This is a guest post by Laura Trutna, a graduate of Whitman College with a degree in English Literature and a minor in Education. Laura is a writer for Guide to Online Schools (a resource for online degrees and online colleges) and teaches at the Boys and Girls Club of Seattle.
Writing your first college paper can turn into a nerve wracking and difficult endeavor, but there are some key skills you can employ that will facilitate the process. This article goes over in detail simple, easy-to-follow tips on how to successfully ace your first English paper. Whether you are attending a traditional four-year-college and majoring in economics, or pursuing an online English degree, this is a surefire way to thrive.
1. Know Your Topic
If you simply didn’t make it to that one article, or fell asleep before you finished a certain book, don’t write about it. The depth and breadth of your knowledge is directly related to the quality of your writing. Professors will cut through fluff and recognize true expertise. If a teacher gives you a choice (and most college professors will), choose something you’ve completed.
2. Don’t Jump the Gun on Your Thesis
While writing a paper directly from point A to point B may work for some, this rule is not only breakable, but often advisably so. Ideas evolve or even morph completely into something you didn’t originally intend to study. By the end of the paper you may be better able to go back to the beginning and write a concise and well thought-out thesis that accurately represents your content better than when you originally started. In the end, having a degree of flexibility when writing will take you a long way.
3. Choose Appropriate Subject Matter
Always be aware of what a professor is looking for in the subject matter of an assignment and how flexible these guidelines are. If your professor states that he/she wants a strict technical examination of an item of prose, do not introduce a tangent on the economic climate of the era, no matter how interesting you think it may be.
4. Narrow It Down
One of the greatest temptations is to over-research. Not only can too much research end up confusing your original point and soften what should be a concrete viewpoint, but if you aren’t careful your own thoughts will become lost in your attempts to incorporate the viewpoints of secondary sources. Don’t let your research become your paper’s entire argument. Only choose research you feel strengthens your own point. This is especially important for English majors as personal analyses can easily become bogged down by secondary critiques.
5. Don’t Over Think It
While it is usually advisable to write multiple drafts of a paper in order to make it more concise or flow better, rehashing a paper over and over may end up diluting it. Let yourself be happy with the job you have done and don’t run the risk of kicking a good paper to death.
For some disciplines, subheadings and bullet points are all right, even preferred. For others, it is okay if you toy with form and write your paper as if it were a conversation between two people. And still others require a strict adherence to traditional paragraphs, indentation, and margin sizes. Read the assignment and/or talk to your professor. Occasionally they’ll surprise you by asking to see something a little outside the box.
7. Don’t Cut Corners
It is your first paper for a professor and you don’t know how nit-picky they are. Don’t risk leaving something out. Does the paper require footnotes? A bibliography? Know if you should be using APA, MLA, or Chicago citation guidelines. Invest in current hard-copies of the guides most often used.
8. Use Viable Research
Most college professors will reject information cited from open-sources like Wikipedia or other .org sites. Resources like these are not officially published or academically accredited. Be aware of what sources are preferred and find out if your learning institution provides access to academic databases like MLA and JSTOR, whether you are attending a traditional university, or an online college.
9. Get a Second Opinion
It never hurts to get a proof reader who will recognize the grammatical mistakes that you missed or who can tell you that your thesis is inscrutable. Also, some professors may be willing to take a look at your rough drafts and give notes. This may even hold true for those receiving English majors online or in other areas of study. Know what your resources are and utilize them.
10. Don’t Rush
Do not wait until the day before the due date to start your paper. Not only will this cause you a large amount of stress, but it gives you no time to ask questions, make revisions, or change your paper topic if something is just not coming together. Instead, sit down to write the intro paragraph well in advance and allow your paper writing process to happen gradually. There is no need to write a five paged paper in one night. Take your time.
If you follow these guidelines, the experience of writing your first college paper will not only go well, but will happen without unneeded stress and build-up. Remember: take your time, ask if you are unsure about a facet of the assignment, and have fun!