have the patience to revise more than once. I do usually have someone read over it once I’ve revised, and if they bring up large issues I’ll go through it again. But if they don’t have much to say, I turn the paper in after one final read through!

I was really worried when I came to college about writing papers, and I was even more worried when I took a philosophy class this semester and had to learn to write in an entirely new way. I’ve developed this general process through the first two semesters of college, and it really works for me! It may not (and likely won’t) work for everyone, but I’d encourage everyone to at least try a few of my tips if they sound like they’d work for you!


One Comment

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  1. Bailey – You are truly a great writer – and that is not grading on the Dad curve. You make a even a fundamentally boring topic – the process of writing a paper- very interesting!


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