|Tips on Papers
When you write a paper
remember that you are writing for an audience. Below, three American Studies teachers tell
you what they look for first in a paper.
I read a student's paper (or thesis or dissertation) the way I read anything -- a news
dispatch, a magazine article, a book. I start at the beginning and read cheerfully onward
until something puzzles or exasperates me.
I get puzzled when the writing doesn't follow common sense: for example, when it starts
by talking about one thing, then talks about something else WITHOUT making a connection
between the two things AS THE SECOND THING IS INTRODUCED.
I get exasperated when the writing is pompous, wordy, or sloppily punctuated or
proofread. Here are four suggestions I give to students who want to write better:
1) write something useful; that is, say something that hasn't been said before IN THE
CONTEXT (that is, for students, the college course) IN WHICH YOU ARE WRITING"
2) write using the simplest, non-vulgar words you can
3) be sure the sentence you're writing is adequately attached to the sentence BEFORE
4) have your paper read by an educated native English speaker before you give it to
- Bill Stott, Professor, American Studies
One of the most common problems college students exhibit in their writing is that they
think they have to seem "smart" when they write. So they grab a thesaurus, build
complex, messy sentences, and employ awkward constructions like the passive voice. The
problem is, they already are smart. They don't need big words and messy sentences to prove
The worst writing obscures meaning. The best writing transparently reveals it.
Somewhere, students are getting the idea that they have to use arcane complex language as
an initiation to an elite club of smart people. I try to squelch that elitism when I teach
Many students come into classes with an idea that writing is some mysterious skill that
takes years of practice to master. Yet most students form clear and powerful sentences
verbally, and have no problem explaining complex ideas out loud using simple language. If
you can speak, you can write.
The one thing I repeat to all my students is that before they hand in a draft of any
paper, they should read it out loud to themselves. By listening to how they write,
students can sense the rhythm of sentences, identify awkward constructions, and catch the
sneaky run-on sentences. If you have to inhale before the end of a sentence, it's too
long. If a sentence doesn't "feel" right when you hear it spoken, it probably
isn't right. This tactic goes a long way to showing students that they already know how to
write well. They just have to connect the acts of speaking and writing.
- Siva Vaidhyanathan, Assistant Instructor, American Studies
1. Start with a meaningful thesis, end with a meaningful conclusion. Don't just start
with a broad, mechanical thesis that introduces a bland summary. I'm not interested
in book reports. I've read the book already. Find an issue that matters to you and
put it in context: see and identify the big picture. Why should your reader
care about it?
2. Give yourself enough time to write something extraordinary. Last minute papers
tend to vomit up scattershot ideas. Often when students run out of ideas, they jump
to another topic or tangent. Write a first draft a couple of days in advance of the
due date. Lay it aside for a couple of days, and come back to it.
3. Express yourself. Try to find that nagging idea, to articulate that gut reaction, to
identify an underlying mental association. You know more than you think you
do. The process of writing or discussing forces you to access your well of knowledge
and insight. Trust your instincts.
4. Be ambitious. Even if it ends up as a belly-flop, a difficult dive is more
impressive than a straight dive with a perfect entry. Safe, technically correct, but
unambiguous papers get a B in my book. Be articulate, creative, analytical,
perceptive, and engaging. If it doesn't quite work out, you get a B+. If it
works out, you get an A. Depth of analysis and insight always outscores breadth.
5. Have a friend read over your paper and tell you if it makes sense. Abstract ideas
need clarification. Ideas that seem clear to you aren't necessarily clear to your
reader. Imagine you're writing for an informed, bright someone who isn't in the
class and hasn't necessarily read the book.
6. Care about the quality of your work. Don't settle for mediocrity. Although
papers are just exercises, get as much out of it as you can. Take it seriously, be
engaged, be professional. Make the process fun and interesting. Be amazed at
what you can come up with. If you do the work for your own edification--it took me
awhile to remember that word--the grades will follow.
-Ray Sapirstein, Assistant Instructor, American Studies
Judith Coffin, History, click here
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