How To Write a University Paper

It’s that beautiful time of year again: the wind is blowing orange and yellow leaves through the streets, girls and boys are cuddling up together against the cold and in the morning emerald lawns are speckled with frost. This magical and special time of year is better known to students as paper season. For a lucky few of you paper season is still around the corner but the majority of us are already feeling the weight of unwelcome deadlines.

Most students tend to leave paper season feeling shell shocked, promising themselves that the next time around will be easier: they will be more organized, start earlier and hope that the winter term isn’t as stressful. These intentions are all well and good but the fact remains that things will be just as bad next term for most students until they tackle a few things and make a few changes.

How many of you reading know how to write a University paper? How many of you have ever been explicitly told what your professors are looking for in a paper? More often than not the expectations laid out to a student during paper season aren’t at all helpful. A student is told to write a paper that is, for example, 1500 words using MLA style. A paper is expected to have an introduction, a thesis, body paragraphs and  a conclusion. These are rather standard parameters however most professors don’t realize that standard parameters are not a clear list of expectations for the first year student (or second, third or fourth year).

Today we will address the three commandments that will help any Undergrad make it through paper season with their spirits intact. These three commandments are:

1.       Student, organize thyself!

2.       Start strong with a proper thesis!

3.       Structure your paper properly and effectively!

1.       Student, Organize Thyself!

As an English Major I’ve found that organization is key: I have novels and articles to read for every course and a paper or project due every week from now until the beginning of December. The only feasible way to get everything done without getting behind is to be organized. I’m not going to preach a specific type of organization because everybody has their own way of effectively organizing themselves. But I will give you two suggestions: make your daytimer your best friend and take the time to look at your course syllabi at the beginning of the year!

Many students will glance at their course syllabus and write the due dates into their planner. This is a great start but deadlines have a habit of creeping up on a person and after forgetting about deadlines time and time again I have developed a system that is more effective for myself: I give myself about 20 days to complete each assignment or reading (give or take a few days depending on the length of the book or type of paper). In my planner I write when the project is due and twenty days before that I make a note to myself to get started! Not to beat the same horse that your parents have been beating for years, but giving yourself time to work on these projects and papers is the best gift that you can give yourself this season! Get started now! And once you’re started, the fun begins…

2.       Start Strong with a Proper Thesis!

What is a thesis?

A thesis is a statement that sums up the main argument of the paper. It lets the reader know what he or she will be reading about and defines the parameters of the argument.

Why do I need a thesis?

Every paper needs a thesis. It is a clear roadmap that aids your reader. He or she may easily settle into your paper after reading your thesis, not having to search through 1500 words to find your point. A good thesis ensures that your paper is not misjudged. Have you ever had to sift through articles in online periodical indexes for research on one of your papers? It’s frustrating to read through the entire article and realize that it has nothing to do with your own research! An article or paper with a good thesis makes things easy for researchers.

How do I form a thesis?

The best thesis will give the reader a clear sense of the writer’s position, communicating the key reasons for that position. A thesis should be specific: if you have a broad and sweeping thesis you will not achieve a thing in your paper. Consider the following examples taken from A Writer’s Handbook of Current English, by J. Moore, J. W. Corder, and J. J. Ruszkiewicz (1988, p. 237).

Weak: Some movies made for theatres are censored before being shown on television. (This is merely a fact, not a point of view. From here you are stuck writing about movies that have been censored before being shown on Television. Where is the point in that?)

Weak: This essay will examine the arguments for and against censoring movies on television. (This is merely a restatement of the subject. And from here you are stuck listing off arguments instead of taking a position and defending it! Where is the point? Where is the original thought? Every paper needs a position!)

Weak: Should movies be censored when shown on television? (A question does not reveal the writer’s position. Never ever use a question as a thesis statement!)

Weak: I am opposed to the censoring of movies shown on television. (This thesis emphasizes the writer’s position however doesn’t offer any parameters or reasoning behind the opinion. Also, because this thesis addresses a personal opinion and neglects the subject of the paper the impact of the thesis is reduced.)

Better: Movies made for theatres should not be censored before being shown on television. (This is better: there is a definite viewpoint and the subject of the paper is addressed, however no reasoning behind this opinion is implied!)

Best: The censoring of movies shown on television violates the producer’s right to freedom of artistic expression and the viewer’s right to freedom of choice. (This is a great thesis! It has a definite viewpoint with good reasoning. From here the reader knows what to expect in the paper and the writer knows what to address while structuring his or her arguments.)

When it comes to the writing process, a student is lost without a solid thesis. Once there is a thesis a student can structure a paper accordingly. With too broad a thesis a student often loses track of where he or she is going and as a result the paper presented is sloppy and not marked favourably.

The hardest part of forming a good thesis is deciding what part of the subject to address. While it is often tempting for a student to address everything he or she can it is better to choose one or two specific points and stick with them. If we assume that the blanket subject above is “Censoring movies for their television appearance” the student in the example above could have explored a myriad of topics. For example: public opinion on censorship, the effects of censorship on program ratings, the decisions behind the censorship, the creative right of the producer and the right of the viewer. As stated above the student only chooses the last two points to form his thesis.

To review, keep a thesis simple: choose a small part of the subject to write about. State a definitive viewpoint and provide reasoning for what position has been taken. From there a student can cheerfully bound into a well-structured (and thus well-received and well-marked) paper.

3.       Structure Your Paper Properly and Effectively

Once a student has a proper thesis writing a University paper is much easier to construct, especially when he or she is aware of the shape that every paper should take. The majority of professors, when asking a student to write a paper, are looking for the funnel shaped paper. It is called such because it looks like this:

\___/    Introduction and Thesis
|     |     Body Paragraph
|     |     Body Paragraph
|     |     Body Paragraph
|___|     Body Paragraph
/     \    Restatement of the Thesis and Conclusion

For now, let’s focus on the Introduction and Thesis. Note the funnel shape of the introduction: the idea is that a student will start with a broad view of his or her subject and work his or her way in to the thesis statement (which is the very last part of the introduction.) The most important part of an Introduction is to hook the reader in to a student’s argument of a subject, not the subject itself! Let us pretend that a student is writing a paper on the merits of eating a carrot daily. His thesis goes like this:

Due to the negative impact on the body caused by dieting, people who are interested in continuing a healthy lifestyle should be more concerned with eating a carrot a day than they are severely changing their diet.

The student has clearly defined the parameters of his argument: he is going to talk about the negative impact of dieting and the function of a carrot in a person’s daily regime. He is going to talk about this in relation to people who are already healthy.  His introduction should include general information about these three points. If a famous authority figure once spoke about the aesthetic appeal of carrots a student should not be quoting it! It is all well and good if a student is brimming with information on the planting, growing and harvesting process of a carrot. If it does not relate to his thesis he should not be putting it in his introduction. If a woman is reading this paper to learn why she should stop following crazy diet fads the harvesting process of a carrot is not going to interest her! The introduction is a student’s opportunity to sell his or her paper and this is most effectively done by providing interesting and gripping information regarding the ideas that will be covered in the body of the paper.

As mentioned above, the introduction is preceded by the thesis statement.

To review, keep an introduction on track: a student should hook readers by outlining background, historical or general information about the things that his or her paper will be addressing. This is most effectively done by starting broad and working the introduction inwards to the thesis statement. From there a student can move into the body of his or her paper.

Many students have been taught that each Body Paragraph of a paper must address one idea. This is fine in grade school however most arguments made at the University level require more than one paragraph to be fully explored. It is easier, then, to think about the overall structure as sections rather than paragraphs. Each section should comprise one part of the thesis and should usually follow these steps:

1.       Present a claim. This is done in a topic sentence that will form the rest of the section.

2.       Present logical reasoning or evidence to support the claim. Evidence may include paraphrased or quoted information from primary or secondary sources (properly quoted, of course), real or hypothetical examples, comparisons, statistics (though I am generally against the use of statistics in a paper), personal recollections or anecdotes.

3.       Interpret and discuss the evidence. Most students, so eager to finish their paper, forget about this part! The evidence presented should be related back to the topic sentence of the section and thus the thesis of the paper. This can be done by applying theories or a critical analysis of the evidence provided. A student must have a reason for using the evidence that he or she does and this is an opportune moment to share why.  Another effective way to explore the evidence used is to offer a possible counterargument to the argument made in the topic sentence, using the evidence provided to disprove the counterargument.

After the body sections have been exhausted it is time to move on to the conclusion. The conclusion starts by restating the thesis (but not word for word from the introduction) and then gestures towards the significance of the topic by looking at the bigger picture, thus showing the limits of analysis made in the paper or by considering future avenues of research.  Instead of claiming to be right a student should make admissions of to the limits of the paper!

And voila! The elusive paper is finished, hopefully with time to proofread the next day. Before skipping off to try your new skills dear readers, I implore you to review yet one more tip: do not make your thesis too broad otherwise your funnel turns into a deep hole. The more intricate and detailed of a thesis the better off you will be and the more on track your paper will stay. Good luck!

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