I teach basic Freshman English at the college level, and every semester I have at least one student who complains, asking why he or she should have to take two semesters of English if it’s not his or her major. My answer is always the same – English isn’t the only major that requires you to write.
Even if you’re majoring in Mathematics, Engineering or the Sciences, you will still be required to write papers at some point – for conferences, exams, experiment proposals, job proposals, etc. Learning the proper way to write a term paper will go a long ways toward helping you sound competent in other writings.
And while each type of writing and the different majors have their own specifics, there are some basic tips that can be used for almost any paper.
Tip #1 – Start Early — Seriously
Yes, I realize that’s in all caps and yes, do please take it as me yelling at you. I’ve heard it all before – “I work best under pressure,” or “I have it all planned in my head, so writing it won’t be a problem.”
Do you know the kind of papers I get from that? They’re not A-papers. Sometimes, they’re doing good to be C-papers. Start working on papers early.
Spend time developing your argument and making sure it fits within the parameters of the assignment. Read any material or assignment sheets the professor has given you about the assignment to make sure you’ve planned for all the requirements – sources, citation style, length, topic, etc.
Tip #2 – Outlines and Drafts
Do them. You don’t have to do the traditional outline with Roman numerals and little letters, nor do you have to write a draft in correct order, but I advise you to get into the habit of doing some form of written pre-planning and draft work.
Write the body of the essay first and then worry about the introduction and conclusion. Write the conclusion (what you want people to take away from the essay) and then work on the body to be sure you get there.
Work on it in any order you want, but give yourself time to have a draft ready before the final version is due so that you can edit it.
Tip #3 – Thesis – You Should Have One
This is the place where you identify your argument, the stance you’re taking in the paper. The basic five-paragraph essay we’re all taught in high school tells us that the thesis should be a single sentence at the end of the introduction paragraph.
That’s not necessarily true once you get to college. You’re writing about more complex topics, so it stands to reason your thesis will be more complex. It may take more than one paragraph to introduce the topic. You may need more than one sentence to identify and outline your argument.
A good way to start forming a thesis is to take the main question or topic assignment of the essay and reword it into a sentence. This way, you’re guaranteed that the essay will at least be addressing the assignment. Once you have this basic thesis in place, you can work to make it more specific or sophisticated to match the direction of your essay.
Tip #4 – Introduction, Body, Conclusion, the Whole Shebang
One of the most common mistakes Freshmen writers make is to look at the minimum required limit, reach it and then stop. One of the reasons we require minimum lengths, either in words or pages, is because professors have learned that just saying “write until you’ve answered the assignment” will almost always get us at least one student who, either out of arrogance or obnoxiousness, will write a paragraph and feel they have handled the assignment.
But just because you’ve reached the bottom of the fourth page (a free tip, if the assignment says at least 4pgs, that doesn’t mean three full pages and a paragraph on page 4 – go to the bottom of the page), as required, does not mean you’re done. You need to introduce the topic, discuss it, and then include a conclusion. You need to fully deal with the assignment. The introduction is the first few paragraphs where you outline and introduce the topic.
The body is where you handle the discussion – examples, research, opinions, arguments.
The conclusion isn’t a two line paragraph that you wrote when you realized you were at the base limit. It’s where you wrap up the argument. If you leave out any of these, your essay will feel as if it’s missing something.
Tip #5 – Edit/Proofread
Most colleges will have some form of Writing Center or tutoring available for free to enrolled students. Usually, these will be manned by graduate students from the English department – make use of them. Take a draft of your work (or even go see them to help you get started with brainstorming or an outline) and let them look at it with you.
Even if you don’t want to go see a tutor (or perhaps can’t because they’re not available), make an effort to proofread on your own. Give the essay to someone you trust to read and see if they get the point you’re trying to make.
When we read our own work, we automatically fill in gaps or holes in the logic because we know what we’re trying to say or we know they’ll be addressed later – an outsider won’t have that knowledge and will only be able to tell you what they read, not what you intended to be on the page.
Look for basic grammar errors – the little red or green squiggly lines in a word processing program help you identify those. Read the essay out loud – it’s easier to fix grammatical errors when we read silently, but when we read out loud, we’ll stumble over errors.
Obvious grammatical or spelling errors (or even format errors such as spacing and margins) automatically set your essay off on a bad note. It tells your professor that you don’t care enough about the assignment to take care of the little things. If that’s the case, why should your professor care enough about the assignment to take the time to grade it?
All of these are small, basic steps you can take. Yes, the actual writing of the paper will have many other issues to deal with in how you address the topic and present it, but these five tips show that you at least care enough about the assignment to have the basics done right. And that will make your essay something of a rare commodity.
The author, Ms. Laura Holder, currently teaches at a medium-sized state university, where she is a candidate for a PhD in English.