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Writing a Paper

Jeffrey's history teacher assigned a term paper at the beginning of the semester. Most of the class groaned, but they didn't seem too worried. Not Jeffrey, though: The thought of having to write a paper made him really anxious. Because he didn't know where to begin, he put off thinking about the assignment until closer to the due date.

Although a lot of students take Jeffrey's "I'll deal with it later" approach to writing papers, it's actually better for your stress levels — not to mention grades — to start working on a paper as soon as you find out about it. With some planning and time, anyone can turn a blank document on a computer screen into a good paper.

Writing a paper can seem intimidating at first. But putting together a strong paper really just involves a combination of things you already know how to do.

Understanding the Assignment

The first step in writing a paper is to make sure that you understand exactly what your teacher expects. Here are some questions to ask before you start researching and writing so you can be sure you are on the right track:

  • What type of paper is it? Is it a report (where you just gather facts and describe a topic), a paper in which you must offer your own ideas on an issue, or both?
  • Are there specific class readings you must use as sources?
  • What types of sources do you have to use? Can you use only Internet sources, or do you have to use books, journals, and newspapers too? Does your teacher like you to interview people, or does he or she prefer you stick only to printed sources?
  • Are there certain types of sources that are off-limits? Obviously, blogs and personal web pages aren't considered reliable sources. But what about other websites you might want to use? Find out what your teacher thinks about your sources before you start work.
  • What will your teacher look for while grading your paper? For example, is your teacher looking for a casual, descriptive writing style (like a magazine article) or a research paper with a more formal tone? Is there a certain way your teacher wants you to structure your paper?
  • How long should the paper be (how many pages or words)?
  • Does the paper have to be typed or presented in a certain form (such as double-spaced lines, specific margins, presented in a binder)? Are there additional graphics that you also have to provide, such as illustrations or photos?
  • Do you have to provide a bibliography, footnotes, or other list of sources?

Sometimes a teacher will assign a topic or thesis for a paper, and sometimes he or she will leave it up to students to pick their own topics (of course these have to be related to the class or subject!).

If the teacher lets you choose your own topic, it's best to write a paper about something that you find really interesting. This might be an issue that you feel strongly about and want to defend (or one you disagree with and want to argue against!). After you come up with your topic, run it by your teacher before you move on to the next step — research.

Researching a Topic

Behind every good paper is even better research. Good research means reading a lot — both as background to help you choose a topic and then to help you write your paper.

Depending on your chosen topic, your research could come from class textbooks, newspapers, professional journals, and websites. These are known as your sources.

Sources need to be reliable. To find good sources, begin at your school library, where the card catalogs and search engines can direct you to materials that have been published. When a source has been chosen for your school's library collection, you can be fairly confident that it's accurate enough to use in your paper.

Using Online Sources

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When doing online research, avoid people's personal pages — it's impossible to tell if the person is an expert or just sounding off. It's best to focus your research on government sites (their domain names end in .gov), non-profit organizations (they usually end in .org), and educational sites (.edu).

Knowing which sources are considered good — and which ones aren't — is a skill that everyone gains with experience. Get your teacher or librarian's help in deciding if a source is credible.

If you don't understand what a particular source is talking about, ask your teacher what it means so you can better understand the material. Teachers can usually tell when students use information in their papers that they don't really understand.

Keeping Track of Sources

Once you've found a good source, make a note of it so that you can use it for your paper. Keep a notebook or computer document that has the source's title, the page number of the important information, and a few notes about why it's important. This will help you move ahead efficiently as you write. It will also help you to cite your sources correctly (more on this later).

Writing Your Paper

The great part about doing lots of research is that when you really know your topic, writing about it becomes easier. Still, sitting with a blank computer screen in front of you and a deadline looming can be pretty intimidating. Even if you've read countless books, websites, and journals, and have all your notes prepared, it's normal to struggle with exactly how to get started on the actual writing.

The best way to begin? Just start putting ideas down on paper! The first few words don't have to be perfect (and there's a good chance they won't be) but you'll find it gets easier after you've started. And you can always revise the actual writing later — the important thing is getting your ideas down on paper. (You may have learned this approach in elementary school as writing a "web.") After your ideas are on paper, you can start outlining them.

Some people like to think of their first writing attempt as a "first draft," taking the pressure off of themselves to write every sentence and line perfectly. Another good tip for getting started is to write down your ideas like you're telling your parent, brother, or sister about them.

Don't feel that you have to write a paper in order. If you know how you want to prove your thesis, for instance, but don't know how to introduce it, you could write some or all of the supporting paragraphs before doing the introduction.

Most people make revisions while they're working. For example, you may be halfway through writing paragraph four when you realize there's a better way to argue the point you made back in paragraph two. This is all part of the thinking process. (And it's a good reason to leave plenty of time to do your paper rather than putting it off until the last minute!)

It's also a good idea to leave enough time after finishing a paper to put it aside for a few days and then go back to make revisions. Revising a paper is a step that even the best writers think is essential. When you haven't worked on your paper for a few days, any flaws or problems will stand out more: Look for things like unnecessary words, sentences that don't make sense, and points that don't follow on from or support each other.

Citing Your Sources

Your teacher will probably want you to cite your sources (which means list the sources you used for ideas, statements, and other information in your paper). Sources can be cited in different ways — such as endnotes, footnotes, or a bibliography. Each teacher has different preferences so ask yours for guidance.

Citation not only shows that a paper is well researched, it also lets the reader know which ideas came from your mind and which ideas came from someone else's. The only time it's OK not to use a citation is if the content is common knowledge (like the date of a well-known battle) or if the idea is your own.

Citing sources is important because it can help you avoid something called plagiarism. Plagiarism is using someone else's ideas or words without giving that person proper credit for creating them. The most common ways students plagiarize are copying, quoting, or summarizing from a source without properly citing where the information came from.

Plagiarism is a form of cheating — just like looking over someone's shoulder to copy answers during a test. But many people who plagiarize don't realize they're doing it. That's why it's so important to keep track of sources. After weeks of research, the average student will have a hard time remembering what points he or she came up with and what points came from sources. Teachers usually are tough on plagiarism — even if the student didn't mean to plagiarize. So keep good notes on your sources!

Dealing with Paper Stress

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Knowing they have a paper to write can be stressful for many students. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, take these two simple steps:

  1. Start as soon as the paper is assigned. That way you'll have plenty of time for unexpected events — such as research that takes longer than you think or realizing you don't really like the topic you chose and need to come up with another.
  2. Break the paper down into manageable "mini-projects." Your first is brainstorming an idea or topic, the next task is doing research, then comes writing the paper, and after that you'll revise it. Figure out how much time you'll need for each "mini-project" — this will not only help you feel more in control, it will also give you an idea of how much time the overall paper will take, from research to finished product.

Writing papers is a learning exercise — that's why teachers assign them! Most teachers don't expect you to do it perfectly all by yourself. Even college students head to their professors after class for help. If you need help — anywhere from the brainstorming to understanding difficult material to the writing — don't be afraid to talk to your teacher.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2013