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.
10 thoughts on “The Details of Writing the Academic Paper”
Wonderful tips, Krysta! Am loving these tips for college! 🙂
I’m glad you’re enjoying them!
Makes me feel a little better about my autobiargument! Thank you!!
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I loved writing thesis papers in school because I loved being able to argue my points. That was always my forte. I always knew if I could write a paper I was good to go. I guess that’s the legal minded side of me. 🙂 Great post! I know a lot of people go into college not knowing how to write a legit paper. I was lucky and was taught freshman year of high school and on.
Yes, some people are fortunate to have more instruction than others. I actually had essentially no formal writing instruction, but I guess I read enough that I figured out how to do it anyway.
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I never would’ve guessed based on your discussion posts. You must be a natural. 🙂 I think all high schools should have a mandatory college prep class before kids graduate. I was in writing classes with people my freshman year of college who didn’t know what an addendum was and I thought how can that be? The schools are setting them up for failure at college.
Frankly, I think many college administrations aren’t as concerned with student success as they ought to be. The instructors tend to care, but they are limited in what they can do. And meanwhile we keep seeing tactics like enrolling a large number of freshmen, with the expectation that many are under-prepared and will drop out (leaving the school their tuition money). And many colleges are accepting increased numbers of international students under the guise of being a global community when, in fact, this again benefits them financially because international students don’t receive financial aid and must pay full tuition. Meanwhile, some of these international students may not know what to expect from an American school and may be looking at spending more than four years there because they needed an extra year to catch up with their English skills. But this is an extra year of tuition money for the school, so why should they care?
So, yes, it would be nice if high schools prepared their students better since in many cases the colleges aren’t going to help them. But high schools have their own incentives not to help–many engage in grade inflation so they can say 90% of their students go on to higher education. They don’t care if their graduates STAY in higher education because that’s not a statistic anyone keeps track of.
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Maybe it’s because I went to private school. I don’t know. They don’t rely on assistance from the state so I think they have more of an obligation to the parents paying the steep tuition payments. It worked a lot different than our public schools. I had all college prep classes when I was in high school. I even had AP Spanish, which is a bit unusual. And I know the charter schools teach higher level stuff. My brother was taking classes in grade school at his charter school that our public schools weren’t learning until high school. The education system in Philadelphia is notoriously awful, which is why my dad sent me to private school. I imagine I would’ve been just as unprepared as some students if I went to one of our delightful public schools here. It’s a shame there’s no focus on the kids. The number they should be concerned with is “unemployment rate” not higher education. Because if they can’t hack it in college, they’ll most certainly be unemployed. It’s really sad.
I think private schools have had it harder since the recession as they need to make it seem like paying tuition is worth it. This generally means better academics, but what does that mean? More classes? Harder classes? What if the classes are hard but the students aren’t all performing well? Will their parents want to spend tuition money on a child who isn’t getting good grades? I know some people who work at private schools and they often grade inflate or at least refuse to fail students because they can’t afford to have the parents get upset and pull their kids out.