So, I do a lot of writing, clearly. I mean, I’m a blogger (duh), a Journalism student, a former Editor in Chief at Odyssey, and I write for a billion platforms and things. I’m usually that person in my friend group who everyone comes to for writing advice, help with editing papers, and all that good stuff. In high school, you could probably b.s. half your paper and still do well enough to laugh about it after class with your friends, but college papers are nothing like high school ones. Professors expect much more from you: a higher level of information gathering; more advanced writing techniques; concrete proof that you actually understand the material/prompt and you didn’t just pull all those words out of your ass.
So yeah, writing papers in college is NOT always very easy, and if you aren’t careful you can leave some major points on the table. If you have a final paper on the horizon, here’s my advice when it comes to writing them:
1. Pick your topic ahead of time.
The gun has gone off the minute the professor introduces the assignment. You don’t need to have every detail of your assignment worked out at this point, but it helps to at least have even a vague idea of what you want to write about (go to your professor’s office hours to really come up with a solid proposal).
Here are some things you should consider to help you pick a topic you can really write about well:
- What are your interests and how might they connect to the class material?
- What are some things you’re just curious about finding out more on?
- What issues are you most passionate about?
- What topics do you lack an understanding of that you’d like to understand better?
2. Talk to your professor if you want to change your idea/proposal.
Don’t just assume that they’ll be cool with it, or that your new idea doesn’t need any work. Your professor might even help you discover a bigger topic that you can write about, or even point you toward excellent resources that you can use for your paper. A quick email explaining your reason for change will suffice, but if you want to have an actual conversation about your proposal, just go to office hours.
3. Read the assignment guidelines before you begin writing anything.
You can lose so many points for not doing this because you won’t know what the professor expects from your paper! Reading the guidelines can also hint at what sources you should use, what information should definitely be included, and ultimately what the point of the assignment is. If none of this is clear to you, verify with classmates or ask the professor.
4. Create an outline.
I LOVE OUTLINES. They’re God’s gift to people who have a million ideas in places they didn’t know they could keep ideas. Creating an outline will help you organize pieces of information so you know where to talk about certain things, and you can always add more tid-bits as needed, move things around, and never forget a thing. You can make your outline as detailed or as not detailed(?) as you want. Just simply using bullet points is a great way to get your thoughts and information on paper.
5. Is your opening paragraph reflective of what you’re going to be talking about?
If you don’t know what you’re going to say, that will be reflected in your opening paragraph. This is also why it’s really important to think about your topic in advanced. Don’t write an opening paragraph that tells people you’re going to talk about how Facebook gets in the way of intimate interactions and then use the rest of the paper to praise it for speedy contact with others in the rest of your paper. This would be an example of an unfocused paper. Not all professors would be okay with this, and the ones who aren’t will definitely deduct points. It helps to get another pair of eyes on your opening paragraph to see if the connection between your opening and the rest of your paper is clear.
6. Don’t add a million quotes to your paper.
And if you do add quotes, DON’T pick the ones that take up a quarter of the page. You actually shouldn’t have a quote take up more than three lines of your paper; so much for that level of bullshittery. If you’re employing the excessive use of quotes because you don’t know as much about your topic as you should, then your professor will know. I know that sometimes there are just so many amazing quotes that will suit the paper so well, but you can’t use them all. Paraphrase some of them and cite them anyway. Also, pick quotes that propel your points forward; don’t pick a quote that basically repeats what the previous one just said.
7. Explain every quote you include.
You can’t just leave a quote hanging with no explanation to keep it company — quotes get lonely; they have feelings, too. Okay, not really but you get what I’m trying to say. Does this quote support my idea? Yeah? Good, then explain to the reader how it does that.
8. Avoid rambling for “filler.”
If your paper needs to be at least five pages long and you have four, don’t talk nonsense just to fill up that last page. I know it can get to that point where you just want to be done with that paper ASAP, but take a break and come back to it and maybe another way to present the information will come to you. If you’re writing a statistical paper, use informative graphs where appropriate to help you take up some room. If you’re analyzing a book or text, draw connections between other books, if you’re allowed to. Just make sure that everything you include supports your thesis and moves your paper forward.
9. Don’t be repetitive.
If you feel like you’ve already said something, chances are you probably did. I used to have a major problem with repeating my ideas in elementary school essays, and it was never really caught by anyone, so I kept doing it until I got to high school and had to practice how to avoid repeating myself. Here are some helpful strategies I employed to solve this problem:
- Designate a new idea to each paragraph, so you only talk about that one thing in that specific place.
- Keep some sentences short and sweet — get right to the point. Every sentence doesn’t have to be long and flowery.
- Find more evidence to support your thesis. You might be repeating yourself because you don’t currently have enough substance to back everything up.
- Rephrase the prompt.
10. Verify statistics, dates, and other numbers.
Not every website can be trusted. Recently, I was working on a presentation for class and I initially used the internet to look up information on a specific, not-so-famous person and found birth and death information that I THOUGHT was accurate until I came across mention of the person’s birth and death in a textbook and found that the two sources gave me completely different years! Learn from my almost mistake, y’all. Numbers are super important, so don’t assume that because one source said it, it must be true. This ties into my next point…
11. Use sources other than the internet.
Use a textbook, library book, encyclopedia, newspaper, etc. Many universities have databases that you can access for the low, low price of $0, so make sure you take advantage of this for any papers that you have to write. You might be able to find much more information from a different source.
12. Avoid simply “summing it all up” in your conclusion.
In elementary school, we were told that this was okay — this was “how you write a good conclusion.” Not in college, my friend. You have to go a couple steps beyond that. Here are some ways you can improve your conclusion:
- Connect your points back to a larger-scale phenomenon.
- Connect back to real-world applications/experiences.
- Show how your points might be actionable.
- Briefly explain a possible intent of the author.
Of course, it depends on what class the paper is for, so use your discretion.
13. Grab a partner and read each others’ work.
I do this all the time with one of my friends and it’s seriously helpful. We catch mistakes that the other made that we ourselves wouldn’t have found in our own papers. If you don’t have any friends in your class, ask a friend who isn’t taking the class at all for some feedback. This doesn’t sound helpful, but it is! You have the opportunity to figure out how your paper sounds to someone who has little to no knowledge about your topic. Are your points clear? Did you properly explain terms and information that might otherwise be confusing? Does this person feel like they learned something from reading your paper? Hopefully the answer to all of these questions is yes.
14. Have your laptop read your paper to you.
Yep, you read me right. My professor actually told me that MacBooks can read what you wrote out loud to you. This super great for grammar because you’ll find mistakes you didn’t even realize you made! If you have a Mac, here’s how you can get your laptop talking:
Click the apple icon at the top –> System Preferences –> Dictation & Speech –> Text to Speech –> Open up your paper –> Edit –> Start Dictation
There you go! This has been a super valuable tool that I’ve been using ever since I found out about it. Do you know any other secret gems about Macs? Let me know in the comments!
I’m not completely sure if PCs can do this as well, but if they can let me know and I’ll update this post!
15. If you aren’t asked for your opinion, don’t give it.
I’m sure you have exceptionally brilliant thoughts, but if you’re writing a non-biased paper, you can’t afford to lose points for expressing bias. Another big no-no is making assumptions where they aren’t needed.
16. It’s okay to use new vocabulary words to sound fancy, but make sure you use them CORRECTLY.
I love learning new words (especially big, sophisticated sounding ones!) and I love using them in everyday, casual conversation. But, if you aren’t completely sure that a word suits the context of your sentence, don’t use it. If you use a Thesaurus for finding synonyms, try to pick a synonym that’s in the same field or subject as the word you’re trying to replace.
17. Know what style you’re using.
Different writing styles have different rules. Do not use them interchangeably in the same paper. If you aren’t sure what style to use, ask your professor. Sometimes I get asked by peers to edit their work and when I ask what style they’re using, they have no idea, so I don’t know if I should make certain changes to their paper. I use AP Style for every single class that I’m in, but other classes in other majors may require papers to be written using other styles.
18. Use an online citation maker for your bibliography.
I love EasyBib because it’s, well, easy! Be sure to input the correct information so that you get a correct citation!
19. Don’t save your paper for the last possible minute!
I love leaving at least a couple of days in between finishing my paper and the due date so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes and the intention of merely polishing it off with some finishing touches. If you’re still writing your paper less than 10 hours before it’s due, you won’t have this liberty, or at least you might not be able to exercise it as well as you might like to. Organize your time and plan ahead so you don’t have this problem.
Related: The Ultimate Guide To Organizing Your Life In College
What are your tips for writing a killer paper for college classes?