This is the time of year when many students are beginning their final papers. Whether you are writing a master’s thesis, graduate paper, or undergraduate essay, you need to submit a great paper. The reason is simple: you want to get a good grade in your course. In many academic courses, the final paper carries the most weight for your final grade, and this means the final paper needs to be well written.
Based on many years of assisting students with their academic paper (and acquiring multiple advanced degrees myself!), I have five recommendations for writing a great paper.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR WRITING A GREAT PAPER
1. Paper organization – the big issues
All academic papers, from essays to theses, follow the same major outline. In the first paragraph or two, you establish the context for your topic. For example, you might discuss why the topic is important. You can provide background information about an issue or the current status of the situation about which you are writing. You may explain why the topic is relevant to the reader. You will write a thesis statement, the one or two-sentence statement of your main theme, at or near the end of this section.
In the body of your paper, you provide specific details, explanations, facts, evidence, and arguments relevant to the thesis statement. In a 5 paragraph essay, the body is paragraphs 2 through 4. (If you are using a 5 paragraph essay outline, you will provide the context in paragraph one.) The body of the paper is organized around a series of main ideas. Discuss one idea at a time, and only discuss one idea per paragraph.
In the conclusion of the paper, you provide summary information and restate your thesis statement in a new way. If you have done your job in the body of the paper, your thesis statement will be the obvious conclusion. Depending on the type of paper you are writing, you also might address counter-arguments, provide action steps for the reader, propose next steps, or discuss how your conclusions are relevant to current and future situations.
2. Paragraph organization
The paragraph is the basic writing unit for communicating an idea. Each paragraph discusses one, and only one, idea. Paragraph length depends on the breadth of the idea you choose. While the paragraph length might be only one sentence, this is not recommended for academic papers. Generally, a paragraph needs 3 to 10 sentences. (If you have more than 10 sentences, you probably need more paragraphs.)
Similar to the overall organization, a paragraph begins with context. You introduce the idea to the reader, answering the same types of questions that you addressed in the beginning of the paper. The beginning of the paragraph provides context; the body of the paragraph provides supporting information and discussion. The end of a paragraph has two functions. First, it provides a concluding statement about the idea. You will write your most important statement at the end of the paragraph. Second, it creates a paragraph transition to the next idea.
Creating paragraph transitions can be difficult, but it is necessary. Paragraph transitions inform the reader (your professor) how the ideas are related to each other. Think critically about the context for the next idea. What words and concepts are you discussing at the beginning of the next paragraph? Then use words or phrases that are relevant to that information. You might even use some of the same words. Your paragraph transition tells the reader, “Here’s what we discussed, and here’s what we will discuss next.” The overall result is that your ideas naturally flow from one to the next, and the entire paper will be more cohesive and focused on the thesis statement.
3. Facts and logic
Support your ideas with credible facts. This means that you need to do your research. You can write a beautiful paper, but if your information is wrong, or if you base your ideas on incorrect facts, you may receive a failing grade. This also applies to how you discuss your information. Make sure that your conclusions are supported by the evidence you provide. They must be logical. Any time you use words like “therefore,” and “thus,” pay careful attention to the logic. These words mean that the next statement is the logical conclusion of the information you just provided. Make sure that this is true.
4. Writing quality
The writing mechanics (spelling and grammar) must be correct. That’s a given. If you are not sure about the writing mechanics in your paper, get help. Don’t depend on your word processors spelling and grammar checker. Spell checkers won’t tell you which possible spelling is the correct one, and grammar checkers are very often incorrect.
Writing mechanics are not the most important part of good writing. Clear writing is more important. Stick to simple sentences and put the subject, verb, and object in order. Many students try to cram too much information in one sentence, and this often leads to confusing sentences. If you find yourself adding many descriptions or descriptive phrases in your sentence, consider breaking the sentence into 2 sentences.
The best strategy for determining the quality of your own writing is to read it aloud. Really. Read it aloud. If you stumble over some words, your reader will, too. You might find some confusing passages, sections that don’t make sense to you, even though you wrote them! These sections need to be edited.
You should never submit a first draft. Unless you are writing your paper the night before it is due, put your paper away for a day or more. Then print it double-spaced and read it aloud. Analyze your paper based on the guidelines above. Make notes in the margins and in between lines about how it can be improved. You might also need to get help at this stage. Finally, sit down at your computer and address your comments. Repeat this process as needed.
When you write a great paper, a great essay, or a great thesis, you can expect a great grade. These paper guidelines will help you do that if you apply them carefully. They can be summed up as three recommendations. 1) Organize your information logically. 2) Write clearly. 3) Get help if needed. This might be the most important paper you submit during the semester, so make sure it is great!
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