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You are not in high school anymore and the essays and papers you now write come with much higher expectations for scholarly research and writing. With that in mind, I have written this guide to “walk you through” the process of producing a good college paper that will result in a decent grade. If you follow this process of how to write a college paper step-by-step, you will emerge victorious, and you will avoid the early errors I made. So, let’s give it a shot!
Let’s Get You Calmed Down First
You must understand that research and writing is not a skill that comes naturally to most people – it is a skill developed through persistence, and practice, and you will need a good attitude and patience in the process. You may not get an “A” or B” on your first try, but be okay with that – there are many more to come! I finally came to realize after getting a lot of C’s.
Now onto the “Meat” of this Guide
- Research Paper Types in College: In high school, my research papers were produced after having conducted research that gave you information on a topic. I organized that information and presented it in a coherent way, and my teacher was happy. In college, I was introduced to two types of research works, and they were far more scholarly:
- The Argumentative Paper: I discovered that I would need to research a topic and take a stand. Now, I have no problem with having opinions. Unfortunately, now I had to do the research and write something that would persuade others. It’s not like arguing with your parents over big money controlling our government! I actually need factual information and had to have a thesis statement that presented my opinion very concisely!
- The Analytical Paper: This can be a bit trickier, because you must interpret the “meaning” of the resource material you study and provide your own perspective. Example: In an American Lit class, I had to do an analytical paper on the themes in Mehlville’s Moby Dick (I hated that book, by the way – so dark!). My job was to read what all of the experts said about the themes and come up with my own perspective. Developing a thesis statement was hard, but I learned that it just may not “gel” until all of the research is done.
- The Topic: Sometimes, I was given a topic or options within a larger topic area. When I had options, I always did a little research before I made a final decision. (I admit it – I always looked for a topic that would be easier). In a US History Class, I once had the large topic of the Great Depression, and I chose to argue that the causes of the Depression were the very same causes that resulted in the financial meltdown of 2008. Finally, I got a “B.”
- Locating Resources: Here we have to talk about primary and secondary sources. At the college level, the more primary resources you can use, the better. Such resources include:
- Writings of those who are considered true experts on the topic
- Original publications
- Summaries of original research on the topic
- Interviews with “experts” in the field
Secondary resources are certainly acceptable, but be certain that authors are credible – look them up!
- A Word about Internet Sources: So much is not available on the web, it is considered a valid resource, particularly if you are using scholarly writings. If they are not available, yes, you will have to proceed to the library and find them!
- Conducting the Research: This is tedious and will eat away at your time. Further, as you read through resources, you will discover that some were not on-point, and your time was wasted. With time, you will become a better researcher, but, for now, just get over it.
In high school, I was made to use the “time-tested” method of note cards. Actually, as wonderful as computers are, this is still the best method, if you commit to good organization. Your first resource will be labeled #1 (seems logical). When you take anything from that resource to use then you use a note card for each piece of data, each opinion, each piece of analysis, noting the page number. It’s a good idea to give each card a heading. Example: Paper on causes of the Great Depression. Your label should relate to a cause – reckless lending, buying stock on the margin, etc. You’ll see the importance of this in the next step.
- Combining your Research: Now you are ready to take those note cards and divide them up by their labels. You will end upon with nice little stacks, and you will have your sub-topics!
- The Outline: Your sub-topics are the Roman Numerals of your outline, and under those Numerals, you will place the content that relates.
- The Rough Draft: This is the step at which the real paper writing begins. I always skip the Introduction and begin with the body of the paper, because it always formed in my head as I wrote.
- Review, Edit and Revise, and Do it Again: You will not catch all of your errors with one review. During the first review, focus on the flow and the transitions; during the second review, focus on grammar – sentence structure, varying the length of sentences, and all of the other mechanical things that go into formal writing. A couple of hints here: Do not use first person “I,” and do not use the general “you.” Make sure your sentence subjects and verbs agree, that your phrases are placed appropriately, and so on.
- Type up the final draft and now add your introduction. In that paragraph, you will introduce the topic and either take your stand (argumentative,) or propose your unique perspective (analytical).
- The College Paper Format: Your professor will have given you the format style s/he wants. If you are unsure about anything within that style, DO NOT GUESS! Look it upon and get it right. Your professor will be happy at the very beginning of your piece.
Learning how to write a good paper in college is a journey, and the destination is ever-changing. Now, in grad school the whole research paper thing is a lot less stressful.