Now that you’ve entered college, you understand that your instructors do not want you to write a research paper but instead want you to advance an original argument. But what about the nitty-gritty details of how to write your prose? What will your instructors expect?
- You may have learned to open with an anecdote, fun fact, or quote. Published scholars sometimes use a pertinent quote, but the anecdote and fun fact are not common features of academic writing. To be safe, you’ll want to avoid them.
- You may have also learned to begin general and become more specific. There is such a thing as too general, however. Don’t begin by writing something like “Humans have done X since the dawn of time.” You don’t have room in your paper to provide evidence for such a long time period.
- More specific is better. Start off by telling your readers exactly what text you are examining, what academic conversation you are entering, and what your specific argument is. Don’t worry about being boring. If your readers didn’t want to learn about Piers Plowman, they wouldn’t have picked up your work in the first place.
- This should be as clear and specific as possible. Make sure it encapsulates your full argument. Don’t surprise your readers by telling them what your paper was really about in the conclusion. If you have to, you can present your argument in more than one sentence.
- It’s not strictly necessary to put your thesis at the end of the first paragraph, but you will want to put it close to the beginning of your work. If you’re only writing a 5-page paper, it doesn’t make sense to state your argument on page 3.
Professors have different pet peeves, but the following are generally agreed upon:
- Don’t use the second-person. If you wrote “you” in your essay, get rid of it. You shouldn’t address the reader directly in most cases, nor should you presume to speak for your reader as in “You probably think Shakespeare is boring.” If your reader loves Shakespeare, you’ve just lost them.
- Avoid rhetorical questions. High school teachers often encourage these to make your work “interesting” and to “engage the reader.” Professors and academics tend to hate them. Don’t rely on what some may think is a cheap rhetorical trick to keep your audience hooked; write engaging content instead.
- Avoid sexist language. The academy doesn’t use “he” as a general pronoun anymore. You can use “he or she,” switch between the two, change everything to plural, or maybe even use “they” as a general singular (since it’s becoming more accepted), but don’t risk alienating your readers with your outdated pronoun choices.
- Write formally. Don’t use contractions, cliches, slang or colloquial language.
- Be careful with your scare quotes. Students often overuse them.
- Never say “In conclusion.”
- It should do more than recap your paper or restate your thesis. It should suggest that the conversation is ongoing while still remaining conclusive. Basically, it’s a tricky thing to write and you should read some published articles to see how others have handled it.
Some instructors are more accepting of “alternative” writings than others. You may find that you can write certain ways in some courses but not in others. You will have to determine if you will write to conform in some cases or if you would prefer to write in a way that you think makes your project more effective, even if you do not earn the grade you would prefer.