Sitting all alone at a table in a small, dusty room, the writer huffs and puffs and pecks at a keyboard.
(Even though she uses a computer these days, she probably has a quill handy somewhere, just in case.) She pauses to stare into space for a while, until—aha!—her eyes widen in delight. Inspiration has hit! She huffs, puffs, and pecks anew. She works without pausing until her paper is done, and then, there it is: perfect. Flawless. Brilliant. Right?
Like anything, writing requires planning, discipline, and a great deal of trial and error. It is, after all, called the writing process. If this intimidates you, take comfort: in some way, shape, or form, it intimidates everyone.
This post will help you write a paper—but first, you have to agree to help yourself. And the best way to do that is to make a concerted effort to write something every day. Even if it’s merely a 15-minute free write, you need to keep your words flowing so that your writing skills are sharp when the next paper is assigned. And, not only will abundant writing help you write your next paper, but it will also provide an outlet for any stresses or burdens you accumulate during your daily life.
On to the advice:
1. Carefully read the essay prompt
This step may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many students dive into writing without a clear sense of what question they’re answering. If you do not fully understand the topic of your paper, or if you just want some clarification, now is the time to check in with your teacher or a fellow student.
2. Brainstorm/Free write
Once you understand the prompt, take some time to let your brain wander. Don’t worry about writing just yet; allow your subconscious to move freely and produce ideas, even ones that at first may seem unrelated to the prompt.
3. Develop an argument, write a rough draft
Now that you have some ideas in front of you, begin to formulate your main argument. Think hard, but don’t stress too much, as your argument is likely change a bit in scope as you work more. Once you have an idea for the direction of your paper, begin writing from a point of strength. In other words, if there’s an idea or paragraph that you already feel confident about writing, start there, and build the rough draft outward.
As you write the pieces of your rough draft, always keep in mind both the prompt and your main argument. If you were building a house, you would want to build each part separately, but with the entire structure in mind; the same idea goes here. If you don’t have this kind of understanding of how your essay works, you run the risk of letting your separate paragraphs either blur together or seem unrelated.
Once you have a rough draft of body paragraphs—again, this is a rough draft, so it does not need to be perfect—then write an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction should include your main argument as well a very brief preview of the sub-arguments made in the paper’s main body paragraphs. An ideal conclusion restates the main argument, while also implying the broader significance of the issues under discussion.
4. Revise the rough draft
The best writers are the ones who put in tireless work in the revision process. No one gets it right the first time. If they say they do, it’s a lie. It took J.D. Salinger ten years to write and rewrite The Catcher in the Rye! Your essay will evolve and grow as your ideas become more profound and precise. It’s not unusual to write four or even five drafts of an essay. (Had I known in college that writing is supposed to take a while, I would not have considered the poor quality of my early drafts of papers as proof that I was a bad writer!)
5. Show your essay to others
While of course you should be confident in your own writing, do not underestimate the value of other eyes. Often, others can see things that you cannot.
When you ask for help, make sure you know exactly what you are asking for. Have specific questions in mind for anyone who reads your essay. “What do you think about my essay?” is a question that will yield several unhelpful answers (“Great,” “Could be better,” “You’re the next Montaigne!”), whereas “Does my second body paragraph relate clearly enough to my main argument?” has a better chance of getting you a useful answer.
At the same time, be careful of getting too much input. If you take all the advice and criticism you receive, you run the risk of losing clarity and precision in your paper. In short, too many editors can spoil any manuscript.
And that’s it! To summarize the steps involved in writing a paper:
- Read the essay prompt (assuming there is one)
- Develop an argument and write a rough draft
- Revise the rough draft (several times if necessary)
- Show your essay to others and make final decisions
Most importantly, always remember that the process of writing a strong paper should involve missteps, revisions, redrafts, and constructive criticism from trusted readers.
The best approach that you, the student, can take is to be ready to write before you begin the paper, and then to be open to new ideas as you’re writing and revising.