Like a gourmet meal or an old master painting, the perfect college paper is carefully constructed – not thrown together the night before it’s due. Each part is just right, and the pieces are assembled to form the clear and convincing whole. We should know. We’ve read thousands of papers and we can tell you it’s easy for the prof to sort out the good, the bad, and the ugly. Wanna avoid the bad and the ugly? Read on.
1. Get started right away. When the professors gives you, say, a week to write the paper, he or she is assuming you’ll be spending the whole time thinking out what you’re going to say, doing whatever research is necessary, and then actually writing your finished product. You can’t go through the required intellectual steps if you don’t give your mind enough time to do them. Always use all the available time.
2. Decide what the expectations are. Turns out that at college there are many different kinds of papers: analytic papers, research papers, papers that draw on your own experience, summaries of some body of literature, and many other types. Be sure you know exactly what kind of paper you’re being asked to write. Good sources of information: the syllabus, the paper assignment (be sure to focus on any verbs telling you what to do, e.g. compare and contrast, defend, evaluate, summarize), and anything the professor or TA says as they hand out the assignment. If in doubt, ask before class or in an office hour.
3. Always answer exactly the question asked. Professors spend large amounts of time forging the question(s) for their papers. Rather than having some preconceived notion of what they should be asking, answer what they are asking.
4. Be sure to fill the space. Most professors, when they give a range for page length (for instance, five to eight pages), are expecting that the good papers will fall toward the top of the range. If your paper comes out too short, consider probing an issue in more detail, giving an additional example or illustration, or raising an associated point. Often, the additional length and depth can vault your paper from a B to an A.
5. Make sure your paper has a point – one. One of the hallmarks of an excellent paper is that it has a single point that structures the paper and gives it unity. Usually, that point is explicitly – and simply – stated in the first paragraph of the paper, sometimes even in the first sentence. Less good papers read like a “laundry list”: many points, all of them perhaps true or even important, but with no real single point to the paper.
6. Give your paper direction. Once you’ve figured out what the main point of your paper, you need to organize your points so that they all work together to support your main idea. Be sure to carefully consider the order of the points to be introduced. An excellent paper has structure and direction: the reader can understand why the points are coming when they do, and how each works to advance the point of your paper.
7. Write for a reasonably intelligent person – not the professor. One of the most common mistakes in college paper writing is to assume that the reader already knows the answer and, hence, it’s enough if you just gesture at your points. A good paper, on the other hand, explains the points fully and clearly enough so that someone who didn’t know the answer could understand your view just from what’s written on the page.
Extra Pointer. Be sure to explain any technical terms, or terms not being used in their ordinary English meaning. Never assume that the prof or TA will understand such terms just because he or she used them in class.
8. Have a quote quota. Unless instructed otherwise, you should not have elaborate quotes as parts of your paper; often a brief citation of the main few words or sentences (with proper footnotes) is more than enough. That’s because what the professor is looking for is how you understand the material. This is best demonstrated when you explain in your own words (with only brief quotes) what some author is saying – and meaning.
9. Reach a conclusion. One of the things a professor likes to see is a firm conclusion at the end of a paper. Students sometimes are shy about taking a stand; but the paper is asking you to give your answer to what’s asked. This doesn’t mean you should be dogmatic or opinionated, or refuse to consider arguments or evidence that goes against your view. But it does mean that you shouldn’t just list considerations on both sides and leave it to the reader to figure out what the answer to the question really is.
10. Deal the professor in. You might be surprised to hear that many professors enjoy thinking, and talking, about the question asked – especially if the course is in the prof’s field of research. You can join the conversation – and the intellectual exercise – by going to see the professor, or even by emailing or Skyping him or her before you finalize your paper. You’ve paid for this faculty/student interaction. You should use it.
Bonus tip. Be sure to proofread your paper. Even if your professor doesn’t take off for spelling and grammar, he or she can’t help but think less of your ideas if they’re expressed with bonehead spelling mistakes or sentences that are grammatically incorrect. Well worth the few minutes of extra time.