If there’s one thing that I think I have mastered over the years, it’s how to write a killer college paper. Even when I didn’t understand the prompt all that much or when I thought my content was weak, I ended up getting a somewhat decent grade because, here’s the thing: a lot of your grade will probably depend on whether you follow the “college paper recipe” or not. And once you have that figured out, you’ll never fail a paper again, I promise!
So what is that famous recipe, you ask? Well, today I’m spilling my secrets and sharing with you the step-by-step guide that helps me write killer college papers!
Step 1: Do your research
No surprise here, but one of the most important parts of writing a paper is the research. Why? Because that’s your content! I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t know much about the prompt my professors give me outside of the content seen in class. So that’s when doing your research comes in.
Go to the library, search the Internet and databases in your field… and take notes! Not everything you’ll find will help you, so you have to screen the content. What I suggest is make photocopies of interesting pages in books and peer-reviewed research papers and highlight the important/relevant content. It’s normal if researching takes you a while. It’s actually the most time-consuming part of the whole process! But I promise that once you have your foundational content, the paper will be a lot easier to write!
Pro tip: It’s better too much content that not enough. So don’t stop search after you’ve found one source! Some professors will ask for a minimum of sources in your works cited page, but it won’t always be the case. When in doubt, a number between 5 and 10 relevant and helpful sources is a safe bet. And I can’t stress helpful and relevant enough! Don’t add sources just for the sake of adding them. Make sure they are actually helping you and that you include them in your paper! Your professors always know when you’re adding a source just so you can meet their requirements.
Step 2: Make a plan
Before you start diving headfirst and start writing your paper, stop for a second and take a deep breath. The key to writing a successful paper is creating a plan. This helps you figure out where you’re going and will create stronger links between your ideas. Your paper will flow more naturally if you start by making a plan.
Start by writing your thesis statement down. Your thesis statement is basically your position. This is what you’re going to try to defend through your paper. Make sure it’s clear and answers the prompt! Then, find the key points/your arguments that will support your thesis statement. You should have been able to find them while you were doing your research! Each argument will consist of a paragraph. Normally, you should find 2-3 arguments that defend your position. Less than that is not enough, and more than that means that the angle of your thesis statement is not sharp enough. 2-3 is normally a safe bet. Make sure to find what links your paragraph! The transition will be smoother if you already know where you’re going.
If you already know what you’re going to write in your introduction and conclusion, then go ahead! But don’t worry about it too much just yet.
Pro tip: Include your quotes in your plan! If you already know where you’re going to include them, I suggest you write them down. It’s not always easy to include quotes and make it seem smooth and natural, so if you know where they would fit, go ahead! Your paper will flow more easily if you know how to link them to the rest of your paragraph.
Step 3: Write the body of your paper
Now, it’s time to write! I always start by writing the body of my paper first. Why? Because I normally have no idea what to write as my introduction, haha. But in all seriousness, the body is the longest and most important part of your paper, so that’s why I suggest you start with this. I always find it to be the easiest part to write because all of my research is done and I sort of know where I’m going. I feel more in control, and it gives me the confidence I need to write my introduction and conclusion afterward.
So take your plan, and start putting these ideas into cohesive sentences! Keep in mind that you should be using your sources as much as possible, whether it is through direct quotes, indirect quotes or paraphrasing. You made all of this research, so use it! I promise that it makes you look better when you use a lot of outside sources, and not the opposite! Try to avoid using pronounces such as I, you, or we. Don’t refer to yourself or to the person who’s reading your work. You’re an objective third-party!
Pro tip: Always cite your sources! As soon as you use someone else’s ideas or words, you have to cite them. Plagiarism is really frowned upon in college, so do better! It’ll follow you all of your academic life (and maybe even in your career!) if your plagiarize, so play it on the safe side and cite your sources.
Step 4: Write the conclusion
Your conclusion is basically a rehash of the ideas you brought in your body, so I always try to write my conclusion right after I’ve finished writing the body. Like this, the ideas are fresh in my memory and I can summarize them better. But beware: a conclusion should not be a rehash of ideas. You can’t just copy-paste the most important parts of your papers (your arguments) and call it a conclusion. You have to do better than that. Rephrase your main arguments and link them together so it seems natural. You’ll also have to add an opening of some sort at the end. There are many ways you can do that, but my favorites are: ask a question or suggest an another path for research. Think about it this way: what is there left to discuss about your topic? Is there another thesis you could have chosen, what would it have been? I struggle a lot with the opening, but it’s the most important part of your conclusion. This is what your reader will stay on, so it has to be good!
Step 5: Write the intro
Why do I keep the intro for the end, you ask? Because it’s the most crucial part of your paper! This is what is going to hook your reader (or not). If you want them to read all of your kick-ass arguments, you have to pique their interest first!
Pro tip: Start with your thesis statement. You don’t necessarily have to write your introduction in order. I normally start with the thesis statement, and then I add meat around that. I find it easier to work around and make sure it all flows.
Step 6: Revise your first draft
Congrats! You finished writing your paper! But now, it’s time to get serious: it’s time to get back to work. The key to success is revision! You should always do two revisions (or more!): one for structure, and one for writing. I always start with analyzing the structure of my paper, because that might influence the writing.
The first thing you want to do is a revision of your content. Focus on the structure, and don’t bother with the writing itself just yet!
Does your paper follow the usual structure of a paper? (If you have followed these steps, the answer should be yes. ;)) What is the logic behind your arguments? Do they support your thesis statement? Did you add examples or quotes to support your arguments? Those are some of the questions you should ask yourself when revising your paper. If you find that one of your arguments is weak, for example, you might have to go back and rewrite some of the parts of your paper.
Pro tip: Once you’ve finished your paper, keep it aside for at least 24 hours. That will give you time to think about something else and you’ll come back with a fresh mind, letting you see your paper with brand new eyes. You’ll notice things and mistakes more easily.
Step 7: Revise the writing
It’s time for a second revision! Now that we’re sure our structure is perfect, we need to make sure our writing is perfect too. I wrote a whole post on how to correct your papers to make sure they are perfect, so I’m just going to go over the important lines. Check for grammar/spelling/punctuation/style mistakes. Those are easy points that can hurt you in the long run. You wouldn’t believe how big a part the actual writing of your paper plays in your final grade!
If you know you tend to leave mistakes, ask someone to look over your paper for you! It never hurts to have a second set of eyes double-check our work. And they might notice something that you have missed!
Pro tip: Print your paper! We tend to see mistakes better on paper than we do on screen.
Step 8: Format your paper
Now is the less fun part: formatting. I personally like to do it at the end, so I can make sure my formatting is consistent. It’s not fun to do, but it’s relatively easy. I use Microsoft Word for all of my papers. It’s easy to use and super user-friendly. I’ve never used anything else!
The format requested by your professor is probably going to change depending on what school you go to and on the faculty you’re in. I know my faculty uses a very specific (and sometimes stupid) formatting guide, so I always make sure to have it near me when I finally format my paper. One thing that you should always include (unless specified otherwise) is a presentation page! There are multiple resources online to help you format your papers, so make sure you use them!
Pro tip: Create a template that you’ll just have to fill in when you write your next paper. It’s going to be a lot less time-consuming, leaving you more time to focus on other things!
Step 9: Include a works cited page
You know how I mentioned that you have to quote other people’s work in order to give you more credibility? Well, now it’s time to put that research to good use. If you have cited any work in your paper, you have to have a works cited page. That’s a way of listing any research that you might have used in your paper.
There are many ways of formatting it, such as MLA and APA, so make sure to ask your professor what style you should use!
Pro tip: Write it throughout the entire process! You’ll save yourself a lot of time doing this.
Step 10: Reread one last time
Make sure everything is perfect and runs smoothly by rereading it one last time.
Pro tip: Reread once it’s printed too! You never know if your printer might have played a trick on you…
Step 11: Hand your paper in and party!
You did it! Congrats! Time to reward yourself. 🙂
What are your tips to write a killer college paper?