How to Write a Paper, or Things They Don’t Teach You in University

The more I do this whole university thing, the more I realize that there’s a lot that university doesn’t teach you. Like how to write papers. Somehow, you are expected to just know how to write a good paper. What’s worse – these things differ from school to school, and from country to country. Yes, I have had to learn this the hard way.

Here are only a few of the things I’ve learned over the years that seem to transcend school/country borders and apply to (almost?) every paper you will ever write. If you find these tips useful for a paper you write, I expect to be cited as such:

Leah, ‘How to Write a Paper, or Things They Don’t Teach You in University [Part 1?]’, Book History, Illuminated (Da Interwebs: Leah’s Incredible Noggin, 2015).

When You’re Preparing to Write a Paper

You don’t have to intensely read every article.

When reading an article, read the first paragraph intensely. Read the last paragraph intensely. Skim the rest. Pick up on key words, or phrases that are repeated over and over again. Note them down somewhere so you can remember what the article covers. Get the gist.

It’s like a first date, I guess. You don’t want to wastefully invest all of your time and effort on a loser. No – you just want to figure out if this thing is worth more of your time and effort. There will be time for second and third dates, if you decide the match is right.

Okay, that analogy’s a bit weird.

The point is, you can get to know the article better later, if you decide that it’s actually useful for what you’re doing.

No one expects you to make some grand discovery or statement that will drastically change your field.

Chances are, in your entire academic career, that you will probably never make any grand discovery or statement that will drastically change your field. And that’s okay. Say it with me: It is okay.

Come to think of it, if everyone tried to make such revolutionary contributions, nothing would ever get done. Think about McLuhan. Don’t get me wrong – I adore McLuhan. But the man spoke in fragments (see what I did there?). Yes, his ideas completely overhauled media studies, etc., but I’m a strong believer that the people who have taken McLuhan’s ideas and elaborated upon them have made just as important contributions to scholarship as McLuhan himself. These people have added nuance to McLuhan arguments, and have explored their continued relevance in light of changing cultural contexts.

When trying to decide what you’re going to write about, it can help to just pick an argument that’s already been made and write a response to it. Call the argument into question. Examine the argument in light of changing culture contexts (and cultural contexts are always changing). Compare the argument with arguments about the same topic made by other scholars.

This all being said, if you actually do have some revolutionary idea that you can back up with some solid evidence, go for it. Keener.

When You’re Actually Writing a Paper 

If you can’t explain to someone why what you’re writing about matters, you should probably reevaluate what you’re doing.

I’m not talking about some lame “oh, we should study history because history repeats itself” or “history tells us how we got to where we are now” explanation. No. Just… no. Both of those reasons are so cliché (and not in the fun, cheesy way) and they are not good enough reasons to be studying anything. Even “because studying history makes me happy” is a better reason. Still not good, but better. I suppose.

Be annoying specific. For example: “The text and imagery of this particular book from late-1960s America reflect the social and political turmoil of the time, and offer us insight into various countercultural movements… blah blah blah.” I’m not going to give away my dissertation here. See what I’m getting at, though? It’s kind of like a thesis statement.

The reason I’m not calling it a thesis statement, though, is because “thesis” seems a bit too set-in-stone. Something I came to find out pretty quickly in university is that thesis statements change. You do more research, you think about everything more, and you realize that you were wrong. No shame in that. This is why, though, I suggest having an explanation of importance rather than a set thesis statement. It’s so easy to feel glued to your thesis, unwilling to change it (especially if you’ve had to write a proposal). Until you submit your paper for evaluation, everything about your paper is tentative.

The reason I suggest being annoying specific in your explanation as to why what you’re writing about matters is because such specificity can help you on track as you work. Like a thesis statement should, but doesn’t. Write your specific explanation on a sticky note and slap it somewhere where you can see it as you research, make notes, and write. Avoid digression. Stay focused on proving your explanation of importance in the most detailed, but clear, way possible.

Assume that your readers don’t care, and then make them care.

Use your sources wisely. It’s better to have a few sources that you analyze to death than a ton of sources that you only mention briefly.

You’ve probably been told this before. Less is more. I mean, just look at IKEA products.

Actually, let’s use an IKEA product as an analogy. As you can see, I like analogies.

Imagine that your final paper is a REGOLIT floor lamp. The REGOLIT floor lamp looks like this, if you’re interested:

REGOLIT Floor lamp, bow IKEA Can be hung over your coffee table, for example, by connecting to a standard wall outlet.

Quick side note: I do own a REGOLIT floor lamp and would highly recommend it.

When you buy a REGOLIT floor lamp, as with any other IKEA product, it comes in a bunch of pieces that you have to assemble yourself. All of said pieces are included in the box. Except that little screwdriver you need to actually screw things together. For some reason, the boxes never seem to include that.

As you put your REGOLIT floor lamp together, it becomes clear that the ten-ish pieces in the box fit together well, just as they should. It only takes ten-ish pieces to make this beautiful and reasonable-quality floor lamp. However, if you start trying to build your REGOLIT floor lamp using other random things from around your house, even parts of other lamps, it might not work. Your REGOLIT floor lamp might end up looking stupid. It might snap under the pressure. The REGOLIT floor lamp, like your paper, is fragile, and it doesn’t need that extra weight. It just needs those ten-ish pieces to make it its beautiful self.

I’m just gonna leave you to mull that one over.

Add pictures to your papers.

To throw another cliché your way: a picture is worth a thousand words. Or perhaps you would prefer this overused and often-misused (as it will be here) phrase: an image is to the illiterate what the written word is to the literate (thanks, Greg).

If you’re citing a piece of art, why bother wasting your word count trying to explain what it looks like? Include an image of that baby (and cite it properly). Then, use the words that you would have used to explain what the piece looks like to explain what relevance that particular piece has to your paper. Your reader will appreciate the extra analysis, and will also appreciate being able to look at something other than the oh-so-conventional black-text-on-white-background format. Everyone wins.

Of course, make sure that your illustrations are relevant to what you’re writing about. Don’t just stick a Family Circus comic in there for kicks, no matter how much you may like Family Circus. If you’re really dying to include a Family Circus comic, at least find one that sort of matches your topic. And, believe me, there is a Family Circus comic for every topic. Case in point:

And, with that, I bring this post to a close. I’ve left out a lot (part 2, anyone?), but hopefully this helps all of you who are feeling a bit overwhelmed. Good luck!

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