Ten Easy Ways to Strengthen Your Final Paper

College Advice

As finals week rolls around for many college students, it’s time to write that last paper and hope for a high grade.  Time may be short, however, so we offer here ten easy ways to strengthen that last paper as you begin to revise.

1. Never write “From the dawn of time” again.

Or “throughout history,” “mankind has always,” “since history began,” “from the Dark Ages to the present,” “many times and cultures,” etc. etc.   You’re attempting to cover far too broad a time period with these sweeping generalizations and you don’t have space to provide evidence to support such claims.   By the time you demonstrate that your issue was being discussed in ancient Egypt you’ll probably already be over your page limit.   You may also accidentally have said something a little silly.  Have schools really existed “since the dawn of time?”  Have scholars actually been debating the purpose of life “since time began?”  Were schools and scholars around at the Big Bang?

How to fix it.

Begin by talking about your specific topic.  Are you writing about cross-dressing in Twelfth Night?  Either begin by discussing cross-dressing in English Renaissance drama or about how other scholars have discussed cross-dressing in Twelfth Night.  Your introduction is still moving from a general discussion to a specific one, but your introduction is much more focused than one that says “Since the dawn of time people have been interested in cross-dressing.”  You also don’t have to prove that people existed at the dawn of time, that they wore clothes at all at the dawn of time, or that they had gendered clothing at the dawn of time.

2. Don’t Mistake Fact for Argument.

After doing all your research for a topic you may have noticed certain trends and thought to yourself, “Aha!  Pollution is bad for the environment!  Everyone says so!”  If everyone says so, you’re not really advancing an argument. You’re just repeating what everyone accepts as fact.  You want your argument to be something your readers can engage with, maybe even disagree with.  But almost no one thinks pollution is good.  So what can you do?

How to Fix It.

Offer solutions or a personal interpretation.  If you are writing about pollution affects the environment, instead saying “I argue pollution is bad for the environment,” focus on a specific issue regarding pollution and offer solutions.  For instance, “Although many businesses have argued against X policy because they say it will increase costs and cause job loss, I argue that X policy will benefit the city in the long run because…”

3. Don’t Forget to Position Yourself in the Conversation.

The “I argue” thesis is an easy way to claim authority in your paper and make clear t your readers what your thesis is.  However, you want to make sure that your argument is contextualized.  Who are the other voices you are responding to?  How are you intervening in the conversation to offer something new or to point out a previously overlooked point?  You will need to do research for this part, but the research will be worth it to ensure that you aren’t repeating other people’s work or aren’t arguing something that was disproved ten  years ago.

How to fix it.

Refer to the example thesis in example two: “Although many businesses have argued against X policy because they say it will increase costs and cause job loss, I argue that X policy will benefit the city in the long run because…”  The writer has indicated to readers what other voices in the conversation are saying–the businesses are worried about increased costs.  The writer then responds to that argument by offering a counter position.

4. Don’t make the argument black and white.

It’s tempting for students to over-simplifying the argument so it’s easier to gain access into it.  However, the point of academia is not to “win” the argument like a political debate.  You don’t have to pretend that certain facts don’t exist, nor do you have to cleverly misrepresent the opposing side’s argument in order to make your own side stronger.

How to fix it.

Do the research and see what other voices are saying.  Quote them exactly so readers know that you are not misrepresenting their views for your own convenience.  Then feel free to offer a middle road.  For example, perhaps you chose a hot-button issue such as abortion or stem cell research.  You don’t have to argue, “Abortion is always acceptable” or that “Stem cell research is always wrong.”  You could take a nuanced position and argue something like, “Abortion should be restricted except in cases of rape or incest because…” or “Embryonic stem cell research is unethical for X reasons but we should pursue adult stem research because…”  It doesn’t have to be either/or.

5. Don’t be too convinced your own argument.

When you are too convinced of your own argument you may not feel compelled to research it or to provide evidence to support it.  This can lead to a “he says/she says” argument where your readers are thinking, “No way!  Middle-grade isn’t less complex literature!” and your response is, “Yes, it is!”

How to fix it.

Do the research and provide evidence.  If you are going to argue that MG books aren’t complex, you need to say why.  You also need to anticipate the potential counterarguments of your readers so you can address them.

6. Don’t overuse “I argue.”

You want to claim authority in your work so instead of saying “I think maybe” and “I believe,” you write “I argue all over the paper.  This might potentially backfire as your readers will be accustomed to seeing “I argue” in front of your main argument.  Having five “I argue” statements” makes it look like you have five different arguments in the same paper.

How to Fix It.

Use “I argue” for your thesis.  Use other verbs for other parts of the paper.  You can try, “I follow X Scholar in suggesting,” or “I extend the work of Y Scholar,” or “I propose that…”

7. Don’t Forget to Contextualize your quotes.

It’s a common mistake for students to insert quotations in their essays without any context.  For instance, a student might write, “Since the dawn of time mankind has looked to the stars. ‘Stars inspire us to reach higher and farther.’ We look into space and wonder what is out there.”  Who said, “Stars inspire us to reach higher and father?”  When did they say it?  In what context?  Is this from a poem, an interview, a novel, an academic essay?  Readers have no idea where this quote came from or how to read it.

How to fix it.

Simply introduce your quote with a little context.  “John Smith writes, ‘Stars inspire us to reach higher and father’ (pg. #).”  That’s it.  Your readers can now refer to the Works Cited for more.  Other types of quotes, however, might warrant more context.  It’s usually useful for instance to provide dates “John Smith (2010) says…” or “In an interview in 1995, Politician Y stated…”

8. Don’t Assume You Don’t Have to Read the Material You’re Working with.

It seems silly, but it’s not uncommon for students to write on material they’re not familiar with or that they assume they are familiar with.  But if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby since high school, you will have to reread it before you write a paper on it for college.  Your instructor will surely notice when you begin to talk about things that never happened in the book.

How to Fix It.

At least go back and reread the scenes you’re writing about.  Don’t rely on outside sources like Spark Notes to tell you what happened.

9. Stop Using Google as a Dictionary.

It’s easy so you do it.  But published scholars use the OED.

How to Fix It.

The OED is probably offered through your university.  Check the library website and see if it’s listed in the databases.

10. Fix Your Typos and Clean Up Your Citations.

You’re crunched for time and your argument weighs more than your comma splices.  Instructors get it. However, if your instructor highlighted your comma splices, the least you can do is put a period there to make it look like you care.

How to Fix It.

Address glaring typos and anything your instructor took time to mark.  Maybe you don’t have time to proofread the whole thing, but if you took the time to erase your instructor’s highlights or delete their comments, you had time to add a comma, too.

And your citations really matter. Many instructors don’t mess around with sloppy scholarship or potential plagiarism.  Don’t take a chance by not adding page numbers when asked to or by not fixing your Works Cited to make sure your entries are complete.  If you referenced something, cite it accurately and cite it fully.


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