This is a guide for students in college, particularly those who never really learned to write papers. It's short, but may be continued in greater detail in future articles. It's presented here in IMC as a public resource. Please support this site.
The type of paper discussed may be called a “term paper,” a “research paper,” or a “5 page paper.”
The purpose of a writing assignment is to demonstrate to the instructors that you understand a subject and have read some specific material. You aren't supposed to demonstrate original thought, a particular writing style, or to synthesize new ideas. It's critical to understand this – you will lose points if you try to make the writing “creative” or explore new ideas.
Read the assignment carefully, noting what you are supposed to do. If the assignment is to compare similarities between two things, then your essay must compare both things. If the assignment asks why something happened, then you are supposed to pick a reason, and defend it. If the assignment asks to review the popular explanations for why something happened, then, you should list them equally – don't start arguing about why one or another explanation is better.
In short, find out what the essay asks for, and deliver it.
Because the paper is primarily to demonstrate understanding, the best way to proceed is to gather all your reading material, take notes on the material, and then structure your paper. For note taking, I like to use an outline application program on the computer.
There are numerous outline applications, but the one I like right now is the Google Drive Document program. You can create outlines using the numbered lists feature. Microsoft Word is OK, too, but my feeling is that outlining with Word is getting worse with each revision.
There are also programs that specialize in outlining, like OmniOutliner on the Mac.
In the outline, you can start with a preliminary structure for your research. I'm lazy and like to copy the structure from Wikipedia. Just search for the topic, find the Wikipedia article, and copy the headings over.
Then, as you re-read each article, copy out important information, and place it into the outline under the correct heading. If your paper requres endnotes, remember to put in some kind of reference back to the original. I use a short note form like this: [Lee98 p151] or [McDougalTopo p.4]. That's just a keyword that I can comprehend is one of my books or papers.
As you read, you will probably have to re-arrange the outline. You'll see a structure emerge – and you just need to “massage” the information by moving bits of text around.
Next, write the paper. The general structure is three parts. First is the introduction, where you give an overview of what you're going to say. Last is a conclusion, where you summarize what you just presented in the rest of the paper. In the middle is the detailed writing.
I usually start with the opening paragraph, but as I write the other paragraphs, the opener gets changed to fit. Usually, this middle part is a reflection of the outline used to gather the research. This is OK.I write my concluding paragraph last, and at this time, I review the opening paragraph as well to make sure there's a consistency and flow.
The main writing tools I use are LibreOffice Writer, Google Docs, and Microsoft Word. Use the spelling and grammar checkers, so you don't make stupid mistakes. Use whatever feels comfortable. If you need instruction, search for tutorials online. People have posted videos about using these word processing tools.
PS - note that this is a first draft being posted as a public service. I'm sure it could be tightened up a lot.