How to Write a College Paper
Writing is an important skill for many professions, and long-form writing assignments are just one way your classes can help prepare you for your career. In addition to testing your writing ability, writing assignments allow you to showcase your critical thinking, research and analysis skills, which are also important for your career development.
However, writing a research paper can be challenging if you aren’t a strong writer and don’t really enjoy it. Getting started can be the most difficult part, but it’s important not to procrastinate if you want to get the best grade possible.
Here are some tips for tackling college writing assignments:
1. Do your research
The foundation of any good college essay is research. Fortunately, we live in the information age where all the resources you need are just a few clicks away. In addition to using your course materials and conducting your own online research, you should also take advantage of your school library to find academic research on your topic. All Herzing students have free online access to dozens of databases where you can find scholarly journals, magazine and newspaper archives, books, transcripts, multimedia and more to help with your research.
Don’t be afraid to ask a librarian for help if you’re not sure where to start. Professors often work with librarians to curate resources for specific assignments and research projects, so there might already be a selection of texts set aside for you to look at. Librarians are also available via phone, email and chat for online students who need help navigating the databases.
As you conduct your research, it is very important to document all the resources that you use. If you are taking notes, be sure to write down the name of the source and the page number, as you will need to cite these in your paper later. Copying someone else’s words without citing them is considered plagiarism, which is definitely something you want to avoid!
2. Craft your argument
Most college essays will require you to develop an argument relating to your topic. As you conduct your research, start thinking about what approach you would like to take with your essay. Ask yourself:
- What do I want my readers to learn from my paper?
- What do I want them to understand about my topic?
If you are really stuck, it might help to read other academic essays on the topic. NEVER copy these examples, but you can take notes on how the writer formed their argument, the tone they used, and the examples they cited to support their points. You can use this for inspiration on how to form your own paper without copying anything they have written. For example, maybe you disagree with a prominent author’s point of view on your subject. This can be the basis for your own argument, provided you have the examples you need to support your point.
3. Make a tentative outline
Staring at a blank word document is one of the universal banes of writing. It can be hard to get started if you don’t have a clear direction for your paper in mind. That’s why you should create an outline. Outlines help you develop a logical, coherent structure for your paper, making it easier to translate your ideas into words and sentences. Here’s an example of an outline you might write if your essay is about self-driving vehicles:
- Reasons why self-driving cars are a good idea
- Reasons why some people may be against self-driving cars
- Technological challenges to overcome before widespread use
- Advances that have already been made
- Why this is an important part of the future of transportation
You’ll notice that this outline is simple. You can make your outline as detailed as you want, but it helps to define the general framework for your argument first. For more tips on writing the perfect outline, check out this blog post.
4. Just write!
Once you type out your outline, it’s time to start writing. Fill in information in the form of paragraphs for each of your bullet points. You might find that you still need to do some research, or you might decide that you don’t need one of your points after all. That’s fine, and you should free to change your outline as you go.
Even with an outline, it can be very difficult to begin actually writing. You might be asking yourself:
- How should I write this?
- What tone should I use?
- Is this language okay?
However, hovering over these questions too long can hamper your creative process. The best thing to do is just start writing. Don’t worry about how good or bad it is, as you can always revise later. Getting the basic flow of your argument down is most important.
5. Write an introduction and conclusion
Some people like to start by writing the introduction, but others prefer to save it for the end, especially because your argument can evolve as you write. Introductions are a vital part of an essay, and they should do more than give a brief overview of the paper. You want to create a strong hook for your reader so they want to keep going.
Example Hook: “Even though there are still some major manufacturing challenges to overcome, self-driving cars will become a vital source of transportation in the next 20 years.”
This introduction makes it clear that we will discuss some of the issues with self-driving cars and the arguments against them, but also provide solid reasoning for why they are part of the future of transportation. In the conclusion, you can reiterate those points to explain the reasoning for your argument, as well as why it is important to discuss this topic. Check out this blog post for more tips on writing a strong introduction.
No matter how good of a writer you are, you need to edit and proof your work. Make sure you leave yourself enough time for revisions, too. It’s a good idea to try to have your first draft done at least a week in advance so that you can make any necessary edits before the paper is due.
If writing is not one of your strengths, consider setting up an appointment with a Writing Center tutor to revise your first draft. Your tutor can help you identify and fix any logical or structural problems, as well as common spelling and grammar mistakes that could affect your grade.
Once all of this is done, congrats! You’ve officially written a college paper. Be sure to review your teacher’s critiques when you receive your grade, as they will help you perform better on future assignments. If you need additional help or want to focus on developing your writing skills over time, reach out to the Writing Center to set up a regular appointment.